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Campus inSaint Petersburg

3 Rules of Creative Work or How to Finish Your Projects

On Halloween, October 31, prominent American graphic novelist Craig Thompson visited HSE — St. Petersburg School of Art and Design as part of his mini-book tour in Russia organized by the Bumkniga comic book publishing house headed by Dmitry Yakovlev.

Craig is the mastermind behind such comic books as 'Good-bye, Chunky Rice', 'Blankets' and 'Habibi', for which he received multiple Harvey, Eisner, and Ignatz Awards — three of the most prestigious comic book awards in the U.S. His most successful work to this day is Blankets, released in the early 2000s to a great critical acclaim (including giants like Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman), was translated into over 20 languages. During the meeting, the artist dissected the process of writing a graphic novel. The focus of his lecture, however, was the three general rules of any creative work.

  • Craig, is it your first time in Russia? How do you like it so far?
  • It is! And I’m loving it!
  • Have you had any chance to get to know about the Russian comic book scene or maybe you have no idea what’s going on here?
  • For the most part, the latter: I had no idea. You know, Dima [Dmitry Yakovlev] and Bum [Bumkniga] introduced me to some amazing work already. My first day here, yesterday, I met some artists. The Green Book by Olga Lavrentieva – I love that one! And Survilo – that book really excites me. Prior to this trip, though, I don’t think I’ve read any Russian cartoonists.
  • What is your impression of Saint Petersburg?
  • Oh, it’s beautiful, I love it. The first day here was my first fully free day when I wasn’t doing any events, so I went to the Hermitage, of course. I just love the look and texture of the city, walking around, following the rivers. It’s colder than I thought, that’s why I have a beautiful Saint Petersburg jacket here to keep me warm. I’m happy it’s not raining!
  • Do you remember the moment you first felt like an accomplished comic book artist and what was it like for you?
  • Well, I never had felt that way. Actually, it was Blankets, when it first came out in 2003. Wow, that’s a long time ago! I was twenty-eight years old… twenty-seven, actually, when it just came out. The first event I did was in New York at this show called MOCA. It was just a one-day show, but I drew in five hundred copies of Blankets that day, which is a lot of drawing. Especially, because it takes me roughly five minutes to draw in a person’s book now, I must’ve been doing it faster, because there’s no way you can humanly do that in a day. I got up once in ten hours to go pee, and otherwise, I was nonstop signing. That kind of destroyed my hand and I couldn’t draw for two weeks after that signing session.

What I didn’t realize is that was the indicator of what was to come, and I ended up touring with Blankets for six and a half months straight. Like a true rock star tour, where I moved, left all my stuff in storage, and left Portland to travel the world for six months straight. After that, nothing was the same. Also, before that, I wasn’t making any money doing comics, and after that, I got a proper advance from a book publisher, and then I finally had money to quit doing the illustration work and focus on graphic novels.

  • Could you name three traits of a good graphic novelist?
  • Well, self-motivating is a huge thing for anyone who is a freelance writer or artist, and built into self-motivating is disciplined; you have to be a disciplined person. I know so many writers who write the Great American Novel in one hour every morning. Like they wake up at 4:30 and they work until 6 before the kids get up and they can create the Great American Novel in that timeframe. But making a graphic novel is so much more time-intensive. The time it takes to make a page of comics: all the drawing and all the panels. So, I think these things are similar, it just takes more hours to [write a comic book].

And you said three different traits… I don’t know, there’s this strange conflict between the extraverted part of yourself and the introverted part of yourself. Most cartoonists, and probably most writers, are naturally introverts, and you require that energy to be alone in your studio for so long, plumbing the depths of your own mind. But then, ironically, you have to have some portion of you that’s extraverted, so that you can go on book tours like this and interact with a bunch of strangers. Italian writer Italo Calvino talks about how as a writer he’s a Saturn longing to be a Mercury. By that he means that Saturn is the god that hides in his cave and works at the forge, and that’s ninety percent of what being a writer is. But then there’s ten percent of being a Mercury, a wind god and the messenger of the gods who goes out in the world and has experiences and adventures and then can translate those into stories. It means 90% Saturn, 10% Mercury.

  • Would you recommend graphic novel writing as a career to young artists? Do you think it’s difficult to succeed in this field?
  • Yeah, it’s probably difficult to succeed in any artistic field. It’s not as bad as being a poet [laughs]. Poetry might be the least realistic in terms of earning a living. I know many poets, and they’re all professors: that’s what you do to pay the bills. It’s also similar to cartoonists or graphic novelists: a lot of them do illustration or work in the animation industry to pay the bills. But I also know a lot of people in the animation industry, and they say that you have to have your personal work to keep your soul alive. So, you work eight to ten hours in an animation studio, but then you have to go home and work on something personal, otherwise, you’ll be so angry and bitter and dead inside, having to put your time to somebody else’s vision.

