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Interview: Jill Thompson, Creator of Scary Godmother

Jill Thompson is the curly red-haired powerhouse behind Scary Godmother, Magic Trixie and the Little Endless. She has drawn some of the most beautiful panels from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Jill took time out of her busy schedule to speak to Victoria of the Geek Girl Project about her work in the comic book industry, her passions for art and the Scary Godmother doll she is working to create with the help of Kickstarter.com

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GGP: What originally drew you to the comic book industry and your artwork in general?

Jill Thompson: I really can’t pinpoint a moment I was drawn to the comic book industry, because since I’ve been a little girl, and I mean I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to draw comics. But, I know that it originated from the fact that I was really really in love with Peanuts, from the newspaper and of course obviously from Charlie Brown specials from the television when I was really little; but the fact I remember reading it in the Sunday paper while reading the comics pages. I told my mom at some point, I must have been around five or so, that I was going to draw Snoopy when I grew up. And my mom, correctly, corrected me and said, “well the reason you get to see Snoopy is that somebody already draws him. So if you want to draw something, you have to think of your own thing to do.” And it kind of set me on my path

GGP: What were some of your earliest influences, other than Peanuts, to starting your own work?

Jill Thompson: Archie Comics. The house down the block was having a moving sale, and by moving they were moving the house down town, not that they were moving the contents. They were selling the contents, but then a truck was going to come and pick up the last two houses on our block and move them. Because, there was going to be a municipal parking lot erected where their houses stood. So, I remember going into these really cool houses with kind of dark wood trim and cool dark wooden floors, which we didn’t have, we had carpeting, and seeing everything had a sticker on it. I had a handful of change and a dollar or two and I came across and orange crate and it was filled with comic books. It was all really old Archie comics, like stuff from the 50’s and 60’s. They sold it to me and I dragged the box home and that’s pretty much what started my comic book obsession. So you can thank the world of Dan DeCarlo and Samm Schwartz and Bob Bolling and other famous Archie artists for really dragging me into this. I started creating stories soon after that with my own characters trying to draw in the Archie style; and I was really young, I mean had to be like 8 maybe.

GGP: What were some of your first characters?

Jill Thompson: They were based on kids in the neighborhood. There was one, the major character, there was a girl who lived down the block named Elise. She was much younger than us, and this was when I was maybe around 9 or 10 I’m thinking, because I was kind of in a tomboyish phase and I really used Archie comics as an escape because I was hoping to look like Betty or Veronica, or Sabrina more exactly. Elise was like 5. She was in love with my brother who was two years younger than me. She would chase him around the block and try to tackle him and kiss him, like literally she would chase him and try to tackle him calling him “my loveable husband, my loveable husband.” She would run around and tackle him to the grass and try to plant kisses on him while he yelled “get her off of me.” I made a story about her grown up as a teenager, how she was trying to trap by brother or trick him into dating her. So my brother was in it and I was in it as an older sister who was a lot like Midge. I think that’s who I based my look off, because I was a lot like Midge in it, so I was very serious. Made tons and tons of stories.

Before that the very first stories I ever made were after my my mom had set me straight about Snoopy and told me to create my own characters. I created a character called B Dog which I recently reconstructed for a comic book story for Trickster for their 2013 Trickster book they had at Comic Con called Childhood Heroes. It’s a four panel comic and B Dog lived with a set of grandparents, much older people than me, and the comic was exactly the same all the time except for one detail. The grandma character would be getting ready to serve the grandpa some kind of meal whether it was breakfast or lunch or dinner or a snack or baked good or something, she was getting ready to do that. The grandpa would be sitting at the table with a fork and a knife in his hand, napkin tucked into his shirt neck and B Dog would be in the background salivating for the food so he would have his idea. He would distract the man by like throwing a rock or doing something and the man would turn his head in the next panel and go “huh?” and then B Dog would sneak in and grab the food and run away. The last panel would be the old man chasing the dog with a steak in his mouth or his hamburger or whatever and the dog would be laughing “tee hee hee.” The man would be shaking his head going “B Dog!!” That was, every single cartoon was like that. I must have done hundred like that. The only thing that changed was the food. I still like to draw food. It stuck with me.

