On Monday night I attended my very first Literary Punch Card eligible event (aside from the initial happy hour where I did, indeed, get “punched”). Craig Thompson, author and illustrator of the very popular graphic novel Blankets, has just published the highly anticipated Habibi, his first work since 2004’s Carnet de Voyage. Although Thompson didn’t give up too many plot details (“I don’t want to give any spoilers in case some of you haven’t read it yet,” was his refrain of the night), I gathered that the book follows two slave children through various, probably terrifying, experiences that are soothed in some cases by storytelling—Thompson cited One Thousand and One Nights as just one influence.
While I’ve heard that going to see graphic novelists speak can be sort of boring, especially if they make the choice to show panels and read the text aloud, hearing Thompson talk about his work was quite interesting. Mainly, he discussed his process and divulged a little about why there were seven long years between his last work and Habibi. While some of that time was spent recovering from the success of Blankets (tons of drawing followed by tons of autograph signing), it seems that he worked pretty steadily on Habibi for those years, and paging through the book, it shows. Every page is overflowing with dark detail—Thompson used the same special Pantone ink as Charles Burns used to print Black Hole, giving it that same mysterious, bottomless feel.
Especially resonant for me was his discussion of comics as literature. In November, I’ll be moderating a panel at the Minneapolis Indie Xpo on that very subject, and it was fantastic to hear what someone like Thompson, who in the opinion of many changed the way that comics are read, had to say about that artistic junction. Surprisingly, but not really, Thompson expressed that he doesn’t really consider himself a visual artist. This is surprising because he is such a skilled artist, but not surprising because that skill comprises only half of his storytelling ability.
Comics, he said, used to be the “most immediate of forms of media,” especially with superhero comics—which he referred to quite often as a “vulgar form” (especially with regard to his childhood relationship to comics while his parents wanted him to focus on the Bible). However, Thompson found the “leaflet” form of comics to be limiting, so he chose to make longer works, which he explained are “more akin to novel making.” Much of what he said, and how he described his process sounded very much like what I’ve often heard from fiction writers about their process; locking ones self away to develop a story, getting lost in research, and the “concern of truth,” as he called it—creating a fiction but still trying to capture honesty.
The event took place at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, because apparently MCAD and Rain Taxi have a partnership with the goal of bringing cartoonists to the school for events like this one. The two organizations have been working together for the past three years and have previously secured such artists as Jaime Hernandez, Bill Willingham, and Gabrielle Bell. Unfortunately, MCAD’s biggest auditorium isn’t as big as I’m sure they would like it to be, I was seated in the overflow room across the hall, watching a projected Craig Thompson speak (I was in the same situation a couple weeks ago for a presentation by DJ Spooky). Although I sort of enjoyed the freedom from clapping, and the constant cool stream of fresh air that wasn’t being junked up by a room full of less-than-hygienic art students, our room was a little left out of the Q&A. Thompson did, however, did take a few questions from our room via Twitter, which was pretty neat even though my phone didn’t have any service.
One of the most interesting moments in the talk was during the Q&A segment when someone from my room, the overflow room, asked a Thompson a question about the merits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing; to which someone in my room groaned, “Oh no,” the rudeness of which was afforded by our separation from the main community of attendees. I guess it’s a fair reaction, especially considering that Thompson asked that his response not be “off the record,” which means that I’m not going to tell you what he said. Suffice it to say that he said the right things, which are typically the things that The Man on the business side of things doesn’t want people who use that business to say.