15 Sep, 2009

Out in stores tomorrow and this week, is The Beasts of Burden, a four-issue mini-series published by Dark Horse, written by Evan Dorkin (Milk and Cheese) and with painted art by Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother) featuring a band of neighborhood pets who get in supernatural adventures. Beasts of Burden was introduced in four Dark Horse Book of anthologies (Hauntings, Witchcraft, the Dead, and Monsters).

Pop Culture Shock tracked Thompson down at Comic-Con International, on the day before she would win another Eisner Award, this year for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist on Magic Trixie, Magic Trixie Sleeps Over. She first caught the attention of the masses with her work in the early 90’s on Sandman, Swamp Thing, Invisibles, and Wonder Woman, then began paving the way for her own creation, Scary Godmother (1997-2000), a series of children’s books and her love of Halloween. Other highlights include Finals (1999), The Little Endless Storybook (2001), Death: At Death’s Door (2003), The Dead Boy Detectives (2005) amongst countless other works. She has branded a whimsical, cartoony art style that’s filled with emotion, drama, and most of all, fun. Ernie Estrella caught up with Jill to discuss the truth about cats and dogs, reading oversized comics, and of course, painting The Beasts of Burden.

Where did the concept of Beasts of Burden come from?

JT: The first story Evan Dorkin had proposed a story to Dark Horse editor Scott Allie about a dog that has a haunted dog past. And Scott wanted him to draw it. Evan said, “No way, I couldn’t draw this story at all. I’d ruin it.” I would’ve loved to have seen what he would have done. I’m sure it would have 72 more panels in it because he can do that really well. So Scott kept trying to convince him to do it but then asked, “Well who would you want to work with if you’re not going to do it?” So he said that he should work with me.

Eventually though, it grew from these short stories, right?

JT: It was just an eight-page story and he had come up with some archetypical characters, but he didn’t think about it past that. Everyone loved that story so much, and as Evan kept writing stories they started becoming sequential and longer rather than stand-alone stories. By the third one we had started referring to things that happened in the past. After it was done it was popular enough that they wanted to do a mini-series.

Dark Horse is so successful at launching bigger projects that come from anthologies, look at the history of Dark Horse Presents (DHP) for example. Is that what they were hoping with the Dark Book of series?

JT: I don’t know. I mean I like an anthology, which people don’t tend to do as much anymore, but you have so much talent that’s scattered all about, that it’s nice to compile everything, or compile different styles in the same book with a common theme that holds everything together. I don’t know if they were planing on launching things from (Dark Book of). They wanted to work with so and so but they’re so busy with X, Y, and Z that they can’t do anything, but maybe they can do an eight pages of this monster story. Neil Gaiman’s writing a story and Craig Russell’s going to illustrate it–

You don’t care that it’s four pages or four panels, you want it.

JT: Right! But sometimes I prefer to read a book of short stories over a novel because I like to read a bunch of different things. They don’t do this much anymore but stories in a magazine. You’d read a magazine and there’s a short story of fiction in it, but you’d probably have to ask someone who had the authority of this at Dark Horse, but I think it was more that.

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This is the first time in a long time that you’re regularly working with someone else, who is also a fellow artist. Could you talk about this collaboration?

JT: Evan and I have completely different styles of storytelling. [Laughs] It’s kind of different going back and collaborating with someone, after I’ve spent years and years now, writing and illustrating for myself. Going back and working from a full script is interesting because unfortunately the first thing in my head when I read the dialogue I think, ‘I could make two pages out of that one panel, I wonder if they’d let me open this sequence up. As far as other collaboration, Evan has all the stories in his head, it’s not like I’m adding plot.’ I get a full script from Evan, and I play around with layout, expression, and sometimes a little more pacing as I’ve said that I’ll ask to open things up to slow down an emotional moment; or I’ll make one panel into two because I want to show the steps building up to something or a reaction shot. But I’m not co-plotting this at all, Evan’s writing it.

With Scary Godmother and Magic Trixie, you don’t have a problem drawing characters that are non-human, Beasts of Burden is probably 95% animals.

JT: Yes! Yeah with the rare exception of the second anthology Book of Witchcraft, that had witches’ legs in it but they’re the Dog-Peanuts equivalent where you don’t see adults very much, you see cars and you hear about them, but you don’t see them. In Scary Godmother, Harry was my preparation for drawing expressions on animals because I tried to keep Harry real doggy but keep an animated range of emotion but to keep his mannerisms doggy, in the way he’d eat things. Scary Godmother fed him peanut butter sandwich and he’d spend forever trying to get it off the roof of his mouth, so I studied a lot of dogs in my day. But dogs are lucky, they’ve got eyebrows in the first place. Sometimes it’s harder to make the Oprhan to have some expression than it is the dogs. Naturally you’re not even adding an extra human element to dogs because of the eyebrows. They manipulate you with [raising eyebrows and making sound effects], tilt the head, but I’m a cartoonist. It’s easy to anthropomorphize things, you just have to keep it in the same facial structure.