I think it’s just realistic in any creative profession to figure out the balance. I have a friend who runs a creative agency, and this is true in a lot of high-end advertising firms: they try to have a 60/40 balance, or sometimes even 50/50, where 60% of your projects have to be commercial and pay the bills: even super famous directors have to do television commercials. Then 40% of your time can be your personal creative — not worrying about making money — vision. And hopefully, as you get further in your career that sort of balance changes, so maybe it’s 90% creative and 10% commercial.

  • What would you advise those who do choose to be a graphic novelist? What does it take an artist to stand out? 
  • It’s become more difficult now because there’s so much more out there. When I was getting started, the internet was not really a thing, and graphic novels were not yet a thing. So maybe every year something like two, three, four, five graphic novels came out. Now hundreds come out every year, maybe more than that, and it’s become much more difficult to rise above or stand out in a book store or wherever else.

Perhaps, [you need to] become more and more specific and personal in your work. It means that you’ll have your own… We’re all unique individuals, so we all have parts of our lives and our personalities that are different from everybody else. So I think focusing on that as spring will be helpful. Like Marjane Satrapi and her book Persepolis, she gave this unique perspective for people who want to know more about Iran and the revolution there, to see it from the perspective of a rebellious teenager who’s into heavy metal and denim jackets. I think that’s what made it special: it was an adolescent view of what was going on during the Islamic revolution in Iran.

And my new book is about working in ginseng agriculture, which is a really weird thing. Ginseng is a medicinal herb used in Chinese medicine, but the tiny town in Wisconsin where I grew up was one of the biggest producers that cultivated ginseng in the world. The population of this town is only a thousand people, and I worked in this agriculture for ten years as a child, so it just happens to be this weird, specific-to-me experience. I don’t think there are any other cartoonists who are going to write a book about growing up working in ginseng agriculture, so I might as well do it.

  • Are there any projects besides the series Ginseng Roots you are working on right now?
  • Not at present. During the presentation, I showed these three books that I started and kind of abandoned. They’re still in the back of my mind, but I find that I’m really monogamous with my projects when I’m working, they take all of my time and energy. There are other cartoonists who are really good and they always have two or three projects that they juggle at once. So if you wake up one day and you‘re bored or not interested in one, you can work on the other instead. That way, you get to procrastinate with one book by being productive with another. I think that’s a good method, but I’ve never been successful using that method myself. I have tunnel vision with one project.
  • How do you think (besides the emergence of the internet) the comic book industry changed over the years compared to when you were just starting out?
  • The biggest change is that there are graphic novels now, and they weren’t really a thing. There was Art Spiegelman’s 'Maus' that came out around 1990, and then there really weren’t any graphic novels for the next fifteen years or so. The next really big graphic novel, I think, was 'Jimmy Corrigan' by Chris Ware, and that came out in the year 2000. 'So Blankets' was really lucky because it was the right place and the right time: Chris Ware’s book came out, and then a couple of years later my book came out. At that time, there were only graphic novels that were superheroes serialized comics at comic book shops, that collectors went to and they put them in little plastic bags and boards.

And now the bookstore market with comics with graphic novels spine is the predominant thing. Also, stuff for kids, NYA, is huge right now.  It’s the biggest arm of publishing in the U.S. That didn’t exist at all. There was no way that teachers and librarians were embracing comics and now they are. So there are a lot more venues, there’s a lot more wide acceptance of cartooning.

  • If you could give your 20-year-old self some advice in terms of your artistic career, what would you say?
  • Well, it would be the same rules I was talking about during the presentation. Number one — baby steps. Just start with small things to work up to a large thing. It’s probably pretty unrealistic to start a 600-page graphic novel, so start by drawing a three-panel comics strips. Number two is constraints. Just having some sort of restriction you impose on what you’re working on that will, in fact, give you more freedom with your creativity. Ironically, the more rules you create for yourself, the more freedom you have. One of the first things I learned in drawing class is that you start with the frame. I guess that’s how photographers think, too. Everything happens within a frame, so think first of what your frame is. Whether that’s the page itself or you give yourself a word count that you have to beat in an essay. That structure is important. Otherwise, freedom is kind of suffocating, freedom is paralyzing.

Then third is just to finish something, and that was probably the most important for me as a young cartoonist. I would start something, I would get ten pages into it and I would get bored or I’d lose steam, and then I’d abandon it. If you do that, nothing ever really happens, and the whole point of the creative process is the struggle and pushing through that struggle. Before that, you’re just doodling, but if you confront the problems that are showing up in the work and solve them, that’s the key to finishing something and it having a life outside of you.

Special thanks to Dmitry Yakovlev and the publishing house 'Bumkniga' for organising the event exclusively for HSE — St. Petersburg.