Jill Thompson is an accomplished water color artist, comic book writer, illustrator and Spartan racer. She has won many Eisner Awards over the years. This year, Thompson took home three Eisners: Best Graphic Album, Best Single Issue/One-Shot and Best Painter/Multimedia Artist. I was lucky enough to catch a few minutes with Jill at the Dark Horse lounge on the floor at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Jill arrived carrying a fluffy monster backpack and a smile. (The backpack we will get to later.) She had just come from having her portrait done by the “world’s fastest Etch A Sketch artist” on a very small, pink Etch A Sketch. A continuous line drawing in a tiny frame that she was “terrified” of tilting or moving the knobs on. With the Etch A Sketch safely in one place, we began our interview.
Beasts of Burden is a story about a group of paranormal detective dogs and one cat that solve mysteries in their town Burden Hill. As you can imagine, these animals encounter a range of the paranormal, from sad to surprising and sometimes frightening. Capturing human emotion in a still image is difficult enough. Exactly how does Jill prepare to capture animal’s emotions?
“I have animals and I also make a lot of faces myself,” Jill said. “I talk with my hands a lot and apparently, I make very cartoonish faces all the time when I am talking. I have a great reaction so I kind of mix that all together. I will make faces in the mirror for the type of expressions that I want and I think, how will that work on an animal’s face? Also, I watch Lady & The Tramp. I re-watch that several times while I am working on a Beasts of Burden project with Evan. Of course, I cry every time when Trusty runs to save Tramp, even though I know that he is going to be okay. Obviously, that’s the genius of their animation and their storytelling is that I know Trusty is going to be okay but I cry as if he is dead each time. And I could cry thinking about it right now. So those are dogs but they have faces that act like dogs but they also have human expression, so I try really hard to emulate that.”
Jill went on to explain how dogs are easier than other animals because they technically have eyebrows and they use them.
“Look on YouTube and all this stuff and you see dog-shaming videos,” Jill said. “Who knocked over the garbage? And the dog’s eyebrows are moving up and down. He’s making a face.”
Jill wonders if dogs learn this behavior from humans. Mimicking our expressions from long-term exposure living with us.
“Who knows, do wolves do that out in the wild? We don’t know. There’s no one yelling at them about getting into the food from the party.”
She thinks that domesticated animals may take on human characteristics because they are pack animals. The human is seen as the “head of the pack.”Staying on this track I asked Jill if there was one animal that poses a particular challenge when painting.
“Sometimes Rex, the Doberman, because he is all black,” Jill said. “It’s hard to see some of his features, also Dobermans are super barrel chested and long. Thankfully most of the dogs are around the same size. They are all fun to draw. Evan has created them with distinct personalities.”
Jill explains how the characters of Beasts of Burden are “archetypal” and that there is a strong comparison to a 1950s war movie about World War II.
“You have your stereotypes of people. You have the wisecracking, Brooklyn, Jewish guy, that’s what I think Pugsley is – he’s funny. Then you’ve got your stalwart hero which is Ace, obviously. Jack is like, he is our character, he’s not ready for what is going on. He’s the everyman maybe plucked from school and thrown into war. Whitey is the naïve farm kid and Dymphna would be the sassy French spy and the Orphan is the rough and tumble had-to-live-on-the-streets guy. They could be human characters easily but they are encapsulated in dog bodies.”
Jill’s motivation for choosing a project is generally a simple one: “I need another job. I’m a freelancer, someone is going to pay me to draw something.”
That being said, Jill has paired with some excellent writers (Evan Dorkin and Neil Gaiman, for example) and “luckily, everyone that I have been lucky enough to collaborate with for whatever reason has been someone who is incredible at what they do and a project that really ends up touching me and I feel that I can help bring their story to life. Then I do my best work.”
Jill occasionally turns down a project. If the idea does not connect with her or she feels that she cannot bring something extra to the project, she will pass. Time can also be a factor. Being a water color artist, some pages can take up to 14 hours to complete. These are the times that Jill wishes she had a “fill tool.”
“My students will say, I am just going to drag this over and fill that whole area. I am like, man, I love that.”
Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson won best graphic album at the 2017 Eisner Awards!
Remember that backpack? I asked Jill what her favorite #geekchic item was. Her immediate response, “I’m a sword carrying lady. I have tons of geek stuff!” Apparently, she is a huge Creature from the Black Lagoon fan, so you can bet there are many creatures living in her house. Jill then touched her stuffed animal-like monster pack and said, “This is my own character, BUG-A-BOO. I guess you could say my Bugaboo bag is my geekiest chic. I am having these mass produced. It goes along with my Scary Godmother character.”
You can now add accessory designer to Jill’s long list of credentials.
As an accomplished female artist in the comic industry, I wanted to know what new female artists or writers Jill thought we should be looking out for. She reflected on how it used to be easy to answer that question because “there were five of us.” Now there are so many women in the comic industry.
“I meet new, awesome, young, female artists and writers every con I go to.” Go to artist alley and “I’m sure there are good number of them that need more exposure.”
Jill remarked how at the Eisner Awards, many women were nominated.
“There are a lot of women that have been creating amazing things online that they have been doing as web comics and then eventually compiling them and then you will see them at conventions. I end up discovering them well after they have a huge fan base.”
Male or female, Jill emphasized the point that you have to be a good promoter. It’s one thing to have your work online but you have to “push yourself and interact with people.”
Do yourself a favor and pick up something by Jill Thompson. I guarantee you will be impressed.