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Right, with this story you have to keep the art to a more of a realistic style than being playful.

JT: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I sometimes exaggerate some their regular emotions but they’re not walking on their hind legs. They do things like dogs. Evan and I have talked about this but I can show more expression and surprise by amping up when dogs get jumpy and excited, so Whitey is forever jumping up. I know when dogs get scared or intimidated their tails goes between their legs. So I crouch everyone down and put their tail between their legs. I watch dogs play how they fake fight vs. when they really fight. If dogs are confronting someone or some creature they’ll get low to the ground, bolt and attack. You exaggerate the mouths because they do a lot of talking. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it.

You have, as seen by the preview art and the stories from the anthologies. Despite having a more realistic look, there’s a lot of life and expression to each panel.

JT: You have to engage the reader. It’s not just a painterly book where I’m doing portraits of people’s dogs.

What is the story going to be about in the Beasts of Burden mini-series?

JT: Each issue has a different story with a bad situation or bad creature. The first issue is the dogs visiting friends and it starts raining frogs. And they race back to tell Ace, who we last saw was chained up in the yard from the last story we did in Dark Book of Monsters. Evan likes to do the human interaction off panel. For example, “What happens if there’s a crazy thing that happens in your yard and your house is destroyed?” Well the dog is now chained, there’s a new house, he has to heal because he was nearly killed, so Ace is still back there. The second issue called “Lost” and a mother dog needs help finding her pups because they are missing. The third issue is the Orphan, which the cat, goes looking for Dymphna which is the mystical black witch cat in the Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft. He doesn’t think she died at the end of that story and goes on an adventure to find her. That one has a cast of a 1000 rats, and I’m not even exaggerating on the number [laughs]. And the fourth issue I don’t have yet, but I know that was tells the history of the town, and there’s a big graveyard in it but Evan’s doing some tweaks to that story but I think you learn more about why the town is haunted and is supernaturally infested and why everything happens to those poor dogs.

Comics today are so broad…

JT: What do you mean by broad?

There’s no corner that you can’t go. Or you have people say, “Oh that won’t sell.”

JT: Oh people say that a lot! [Laughs]

Okay, that’s true. I guess when I see something like We3 (DC/Vertigo 2004 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely) that came out… that starred three animals and that had as much going on in it, that took me by surprise–

We3

JT: That series made me cry. That was super sad. I’m obviously a sucker for anything about all animals.

That series got its own cult following for various reasons

JT: Well there’s nothing out there that’s like it, that’s for sure.

And that’s what I feel about Beasts of Burden which conceptually is such a departure from the everyday story you see in comics today.

JT: I never thought about it that way, until I guess, now, [chuckles] or recently. I love comics in general. To me they don’t have to be about something specific. So this was an opportunity to work on something that I considered to be really cool project to paint with Evan, who I’ve wanted to work with, and whose work I really really admire. I didn’t think, ‘Wow, we’re doing something else that no one is doing.’ We have this cool story to tell and I’m happy to be a part of it. I didn’t realize that we are creating something that people really respond well to. It reminds me more of adventure books I would read as a kid and of course I like supernatural stuff too, but it’s something that’s not for children, but I wouldn’t target it to one specific type or group. I might say, ‘Do you like comics? Then you might like this.’

In today’s landscape of animated films, in particular Pixar for example, it matters not so much who’s playing out the story, but what and how that story is told.

JT: I want to be a good storyteller. My focus is to tell a story that’s going to touch people whatever the subject matter is, however old you are. I love this medium to tell stories. I talk about comics to groups of librarians or teachers or groups of kids, I don’t say “Here’s the best superhero comic you should read.” I bring with me a giant long box of comics that show the diversity of this medium. Because of superhero movies people think that comics have to be, ‘Biff! Bam! Pow!’ and that’s all you see in the box office headlines, but it’s just another form of media to tell stories of all genres. Whether or not it’s about anthropomorphic animals, technically it could be all humans, it’s the personalities– it’s much cuter if it’s animals. [Laughs]

Dogs do have personality.