GGP: In Scary Godmother you have all sorts of food and things like “Skell-a-vision” and “Boo-ble bath” How do you come up with these items and what are your influences for the wordplay.

Jill Thompson: That just pops into my head. Those are some of those amazing moments where I just try to say what would be a spooky name for this? I try and base [Scary Godmother’s] life on our own lives basically. She likes to cook and entertain and they have different forms of entertainment that I have to give a scary bend. I was like what could you call television. I want it to really flow off the tongue, I don’t want to it be forced, so Skell-o-Vision rhymed with television and I thought “oh it’s like skeleton-y” it makes sense to me and that’s just the way it will go. In Magic Trixie, the other thing I do, that’s got a witchy bend to it to, I thought I can’t use Skell-o-vision again because it’s a completely different world from Scary Godmother‘s world. In Trixie’s world the witches watch their television on crystal balls and it’s called Spell-o-Vision. It still rhymed, but two completely different things with the same intention.

GGP: Your worlds tend to be creepy but cute. How do you find the right balance of macabre and cute so that kids (or their parents) don’t get nightmares?

Jill Thompson: I do it to amuse myself first and it seems to kind of fit in. I know where to draw the line because I want it to be. When I make Scary Godmother or Magic Trixie, what I’m trying to accomplish is to 1) make something that I like to amuse myself, 2) to make something that I consider to be an all ages comic. I don’t think all ages means that you have to talk down to the youngest in your audience. To me all ages is quite freeing because you make something that is enjoyable to a four year-old and an 80 year-old. I’m assuming at some point Grandma will have to read you this book and I want them to not be driven crazy and drive pencils in their eyes because it is so insipid or boring.

I remember things that I grew up with, and all ages to me is like, Old Yeller is all ages. There are movies that people die in or disasters happen that are G-rated. They just aren’t gratuitous in their violence or their sex or whatever. It’s more implied. I think the reader can fill in the blanks much better than I can show. So I just wanted it to be entertaining and accessible. I think that people, that little kids, can handle stuff if it is explained, or it’s a good place to open up a discussion if you have a good question.

I read everything voraciously. I know I was reading things that were much too old for me. If there were things that were a paperback laying around at my house and I picked it up, I read it. I read The Exorcist way too early. It scared the bajebus out of me, but it did make me interested in a lot of words I had never heard before. It opened up a lot of uncomfortable conversations when I would come home to my mom and go “what does ‘fill in the blank terrible thing’ mean.” I should not have been reading The Exorcist. There was horrendous stuff that happened in there but I remember there were a lot of vocab words I had to look up. There was a lot of my mom going “where is that book” and “who left it where you could read it.” I told her, “well I’m done with it.”

Scary Godmother is more in the vein of Nightmare before Christmas and Pee Wee’s Playhouse with a spooky bend.

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GGP: You’ve done work on Sandman with people like Neil Gaiman.  What were you experiences like working with him and what was it like using characters that are so versatile like Death and Morpheus?

Jill Thompson: I was so shocked and surprised when I got the call that Neil Gaiman wanted to work with me because I was a fan of Sandman before I started working on it. I have to say, throughout my entire career I have worked with a lot of wonderful people, but Neil was the easiest person to work with . It was a delightful experience because he tailors the scripts that he writes for his artists to their strengths. That is pretty remarkable. When I was working on the book he asked me what was it that I liked to draw. I explained to him all the things I really enjoyed drawing and most of the things I like, Most of the things I really like are silent story telling. I like making the characters act. It’s my job to make sure that the intnet or the emotion is there without you having to read the word balloon or a caption. I want you to be able to read the emotion on a characters face. I told him I like to do subtlies and to draw the human figure. I like fantasy; all of the things that drew me to Sandman in the first place. Everything in Brief Lives was tailored to that. It just flowed. There was never any angst of “oh no I have to go sit up there at the drawing board and how am I going to finish this page.” It just flowed out of me. It was a great working relationship.

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GGP: You’re also responsible for things like The Little Endless and a manga version of a Death story. What was it that appealed to you about those styles?

