Thursday, December 17, 2009

20 Questions with Justin Thompson

Justin Thompson is the mirthful mastermind behind the beautifully drawn and very funny strip, MYTHTICKLE, which runs on the GoComics website.

In addition to the strip, Justin works at the Charles Schulz studio, hosts the Comics Coast to Coast podcasts, and is a former actor and stuntman.

This is a guy I want to party with! (I’m serious, Justin. I’ll bring the snacks and beverages and meet you halfway between Indiana and California – how about Colorado?)

The first collection of MYTHTICKLE strips will be published in January. Check out Justin’s always informative and entertaining blog for more info.

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

Sure, I drew all of the time. Chalkboards, paper, walls, myself -- it was an innocent obsession. I really loved reading the comics in the newspaper as a kid. I remember cutting them out and collecting them -- taping the ones I really loved into notebooks. My favorites were PEANUTS, B.C., and FAMILY CIRCUS.

I get the artistic drive from my mom’s influence; she was an artist too and always really encouraged me to keep going with it and to always do better.

She wanted to be a commercial artist when she was first looking for a career and took the Art Instruction School correspondence courses back when Charles Schulz was involved with them. I found those old books of hers just last year and looked at the staff photos of AIS and there he was, Charles M. Schulz. She gave me those books long ago and now here I am, working at the Charles Schulz studio, going to work every day to the same building where he drew PEANUTS. That’s a nice cosmic circle.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

In high school. The hometown paper, The Phoenix Gazette, had a young people’s page in the Sunday supplements back then. I’m pretty sure that they threw me a few bucks for it, I don’t know, money never was a top priority for me as a kid.

I had a comic strip running in there, this was back in the late ’70s, it was called HOOPS. It was about a high school basketball team. When baseball season came around I changed it to DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and it became about a high school baseball team. In my last semester of high school, The Arizona Republic, the sister paper there in town, hired me on as a freelance illustrator for special- interest stories. I did three or four; those were the first jobs I remember getting paid for.

3. How did you develop MYTHTICKLE? How has the strip changed over the years?

I distinctly remember getting the idea for the strip about five-and-a half years ago. I was driving along a stretch of I-80 out here in San Francisco’s notorious East Bay, a town called El Sobrante. I think about it every time I pass that stretch of road. I like to think of that idea as some little patch of fog hovering over the highway that I drove through and it just stuck in my head. All of a sudden I just up and decided that I wanted to create a comic strip with this dragon character that I had been doodling for a while.

Y’know it’s weird, I recently looked back into my old notebooks from Grad school, which contained far more sketches than notes, and saw that Dragon, my main character in MYTHTICKLE, sketched all over the place. These notebooks came from the late ’80s, almost twenty years before I got that idea for MYTHTICKLE. I hadn’t realized that my character Boody went that far back, I was surprised. But anyway, the name for the strip hit me at about the same time as the decision to do the strip, and as soon as I got home, I started trying to come up with a few more characters. The knight, Sir Dudley, was the second one I created. I figured start with two main characters, and see where that goes.

Let’s see, how has it changed over those past 5 years? I guess the biggest thing other than the transition to a brush pen would be that the characters have taken on stronger personalities. When it started the knight character was a nice guy; so was the dragon. I soon discovered that doesn’t exactly breed comic behavior. So I made the knight crass, cranky, and argumentative and dumbed the dragon down more, and made them classic opposites. That has made it all a lot more fun. I originally wanted to have them in a school with gods and deities from mythology but I had trouble with the school strips at first so I put that off a bit until I had the characters identities pinned down more.

Thor joined the group soon, then while eating with my family at our favorite Chinese Restaurant near Berkeley one afternoon, I remember thinking that the strip needed a Buddhist influence. So I created a little girl named Karma. She actually IS karma. A few more characters came about as the years went on and still do. I now feel much more comfortable with putting the characters in the classroom, since I know them so much better. I love having a character-driven strip.

4. How did being a stuntman prepare you for a career as a cartoonist?

Well it doesn’t really; the two careers couldn’t be farther apart. Tremendous focus would be something that they both might have in common. That’s something you have to have whether you’re doing motorcycle stunts dressed as Batman in the middle of summer, or trying to create an interesting and consistently readable comic strip from day to day. Start getting distracted or lazy and your productivity suffers. Only in stunt work, the suffering becomes more immediately tangible.

