Crying About Animal Comics With Jill Thompson

beasts of burden what the cat dragged in, jill thompson and evan dworkin

beasts of burden what the cat dragged inThe day after Jill Thompson wins three Eisner Awards we manage to squeeze in a few minutes to talk. Unsurprisingly, everyone wants to talk to her. I’d been planning to interview for weeks and had a slate of questions for her all about Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In, her Dark Horse one shot that, along with Wonder Woman: The True Amazon, won her the Eisner for best painter. (She won best graphic album, a.k.a. graphic novel–trust me, we both puzzled at the name of that award–for Wonder Woman and along with Evan Dorkin, won best single issue for Beasts of Burden.)

Of course we discuss What the Cat Dragged In. It’s a swift and wrenching one shot, distilling some of the best that Beasts of Burden as a series does into one compact story, but there is too much to talk about and too many other people who want a moment of her time.

After I ask her about her big night I tell her about all the people I met at SDCC who were excited for her. It’s not an exaggeration to say that everyone who knew my schedule for the con wanted me to pass on their congratulations and their admiration for her work. One woman just wanted me to thank Thompson for existing, for carving out a unique space for herself in comics. It’s kind of a lot to drop on anyone at the start of an interview, but these aren’t her first Eisner Awards. In fact, as of this year, she’s won nine. What’s she worried about more than anything, is if her speech went over well. “I almost remember what I said,” she tells me.

Thompson used to do improv, and so while she didn’t prepare anything, her speeches did in fact go over well. After winning for best graphic album, she told a story about one of her first art teachers. He used to clomp through the aisles of busily drawing students, finding every flaw in every piece. It’s not that he was mean, she assured us, but more that he didn’t want his students to be precious. He’d tear up pieces he didn’t think were up to par, and, wanting to save her work, Thompson would furiously keep drawing (or painting) so he wouldn’t think her work was ready to be judged. One day he stopped by her desk and told her to put down her pencil. “Miss. Thompson,” he said, “I think you’ve got it.”

wonder woman the true amazonThere is something special about this award, though, for Thompson. Best graphic album–an award she was nominated for previously for her work on Scary Godmother, but didn’t win–is particularly significant because it represents an ambitious work that Thompson completed on her own. “The art means something. The writing means something … and people are enjoying and supporting the whole package.” And while she loves working with collaborators, her first goal when she came to comics, she tells me was to “make the whole thing.”

“I love the work that I’m doing with [my collaborators], I love the subject matter, and I want to bring something to it to help them bring their idea to the best version it can be. But when I do something that’s all mine [being recognized] has a little bit of extra, added oomph.”

Thompson of course also won this year for her collaborative work with Evan Dorkin. It’s a collaboration that has seen some ups and downs, with the book coming out more sporadically in recent years, and Dorkin even publicly blaming her for that lateness. Thompson though, simply agrees with him. That What the Cat Dragged In is the first Beasts of Burden book to come out in two years was not intentional, and she hopes that the release schedule will be more regular going forward. They’re already getting ready to work on the next issue, which she says will be “hard” for her to work on, more emotionally harrowing though than artistically challenging. Thompson speaks warmly of Dorkin and their work on the book, a collaboration which has been ongoing for over a decade. It’s a book that she loves working on as much as she does her own, original work. “I’m very protective of those characters,” she tells me.

As clear as her affection for the characters is on the page, hearing her talk about it is something else entirely. It’s at this point, when she tells me that “[Beasts of Burden] makes me weep while I’m doing it,” that our conversation gets derailed into just crying about animals, real and fictional. “It’s very hard for me to move along [with the work] when I know there’s going to be some very bad situations for them coming up.” Thompson has a soft spot for animals. She’s the type of person to stop her bike in the middle of the road to pick up an injured turtle and frantically bike him (“now experiencing his own version of an alien abduction”) across town to a vet. To her vet’s puzzlement, she did just that. “You know he’s a turtle, right?” was his first reaction.

What the Cat Dragged In was a particularly hard issue for her. That much is evident from the way she talks about it. The story includes violence against animals and animal deaths. I won’t spoil the details for you, but it’s about witch’s familiar Dymphna reconciling her old life with her new one and facing the consequences of decisions she made when she was an adversary to the Beasts cast.

“Every once in awhile,” she says, “I’ll tell Evan how to amp up the sadness.” Because as much as she finds it difficult to work on such emotionally intense material, it’s also rewarding, both her as a creator and for her readers. If you’ve ever cried over Beasts of Burden, know that it’s because Thompson and Dorkin worked to mine each moment for maximum impact. “Sometimes I ask him for a beat in here or to extend this over a couple of pages, because what you’ve got here in three panels, Evan, is actually the saddest piece. And I want to break up it up in something more even more intense.”

The height of crying animal comics, though, she says, is the short story “A Boy and His Dog” for which she won an Eisner, back in 2007. Just as in What the Cat Dragged In, the pathos in “Boy” is carefully constructed. That story features one of the familiar Beasts cast gravely wounded and–sorry to spoil you, but it’s a must–it appears at first about to die. “At the end I wanted everyone to think the worst. I wanted to pull the camera back, as though his soul was leaving his body. When it was really just pulling back to show that he was alone and isolated with no one to help him. Subliminally though, I wanted you to feel like he was drifting away.” Talking about the comic, Thompson and I both tear up. Fucking animal comics, right?

There’s something cathartic in all that carefully constructed sadness, though. If it’s easier to access this kind of transcendent empathy with animals rather than people is not something Thompson and I manage to unpack. But we do establish that we’re both criers, especially when it comes to animals in distress.

Thompson has been working in comics since the ’80s, and her work on Wonder Woman with George Perez was some of the first she did in the business. So it’s interesting to think about her legacy in comics, now that she’s come full circle to work on the character again. That’s in part why this year’s Eisner wins mean so much to her; she has finally told the Wonder Woman story she always wanted to. From Wonder Woman, to Sandman, to Scary Godmother and to Beasts of Burden, though, Thompson has had a huge impact on comics.

And comics continues to have a huge impact on her in turn. Thompson is invested in her work, protective of her characters, and passionate about her craft. Her love for the medium is endearing and exciting and the thing that fuels her continued success. Jill Thompson is unironically in love with the work that she does and the comics that she makes and that’s wonderful for the industry.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.