Jill Thompson: The Little Endless style came about from my run on Sandman. In the very first issue I did, “A Parliament of Rooks,” Abel is telling the story to Daniel who has wandering into the Dreaming and this is the first time, right in the first issue I guess I was taking liberties in the script. Neil had given art direction for the script to draw the character of Little Death and Little Dream who were going out walking on Abel’s story to make them look like Sugar and Spike from the DC comic. I said, okay, is there any reason why. He said, well you know those tiny figures are really cute. I said, “you know what’s even cuter than that? Little chibi Japanese characters like Hello Kitty. When they make their characters cuter they get smaller and their heads bigger. Let me show you what it looks like.”

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So I drew those characters in that style for that story. Almost immediately people kept coming up to me and asking me to draw them at conventions. One day when I was finished working on my regular work, I decided to draw the rest of the family like that and faxed it over to Neil. He liked that, he thought it was cute and kept the fax. We were doing a signing somewhere together and I had painted a whole illustration of the whole family like that I was going to give to him. People saw it and everyone wanted a copy of it, like a print. He would have someone take out the original, make some copies and then sell the copies. When the last copy was there, he would have them take that copy and run out for more. He sold hundreds and hundreds of copies of that illustration. I eventually sold the original. We only ended up having a copy of it at one point. It just happened organically. It took over ten years from the time I first drew it to the time that DC decided it might be a good idea to do a storybook of it, which I was what we were pushing for all along.

The manga thing came about, because when manga became a really big seller, book agents who worked with agents to get DC’s products in the book stores kept asking Vertigo for manga versions of Sandman. They said they really felt it would go over well as a manga. It was really popular and has all the elements of great girl manga. Karen Berger had approached Neil about it but he didn’t feel confident that he knew enough about manga. What he eventually said was “why don’t you ask Jill to do it. She knows about manga, she can do it. Let her do it.”

I got the full approval of Neil to do it. Evidently some of the agents had been like, if you can’t get Neil to do it you should get Jill Thompson to do it. I thought that was pretty cool because I was like, “how do they know that I know about manga,” but apparently they did. Karen Berger called me up and asked me if I as interested in doing a manga style digest either adapting one of the graphic novels of Sandman, an existing story line. I said okay that would be thousands of pages. If you broke down one of our Sandman comics, even just one story line from the comic the way the Japanese tell a story it would be thousands of pages to do something like Seasons of Mist if you were to do it properly. She said “you’ve got 192 pages. What can you do. Can you make a new story.”

I was like,  “oh my god I don’t know what I would create that’s really intimidating.” I looked back at some of the existing stuff and thought how can I fit one of these story lines into a manga. I got to the part in Seasons of Mist where Death came to Dream after he had the Key to Hell and all the dead were coming back. It was just the one panel of him in his gallery of him talking to her and she kind of scolds him and tells him “figure out what to do with that thing because my life is really complicated now that nobody stays where they’re supposed to.” I thought “that’s the story right there because it takes place almost in between panels and then at the very end of my story it can go back to the exact same place in the story that everybody already knows.” But, it would be a good way to introduce people who only knew manga stuff to Sandman and it’s characters as kind of a gateway to the Sandman stuff that already existed and no hair would be out of place on any of the characters. They would be treated with love and respect and humor and everything else and nothing would be changed.

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GGP: With Scary Godmother I’ve read that you created it for your niece. What was the creation process like? What really triggered you wanting to give the project to her?

Jill Thompson: I really wanted to be her godmother. So it was selfish I suppose in that regard. It was the first niece being born into the family and I was really excited to be an auntie for the first time and I thought I want to make something really cool for the baby. I also want to be the Godmother. One day I happened to be thinking, oh I can see myself, because back in the day I was a lot more Goth than I am now in as far as I had a motorcycle jacket I loved to wear and I wore from the time in high school. I always more black jeans and big crazy shoes. I had my hair bigger and crazier than it is now and only because I was younger and I had more hair. My hair calmed down at some point. Sometimes I would shave stuff into the side of it and things. I was like, I can see my self standing at the back of the church. I would be a really scary godmother and it was as simple as that. They say that sometimes if you sit down and try to come up with that great idea you cant, but that you just happen to stumble across it and that’s when you find a good one. Well I stumbled across it by accident by actually saying those words out loud.