Actually, being a stuntman could have been detrimental to my being a cartoonist. I almost lost my drawing finger in a broadsword fight one day during a live show when I was playing Robin Hood. The Sheriff of Nottingham sliced a little low (or I parried a little high), and hit my hand under the hilt with the edge of his blade, and his sword cut all the way down to the bone. I had to rush to the hospital to get 4 stitches real fast so I could get back to the show before I had to joust. If that strike had hit me just a little bit harder, the comic strip and this interview never would have happened. So yeah, they’re different worlds, but I’ve always enjoyed hopping from planet to planet in my life, trying to find one that suited me best.

I miss acting and stunt work a lot. Cartooning is really fun though, and probably my best destiny. I love creating my MYTHTICKLE world.

5. What’s your all-time favorite strip or gag?

I love that FAR SIDE gag with the frog that latched his tongue to the bottom of a jet plane as it was taking off. Along with being maybe the funniest gag ever, it surely sends chills down the spine of anyone with a fear of success. He captured so much with such simple lines. Gary Larson is a miracle.

As for favorite strips, PEANUTS was my first love. I used to carry those old paperback reprint books from the ’60s everywhere I went as a kid. I adore so many things that Vaughn Bode did. CHEECH WIZARD and SUNPOT were huge for me. When I saw his work in National Lampoon back in the early ’70s, that was when I first knew that I had to become a cartoonist someday -- had to create worlds like that. That was when it all changed from having a winsome dream, into to a fervent drive.

Bode expanded my mind and inspired me to really reach when I create. He has been my biggest comic influence and I’m sure always will be. No one can touch Bode on creativity.

6. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

I stand very far away from that pool and don’t want to get splashed. I do not read about this debate, I do not join in on this debate and I don’t want to know anything about it. I don’t see how getting heated up over all that can be very productive for anyone and it usually winds up being very mean. Debating something like that means nothing at the end of the day and breeds a whole lot of useless negativity. It creates division in a group that is so small, and really should be working together.

Cartoonists must be the last breed of American tradesmen who never unionized and...well, that’s a lame tangent, so I’ll get back on track: When I read these angry debates I end up absorbing all of that bickering in a bad way and it is impossible for me to work from a place of negativity and frustration. Maybe some people thrive on it, I don’t know, and for their sake -- if that’s where they work best from, then good for them. Let them scream and debate and fight and be as horrible as they can to each other so long as it helps them create. I just can’t be a part of it. I stay away from web boards for the same reason. We cartoonists are in big trouble. The old trusted well of income for cartoonists is drying up. Newspapers as we know them are fading away, and if you want to get anything published yourself it’s so expensive that it’s hardly worth doing.

The web hardly pays anything. So is the best, most constructive way for us to interact with each other right now to create hostility? When has that ever worked? If there is a solution out there that will save the careers of the traditional cartoonist, we sure aren’t going to come up with it by angrily debating the virtues of pen vs. pixel. Like what you like and enjoy it. I just can’t hang with the “mine is better, yours sucks” stuff. I’m too thin-skinned. I take things very personally; I can’t help it. I don’t take hostility or negative criticism particularly well. So I step back from debates like that.

Hmm, I seem to have “gone-off.” Did I just get splashed?

7. The web allows more freedom, but would you be interested in doing a newspaper strip?

Absolutely! I really believe if I could get that lucky to be in print nationally, I’d get a strong following. MYTHTICKLE is a unique strip. Not so much in its execution all the time, but in its concept. A lot of people have really responded to its themes of mythology and legend, and that stuff generally has gathered a much wider audience in the last decade. It’s starting for me, I’ve been on GoComics for about two years and I’m really happy with the nice little collection of subscribers the strip has generated in my short time there. I’m hoping it continues to rise. As to web syndication, it’s good. I wish I could reach more people though. I love being exposed to more people than I did for the three-and-a-half years I was on Comics Sherpa, but average people just aren’t used to going to a website to read comic strips. They are used to going to papers to get their comics. That’s where I would rather be. Ideally, a Sunday-only strip would fit best since my panels are so large, the drawings are sometimes detailed, and I color each one. Shrunk down, my frames would look like mud and I’m not changing the strip to fit some soulless, arbitrary constraint that is put upon cartoonists now n so many papers. So yeah, Sundays would be the only way that could happen, but that’s perfectly fine.

8. Name five of your favorite cartoonists or comics.

I can’t just name five, but I’ll come close. Aside from Charles Schulz, who is a given and should be at the top of every single comic strip creator’s list, I’d have to say Vaughn Bode’s CHEECH WIZARD; Chris Sanders’ KISKALOO; BIZARRO is amazingly consistent and hilarious every single day; and I love Berke Breathed’s comic strips and children’s books. Alphonse Azpiri’s various works are dazzling. John Buscema was my favorite comic book artist; I would read anything he illustrated. His comic art seemed to move, like I was watching a film.