JT: The personalities are set. The wise-cracking guy, the heroic guy, the cowardly or more reserved character; you got your everyman we can identify with [Jack the Beagle] and the outcast/rebel [the Orphan] who is fitting into a group he’s not supposed to. The female dogs are wise and elegant. Evan’s been writing the story about the mother who has lost her pups, and as a father it crushed him to write something like that, to think about what would happen if his child was missing. The story’s about relationships and how people react in extreme circumstances whether or not they’re dogs.

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Since it’s a neighborhood setting, are there going to be other animals brought into the fold?

JT: There’s been a lot of dogs, in the third issue, we meet the Swifties, which is Orphan’s gang that he hangs around with, or there happens to be a lot of other stray cats. I don’t know if all these cats have a home or not. There’s the Ghettoy Kid, Johnny Whiskers, Mugsy, Sleepy Bob. I made Sleepy Bob look like my ex-roomate Cheryl’s cat Stu, because I used to think about how he’d used to lay around. Jonny Whiskers is like our ex-cat Lucian who’s no longer with us. In my neighborhood I see a lot of ginger cats and orange cats, the Oprhan’s orange, and I try to make them all look different, with different shaped faces. Mugsy is one of those tortoise shell cats, he’s a little stockier, I always have him sitting in a loaf. His personality I’d figure would be contained. And Ghettoy Kid is a tuxedo cat who goes with the Orphan to look for the witch. He’s got a rogue-ish type personality who would fit into a old fashioned, elegant guy whereas, the Orphan’s a James Dean-ish kind of cat.

I had a family cat who’s no longer with us who was an outdoor cat, never de-clawed and we’d see her in the morning and then she’d run off into the woods and would come back either at night or a few days later, we never knew what kind of adventures she was getting into and she knew where her home was–

JT: Yup.

She’d have this attitude like, ‘I was just doing my thang.’

JT: We had a family cat, the first one, he was a fluffy, cream-colored, tannish colored long hair cat, sadly named Puff, not for me, I named him that because he looked like Puff from Sally, Dick, and Jane books that’s why I wanted to name him, Puff. We got him as a kitten and he grew into this muscular tom cat with long hair and the poor cat had to suffer the indignation of calling him, “Puff! Puff!” He would come home beat up, scraped up from other fights and because he had color he showed a lot of dirt too, like oil from being under cars, and as I got older, I figured it was because I named him Puff. Other cats are making fun of him, and he’s having to defend himself and there were a lot of Puff colored kittens around, he really had to overcompensate for his name.

That sounds like my old family cat who would go missing for a week and come back looking like it was in a scuffle, and figured she was probably fighting some bees. If cats want to be out, they’ll get out. Even when it’s cold, they might come back within 10 minutes, but they’ll be back.

One time Puff was gone for a month, and my brother and I were crying about it and one day we came home from school and he was in the house. I got so scared when I was older about what teenage boys can do especially all the cruelty I saw, I was always so terrified that something bad was going to happen to him so I pulled a lot from that experience into the Orphan. Even our cat, Archie, who’s super old and makes a walk around the perimeter of our backyard in the winter, like a convict then he comes back in. “Alright, for some reason you (Archie) had to do that.” Then he’s all cold, he’ll wipe his feet off, but I figured he should get to do what he wants to do at his age.

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Cover to Beasts of Burden #3

So, despite then the appearance of the cast, we can get a full sense of who they are?

They’re a really interesting cast, they’re evolving, they’re not just stereotypes. The wise-cracking pugs aren’t just the wise-cracking pugs. Things happen that affect them and their attitudes. They’re really rich characters.

If you have that experience of having pets and imagining their world away from you, that would probably be a good source of material for this series.

JT: Most definitely. I was the one who would be lured by the kitty and want to go play with it, even though I would be warned, ‘It’s wild, don’t play with that cat,’ and I would say, [In young Jill voice] “No it’s not, it has to belong to someone…” In a rough and tumble, Huck Finn type of existence I suppose. [Laughs]

What would you say is a new challenge in Beasts of Burden that you’re allowing yourself to… explore.

JT: Oh, I thought you were going to say technically… I would suppose it would be to engage the reader into their lives to show as much emotion as I can, to have them act with subtle expression, to get people to forget that they’re reading not just about dogs, but the main characters are the characters that they love. I want readers to love them, like how they get vested into human being characters, by the way I illustrate it.

What are some examples of how you tackled this?

JT: The way I paint things to set the mood and try to incorporate what I learned in working in manga, how emotion is played up and how pacing and interactive glances can build the tension or any other emotion that the characters might be feeling without the symbolic manga constraints like the lightning bolts or drip of blood coming out of their nose. I try to do that with color wash or background. When something is shocking or there’s violence I try to put red in the background. To me that’s an emotional reference for the reader that’s really intense or conveys anger. Certain scenes you’ll see where it’s done. There’s a scene where all these zombie dogs are chasing heroes and put a whole red wash and then I drew on top of that, because to me it was going to be so creepy and violent that I wanted to convey that without showing movement and motion.