The minute I did I thought of this witchy, fairy, tinkerbell-y type elf-y character but with a black tutu, witch hat, stripey tights. I think the only difference between Scary Godmother and my first imagining of her was that her eyes were originally all black like a Brian Froud fairy and she was teeny. I think by the second drawing of her, I immediately scribbled her down in a notebook, but by the second drawing of her she was full height and she had regular eyes. She’s changed very little since then. Once I had the name, I started to make characters to be her friends. Ideas just started rolling in. I think when you’ve got something good it just sort of flows naturally.

GGP: Your world with Scary Godmother is very creative especially with characters like Harry and Orson. Where did you draw your examples from for them? Was it classic horror movies?

Jill Thompson: Well I needed to cover all the Universal Monster bases, as I’m a big fan of those. I needed to have vampires, I needed to have a werewolf. Harry is definitely inspired by the book A Confederacy of Dunces. He and his mom’s relationship is definitely based on the relationship of Ignatius Reilly and his poor put upon mother. I think that the need to create all the characters is that [Scary Godmother] needed a bunch of friends and what kind of monsters can they be? Bugaboo is the monster under the bed, or later became the monster in the basement. He kind of does both. Mr. Pettibone, because I wanted to do a skeleton. He’s the skeleton on the closet because everyone has one. Hannah is our only human character and it sort of just flushed out. At first I had a character that was a bat that had big spectacles and I wanted to call him “blind as a bat.”  That bat became Orson, a vampire boy, because I thought it would be fun to have a family.

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GGP: You are currently doing a Kickstarter for your Scary Godmother doll. At this point what encouraged you to create a doll and why so much attention to detail and quality?

Jill Thompson: I have wanted to create a doll since the first book came out. I have a notebook and sheets and sheets of paper filled with product ideas that I wanted to happen that I was trying to impress upon my teeny tiny publisher that we should should make things. But, because he was a teeny tiny publisher it was not possible to go into production for a lot of stuff. After that, when Scary Godmother had gotten optioned for animation, when you get optioned for something your merchandised rights get tied up with the company that options it because that’s one of the things that they will use to sell it to a network and they need to have that. It’s not weird or unusual, it’s just something that happens. It meant that while I had a lot of ideas I couldn’t do anything with them. I could submit them and talk about them, but it wasn’t up to me if they happened. At some point the contract was no longer between us and so my rights reverted back to me which meant I finally got a chance to dust off that book of ideas and try to figure out how to make them happen in the real world.

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GGP: What’s been the biggest challenge so far to get the Scary Godmother doll made.

Jill Thompson: MONEY. It costs a lot of money to make a doll. And if you’re a freelance comic book artist not a lot of people are willing to give you money. The best way that I could figure out to do it was I spent the past couple of years having a prototype made. I hooked up with a friend of mine who created a doll line of his own. He is a doll and toy collector, as well as a salesman. He collects dolls and sells them. He is extremely knowledgeable about all that. He realized at some point in his life that there was some stuff that he liked that he wished existed because he thought it would be great and he knew the market, but they didn’t exist. Because he knew so many people in that industry, he worked with people to get his dolls made.

I ran into him right after at a convention somewhere and he asked me why there was no merchandise of Scary Godmother. I told him I would love to make toys but I don’t even know how I would go about doing that. He said, “you’re in luck, I just made a line of toys. I can hook you up with sculptors, doll clothing designers and painters. Let’s get together and start talking to people. Let’s get this thing done for you. You can make the doll. It’s going to be expensive, but you can make the doll exactly the way you want it. You didn’t know how to start but I know the way to get you on the right path. “

He did and it’s been wonderful. For the past two years, I’ve been working to get the prototype to exactly what I wanted and once we had the finished prototype with all the pieces and the box and everything then we could take that out to different factories to get quotes to make something like her. She’s very articulated and she is taller than your average fashion doll, but that’s how she’s supposed to me. He said ,”shoot for the moon. Don’t cut any corners. Make the kind of doll that you want to see.”