9. Who’d win in a cage match, Stephan Pastis or Mark Tatulli?

Aw, that’s cruel, both of them are my friends! Hmmmm, well Stephan is super-strong with a big height advantage but Tatulli is really scrappy and he bites. Also, Tatulli does two comic strips so his super-speed could be a factor over Pastis’ limited one-strip-at-a-time method. I’ve also noticed that since Mark’s strip has no words, his mind moves in sort of a silent hyper-drive. But where Tatulli has the warp-speed-head, Stephan’s mind is quite extraordinarily warped and thus both of their intellectual approaches to the fight would be negated. So I’d have to look at brute strength as being the determining factor in this match and therefore I would have to give the edge to Stephan, who would rise from the mat bloody and bitten, calling down to the pulped and pounded pantomime cartoonist, “Anything to say NOW?!”

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

Words, definitely. Charles Schulz always recommended just drawing and seeing what happens. He got a great many ideas just from doodling. I have tried doing this on occasion, but nothing ever happens. After 5 years of doing MYTHTICKLE, I’ve come up with maybe one or two strips this way. It’s frustrating and I’m too up-in-my-head, clearly. I wish I could work like that, but I just have to wait until ideas come to me then filter out all of the puns. Readers don’t like puns. They’ve let me know.

11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

Every day. I have yet to come up with a method of writing, I’ve talked to many cartoonists and they all have writing routines but I’m completely haphazard. I keep a small Moleskin notebook with me all the time and when something finally comes to me I write it down. It gets very scary sometimes, just nothing there. Then occasionally I’ll get a nice little stream of three or four at once. I love the little charge I get out of writing, molding an idea into a script so that the joke makes sense. It’s a little shock of joy, and I really think I get more out of that than actually drawing and inking the strip.

12. What’s more important, raw talent or perseverance?

I wish I knew. All you can do is look at what’s out there and see what is successful and try to figure out why. I’ve seen plenty of web-only comics that are completely brilliant, and some syndicated stuff that is such crap it honestly depresses me. Perseverance is noble, and essential in any career, but if what you are repeatedly foisting upon editors just doesn’t turn them on, then you are not going to change their minds unless you change the material. But if you keep changing and modifying the material, what you wind up with isn’t really your own anymore anyway. You’ve created something purely for money and without soul. It might come down to just having a knack for what the syndicate editors are going to like, since they are the ones who green-light what gets syndicated, I don’t know. Is that the bigger talent than what you actually put down on the boards?

To qualify the question, I might ask; “Is perseverance more important, or the raw talent for being able to understand editors?” That’s more than talent; that’s a super-power.

13. Tell us about your day job at the Schulz studio.

There are only a handful of us working here, and what we do is work to preserve the integrity of Mr. Schulz’s art and vision when working with licensees that use PEANUTS on their products -- from books and treasuries, to shirts, figurines, and golf bags.

We make sure that the art looks right on the product and the characters are acting in accordance with their personalities. But at least one copy of every officially worldwide licensed item of any kind that has PEANUTS on it must first come through our studio offices for scrutiny and ultimately approval. We each have our groups of licensees that we deal with, and I handle Japan mostly. The biggest benefit of that, besides being able to see the awesome creativity and art that the Japanese licensers produce, is getting to go over there each year and meet with them. I also get to write and give a speech and presentation there and that’s just great. It’s the only chance I get to perform in front of an audience anymore. I completely love traveling in Japan. Getting to go there is a highlight of my life. I also get to do illustration work at the studio, I illustrated five PEANUTS children’s books last year which was a huge opportunity and honor.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

Favorite books are The Prince of Tides, Lonesome Dove, Shogun, Zen In The Art of Archery, and the Lone Wolf and Cub series of graphic novels. Those are the ones I’ve read the most times. I’m also a huge fan of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I love reading biographies.

Movies: Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai (2006), Henry V (1989), Fandango, Cannery Row, Phörpa (The Cup), Seven Samurai, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and all of Kevin Smith’s stuff.

Songs come and go for me, but the one that always remains is “A Pirate Looks at Forty”by Jimmy Buffett. It rings so true. I love Buffett; I’ve been a “Parrothead” since 1983.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I write my text and frames in Illustrator CS3, to get my spacing right. I then print those pages (two frames per regular copy paper page) and rough sketch the cartoons on that with a regular ballpoint pen. I go to my light table and take a couple more pieces of regular paper and trace those rough lines with a Japanese brush pen (I hate erasing). I scan that in, place the Illustrator-made text and frames into it, color it in Photoshop CS3, and that’s it. Instant mediocrity.