You strike me as an artist that dislikes a lot of exposition cluttering up the art.

JT: What do you mean?

That you don’t need balloons that establish setting or what the character is thinking. The art is telling the story.

JT: That’s my job 100%, I feel that the only caption I want in there is, “And then…” or “Later that day.” Something expositional not explanatory.

Beasts of Burden: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie  (From Dark Horse Book of Dead)

Beasts of Burden: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (From Dark Horse Book of Dead)

From the early released Beasts of Burden art, most of what’s not art is dialogue.

JT: Evan hasn’t written very many captions. I told him, “I feel like I’m doing my job if no one has to explain again what they’re supposed to be looking at. He does a little of that just to bring people up to speed, to transition one story from the previous issue to what’s happening now, or how much time has past because they’re dogs, there’s certain things that happen that where you can tell. I tried to ask if season changed a lot, or because it’s a mini-series if we would try to hit things seasonally, spring, summer, fall and winter which we did in the first four stories. We had each season represented, but emotionally what happened, we pick up after the long winter in the Dark Book of Monsters so that might be explained. Either the dogs will talk about what happened or use quick captions because there are no people to bring people up to speed, like “Oh I haven’t seen you since Christmas,” but I guess the dogs say that too like, “He hasn’t been outside the yard since the incident with the boy…”

They could tell convene at Christmas and talk about what awful and demeaning Holiday outfits their owners make them wear.

JT: I wanted to do a Christmas story. I try to convince Evan to do one, a seasonal thing to be more light-hearted. These stories, they don’t always end on a happy note. I needed to do something where not everyone dies or scary bad things happen. So I thought, let’s just do a Christmas story. If I was writing this for another anthology, Christmas couldn’t come because Pugs, when he was a puppy trapped Santa Claus because he thought he was a burglar and now all of them have him trapped in this house. So they’re either going to have to help him deliver parents or something… but that’s the difference between me and Evan. He’s writing about supernatural and I’m writing about mythological stuff but funny, I want it to be funny.

Once this is collected, is this a series you think would be marketed to a different audience?

JT: You’d probably have to be interested in the supernatural because the stories are fantastical so it’s not just everyday interactions with dogs, although you have some of that, so I think that would depend on the taste of the dog owner. But it probably crosses over into a lot broader spectrum. I suppose that people who got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer because they loved the vampire stuff, they got hooked in on the melodrama and then accepted all the fantastical stuff that was weaved into it, the same way as any other soap opera. That’s probably why I like it. I like an intricate, multi-character story.

You were approached for Wednesday Comics, right?

JT: Yes, I was in the middle of Beasts of Burden and Mark Chiarello, he wanted me to do a Wonder Woman story. I was trying to figure out how I can do both of these things at the same time and then I realized I couldn’t. I still want to do the story because it came so easily especially in that format in big beautiful eight or twelve pages that showed a certain type of story. That one would have been really fun to illustrate.

Mark has such a great design sense and the creators he recruited were so perfect.

JT: Oh my gosh, and don’t you love comics THAT big? I looked at it thinking, ‘This is how we should all be reading our comics!’

I read it on the floor, sprawled out sitting on my stomach.

JT: I could just be immersed in it much more readily than if it were regular-sized.

In that format, certain artists can tell much more in one page than others do in 22. Some of the creators really made use of that size.

JT: It’s amazing.

Is Brian (Azzarello, her husband) happy the way Batman came out?

JT: Oh god, yeah. Eduardo (Risso) was the first one done out of all of them. I think it’s one of the most amazing versions of Batman ever. He’s rouge-ish. Bruce Wayne is very… sexual.

We’re seeing characters in ways we haven’t seen before like the Hawkman story by Kyle Baker. It’s so awesome.

JT: And that Kamandi, oh my god, each one is my favorite in there, and Super Girl? Why are Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti not doing a regular Super Girl strip or comic? Amanda is such an amazing artist. I could read her comic all day long.

When my father was young, he used to read the big Prince Valiant comics where the original art was done on this large scale. To me it takes me back to what he experienced as a child.

JT: Well, I have a Little Nemo in Slumberland compilation and I’ve only started to read it, but it’s one of those things you want to lie on the floor with a big pillow under your belly and just get lost inside this sequential landscape. I felt just like Little Nemo and dive into those pages from horizon to horizon. When I open up that book, both sides completely fill up my field of vision and that’s kinda nice.