GGP: What were the most important details about the Scary Godmother doll that you wanted included?

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Jill Thompson: She needed to have wings that came off, because that way you can change her clothes and stick them back in. All the clothes she is going to have have little button-hole type slits in the back so that if she’ wearing a jacket that her wings stick out of it. That way you don’t have to worry about everything being a scoop back or having to design clothing clothing around her wings. She also needed to have very excellent hair. Scary Godmother has excellent hair. She needed to have real tights and I needed her to be really articulated. She also had to have the same figure she does in the comics. All of those things and more have been accomplished.

 

 

GGP: You have a lot of personal touches for your give aways on Kickstarter. Birthday parties, pizza parties, even some of your personal collection of Sandman art. Why did you choose to be have these items be so personal?

Jill Thompson: Everything I do is really personal. Everything I make is handmade. I paint all of my comic book pages; it’s all I have to offer. I think it’s better to get something new, unique, and fun that’s made specifically for whomever is getting it than to find a place that’s going to print up some mugs and some t-shirts, because once again I base everything on my taste. There are many Kickstarters that I’ve backed that you get a t-shirt with  and I just don’t need another t-shirt. I don’t want you to have to ship it out even. What a big pain in the butt that you have to send me out a t-shirt and then send out the thing that I supported. If you like t-shirts, that’s cool; I have places you can get t-shirts. That’s great, I will send you that way any time, any day of the week but I just wanted it to be something that would stand out.

You can get 5 years worth of Christmas cookies baked by me as well as five years worth of Christmas ornaments made specifically for you by me. As well as getting on my Christmas card this, which is a very exclusive thing and every year I put out a limited Christmas card. That’s something I thought, everything will be mostly handmade and made with much love for you. Kickstarter says you have incentives that go from $1 up to $10,000 and you should fill them all out; so what do I have that’s worth $10,000? I have Sandman art that has never been released before and I have the ability to create a fairy tale just for you. Whatever your favorite fairytale is, I will illustrated it and hand letter it in one of those Moleskien color sketchbooks that I love so well. If you want to have your child in it, or you want to be in it, or you want your dog or cat to appear in it, I will put them in their whatever your favorite fairytale happens to do be. Or I can do a mural for your wall. These are things that I thought would be really big and unique that might fit the bill on larger incentive scale. Then I have digital download of Scary Godmother 0, which is sort of a primer if you’ve never seen her before. It’s kind of an 18-page comic I created to try and sell the TV show when we were shopping around to TV networks after the animated show was done. It’s something fun and gives a good overview of who they all are and their relationships and some of the adventures they’ve got. I’m also doing a brand new Scary Godmother story specifically for this Kickstarter. It’s going to be 10 pages or more, since I know I probably can’t just keep it to 10 pages, fully painted Scary Godmother story. Its at the $5 level. It will be a digital download as well. At a different level you can actually be a character in the story and for a higher level you can get one of the original pages from it.

GGP: This Kickstarter will likely introduce new fans to the world of Scary Godmother. What is your favorite reaction from a new fan when you meet them at a convention?

Jill Thompson: Little kids think I am the Scary Godmother so I like them to keep thinking that. I do have a hat that I can pull out. Actually, one of the incentives is I will dress up as Scary Godmother for your kids birthday and I will make them a Bugaboo cake. I will draw a sketch for each kid at the party, up to 20, which I think is a lot of drawing for an afternoon filled with cake and soda, but I will do it. And it will be fun! I like when people say I look like the Scary Godmother.

Please check out the Kickstarter. If you can’t pledge right now, and you still want to see it happen, please pass along the link to someone you know who likes Halloween, or dolls, or comics, or collectibles. If this is the only time I’m ever able to make a Scary Godmother doll, or if this is what Kickstarter is supposed to do and starts a whole new business, this first run of dolls will be a collectible item.

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Visit Jill’s Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1327932176/the-scary-godmother-doll

You can also follow her on Twitter: @theJillThompson

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