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

That’s a smart question because it’ll usually get a simple, one-item-answer. Now if you had asked, “What do you NOT like about being a cartoonist,” you’d probably get pages of stuff, lists of things, it would go very long and boring so I’m glad you asked what you asked because this whole thing is probably long and boring enough by now. The best part about doing this would be all of the great cartoonists I’ve been able to meet since I’ve been doing this. Because of my work at the Schulz studio and my “Comics Coast To Coast” podcast, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with Berke Breathed, Dan Piraro, Patrick McDonnell, Carlos Castellanos, Mark Tatulli, Wiley Miller, and Chris Sanders, just to name a few. I think that has been the most rewarding thing. I love talking with these geniuses and listening to how their minds work. Plus, being at the Schulz studio, I work just down the hall from PEARLS BEFORE SWINE creator, Stephan Pastis! Being able to be sitting quietly at my desk and have someone of Stephan’s caliber just pop around the corner and punch me in the ribs may be the very best part of being a cartoonist.

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

Oops, I’m afraid I might have answered this question in #16, but I’ll elaborate. Some of them I have met through doing my “Comics Coast To Coast” podcast with cartoonist Brian Dunaway. I don’t think any of that would have happened if I had not been hired to work for Creative Associates at the Charles Schulz studio. Here at the studio, we have a few brilliant cartoonists I’ve been able to learn a lot from; Stephan Pasts, Paige Braddock of JANE’S WORLD and Alexis Fajardo of the KID BEOWULF graphic novels. Through Jeannie Schulz, I was able to get in contact with Mark Bode – the son of Vaughn Bode, my favorite cartoonist -- and have actually hung out with him in San Francisco. He’s a wonderful guy and very talented in his own right as an artist and creator. He took me down to his basement and opened up a whole treasure chest of his father’s work and imagination. I saw pencil sketches, 3-D models Vaughn had made, and I even touched Vaughn Bode’s drawing table! Among other projects Mark is carrying on his father’s work with COBALT 60 and just doing a tremendous job with it. I can’t wait to see him again. It’s meeting creators like Mark that make my job the greatest I could ever possibly have.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

Sign up with your comic strip on Comics and make yourself a schedule, such as “I will publish my strip every day, or five times a week or three times a week” –whatever -- and really stick to it. Make it mandatory for you, a top priority, and commit to it. Once you’ve created that real structure for yourself and made it a discipline, you’ll be surprised after a year how your work attitude will have changed and how much better you’ve gotten. After two years you’ll REALLY surprise yourself. Do not focus on fame, do not think about getting paid, do not listen to haters, just focus on creating your world and the characters within that world and getting better. If you do Comics Sherpa right like that, you will learn how to do this the right way and it’ll work. But you have to commit and allow yourself to change.

19. How important are awards?

If I ever win one, I’ll let you know. I would think that winning an award would give you extra clout with newspaper editors who, say, might be looking to trim a few strips from their comic page. If you find yourself on the bubble between another strip, the editor might say, “well I’ll keep this one, they just won a Reuben Award.” And there ya go. You get to stay another month. Of course, being acknowledged by your peers is huge. That HAS to make you feel good I really hope that happens someday. Legitimacy is a wonderful thing.

I’ve won a few acting awards back when I was doing that, but those only come about because of the incredible amount of support you get from fellow actors and directors making you look good. It’s more of an ensemble. I have only won one award completely by myself. I took first place in a fencing tournament in college back at Arizona State. I have no idea where that award is right now, but I am very proud of it.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

I have not advertised it much because I don’t have it in my hands yet. Until that time I’m not crowing about it, but by the time this interview sees print it just might be a reality so I’ll mention here: My very first book is being printed right now and should be available by early or mid January of 2010. It’s a collection of my strips from its first year plus a bonus story. It’s titled One: The First MythTickle Collection and I am thrilled about it and can’t wait to see it. As I mentioned before, legitimacy is a wonderful thing.

Other than that, I’ve been pretty open about everything else in my life through Facebook, my blog and my podcast. The people who go there regularly know I’m vegetarian, was adopted, and am a crazy Denver Broncos fan...there is something that I haven’t talked about in any cartooning circles so I might as well blab: I was in therapy for a time and still suffer from clinical depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m doing pretty well with both now but sometimes still struggle.

The particular issue I dealt with in therapy is also dealt with in a story I wrote once called “Yochi, A Samurai Tale.” Coincidentally, I have illustrated this story and included it in this first book of mine that’s coming out, One: The First MythTickle Collection. So you can read that story and try to figure out my little bit of darkness. How’s that for a marketing strategy?

1 comment:

Papa said...

Great interview! JT is not only a phenomenal talent, he's also a phenomenal person. Thanks for giving him the exposure he deserves!