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Windsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland

In contrast to this concept, what do you think about digital comics?

JT: I like the portability of comics, and I’m interested now in trying to see them work on a phone, but I’ve never been able to sit up and read them really comfortably on the computer screen but if the Kindle or that type of format eventually gets comics – as long as I can curl up in a chair, on a couch or in a bed, because I like to read everything there, I just don’t want to have to sit up straight in front of a monitor, but I love a book. And the big comics there is some big nostalgia even if you didn’t grow up reading those. When I was growing up, Sunday comics didn’t look like that, but you heard about them. My grandparents would tell me, ‘When I was little, we read comics on Sunday and they were big!

For those who haven’t seen original art, especially an original Windsor McCay or Hal Foster, find what local comic art shows are nearby and seek them out to see how big a scale these are done at.

JT: I’ve seen them at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where there was a comic retrospective the one that was brought around the country. I was so proud to do this for a living and then see everybody’s originals, how big they were with the level of draftsmanship and design, [pauses] it just really hit me.

It is beautiful work to see and to imagine these legends working on a scale that big.

JT: I think about all of the little, tiny motions I do that would have been so much easier if they were more larger and more fluid. And I think for newspaper strip artists now, their panels aren’t even an inch by an inch it seems. They’ve been reduced even further. To go from THAT, to that. Everytime I’ve met someone who worked for a newspaper is amazed by how much space comics get. Everybody in comics say “I wish a million people read my comic,” but you’re trading off the freedom. I could never be happy to do three or four panels of something (at a time).

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Magic Trixie Vol. 3: Magic Trixie and the Dragon by Jill Thompson

Anything else you’re working on?

JT: The third Magic Trixie book came out in June, I’d love for people to pick that up. Amazon’s probably the easiest way to get that, and I’m really proud of that. There are things that I pitched and that I’d love to do but I just don’t think they’re going to happen. Like I’ve always had an idea of a Wonder Woman graphic novel, that’s different than the Wednesday Comics project that I mentioned before. It would be a fairy tale that would be my take on the origin but not an origin story. It’s a stand-alone story but it wouldn’t have anything to do with the ongoing title.

Magic Trixie is being published by Harper Collins so that’s taken you on a different tour than some comic artists.

JT: I recently went to the American Librarians Association and got great responses there. Librarians have always been really supportive of graphic novels anywhere I’ve gone, but now that it’s really exploding, it seems like some librarians who are new to it, are overwhelmed because they don’t know where to start. So you wind up having great conversations with them about things that came out in the 80’s like Watchmen. They think, ‘These all go together, right?’ and I’m like, “No! Just like the way you separate books by age and genre, these have to be separated the same way. They want to put everything in the children’s section, but it doesn’t work like that. You’re going to have a smattering of comics in the children’s section. So it’s interesting to see how they incorporate them into their filing systems.

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What are your future plans with Magic Trixie?

JT: I’ve done all the Magic Trixie books that Harper Collins is interested in, so I’ve got a trilogy, and that’s cool. I’d like to do more stories eventually, but right now I’m focusing on Beasts of Burden and looking forward to get Scary Godmother started back up. And when I finish Beasts of Burden, I’m going to start working on another Little Endless Book, a sequel to the other one I did with my editor, Shelly Bond. I’ll be writing and drawing that myself and will start that in the fall.

Will that be released in the summer next year?

JT: Probably in the summer. I don’t know how Dark Horse is going to put out all of the Beasts of Burden, but at some point I know they want to release the stuff previously in the anthologies and then put a big book out with the mini-series altogether. I know there are talks of us continuing Beasts of Burden after that, and I’m fine with all of that.

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Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson

Remember to check out Beasts of Burden #1 at comic shops this week, and if you would like to read a few of the Beasts of Burden anthology stories go to Dark Horse eComics, Magic Trixie Vol.1, Vol. 2: Magic Trixie Sleeps Over, and Vol.3: Magic Trixie and the Dragon

- Ernie Estrella

3 Responses to "Beasts of Burden: Jill Thompson Interview"

1 | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes

September 16th, 2009 at 11:36 am

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[...] interviews in support of her collaboration with Evan Dorkin, Beasts of Burden, which debuts today. [Broken Frontier, Comics Continuum] Models, Inc. [...]

3 | No More Magic Trixie » Comics Worth Reading

September 17th, 2009 at 8:32 am

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[...] reading this lengthy interview with Jill Thompson, done to promote her new miniseries with Evan Dorkin, Beasts of Burden, I was very sad to see her [...]

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