By Christopher Borrelli
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet Jill Thompson, one of the first (and few) female artists to become a brand name in the traditionally malecentric comic-book industry.
A dead bird lay on the front stoop of Jill Thompson’s home in Chicago. It wasn’t mangled or decaying or missing anything but life. It looked as if it had a heart attack in midflap, then fell. Its legs, somewhat comically, stood straight up; its claws hung open.
Thompson answered her front door and, “EE! OH!”
Her head jerked back. She took a moment to process. Then continued her day.
She would bury it in the backyard later. But the truth is, that dead bird, it kind of worked. Aesthetically, it suited the milieu. Inside her bungalow were taxidermied black birds. Skeletons, stylized, Day of the Dead-like bags of bones, occupied the mantels and bookshelves. There was a jack-o’-lantern or two. A werewolf doll, a Creature from the Black Lagoon. There was, on the porch at the feet of the dead bird, a hunched gargoyle.
The bird was fitting.
And not just because of the playfully ghoulish surroundings. There was the compelling prosaicness of the corpse itself, the way an ordinary dead bird, on a spring morning, as lilacs swayed in the breeze, as other birds chirped, could become unexpectedly touching.
It wouldn’t be out of place in a Jill Thompson comic book.
The Forest Park, Ill., native, one of the first (and few) female artists to become a brand name in the traditionally malecentric comic-book industry, has been humanizing the morbid and unusual for more than 30 years now, distinguishing herself with a style pitched somewhere between storybook and matter-of-fact, with a whiff of the elegance of midcentury commercial illustration.
While other comic artists prefer ink, she tends toward the vaporous wash of watercolors. Her characters are a gallery of freaks made relatable: Swamp Things and X-Men, Invisibles, the talking dogs of “Beasts of Burden.” Since 1997, her signature has been the “Scary Godmother” children’s books, which tell the story of a witch who is gnarled and shrouded, and the reason for her home’s Halloween trappings.
Before that, she drew Neil Gaiman’s beloved, surreal “Sandman” series, as ambitious a monthly comic as ever existed, telling the ethereal epic of Dream, who travels through human consciousness, accompanied by his siblings, Destruction, Despair, Death …
“I knew at some point these characters would go on road trips and conversation would drive the story,” Gaiman said, “and the hardest thing in comics is finding an artist who can draw people talking and make it interesting and get you to care. It’s easy to draw two people fighting or a universe exploding and make it look interesting. It’s a lot harder to draw a conversation. But Jill has a feel for what’s real, even when a situation is not.”
And yet Thompson began her career drawing the least freakish woman ever.
A touch out of place in her home amid mulch-colored hues and rustic wooden furniture, are the star-spangled golds, blues and reds of Wonder Woman, this summer’s favorite big-screen Amazonian. In the late 1980s, around the time she was hired to work on Diana Prince, Thompson’s comic book career had consisted mainly of creating comics for a couple of independent publishers in Chicago. She was living in Ohio with a boyfriend and designing rubber stamps.
She was paid $10 for each stamp. Then DC asked to see a few of her drawings, and offered $75 for each sample.
Already this was a better deal.
She found herself as the artist to DC writer/artist George Perez, whose take on Wonder Woman in the late 1980s would set much of the tone and mythology associated with the character since. He approached Wonder Woman as a sort of utopian feminist-warrior ideal. He underlined her connection with the gods, and provided depth to her island paradise of Themyscira. Nevertheless, though Thompson was hired by DC editor Karen Berger, Wonder Woman comics at the time were still written and drawn entirely by men.
“I remember people telling me then how important it was for a woman to draw a monthly book,” she said, “but I also remember, the first time I spoke on the phone with George, my body blushed I was so nervous _ I remember that I sweated right through my shirt.”
Thompson, who had grown up as a devoted comics reader, and who at 50 now says she never seriously considered doing anything but drawing comic books for a living, revered major-league names like Perez. She just wasn’t much of a Wonder Woman fan.
Not at first.
“Marvel heroes struggled to pay rent,” she said. “Wonder Woman was too perfect. And she was de-powered when I was young. She wasn’t fighting as much. I knew her from the TV show and the ‘Super Friends’ cartoon, and I would wonder where the Nazis were. She was the secretary of the Justice League. And I didn’t feel like a secretary. You got this sense that DC was only continuing with her so they wouldn’t lose the copyright.”
Greg Rucka, who now writes Wonder Woman for DC, said the character has always been an uphill battle for comic book creators, regardless of their gender: “She’s a remarkable creation, but easily mocked, more a vessel for an idea, then add the baggage of a male gaze-laden society … ” Berger herself said that, when Thompson was hired in 1990, “(Wonder Woman) wasn’t a character that artists and writers flocked to. She wasn’t a priority. But Jill, who was 18 then, already had her down. She brought nuance to her expressions. She had a terrific eye for clothing, which male artists didn’t get. I remember one of her first stories was about a teen who commits suicide. And it worked. To use a Wonder Woman metaphor: It’s like Jill sprung from the head of Zeus.”
Thompson spent roughly a year drawing Wonder Woman, then never looked back.
Until last summer. After 25 years away from the character, DC published her long-simmering passion project, “Wonder Woman: The True Amazon.” It was recently nominated for two Eisners (the cartoonist’s Oscars), including best graphic novel; winners are announced in July. Still, the other morning Thompson stood in her kitchen and held the book and doubted herself. She wondered why DC wasn’t doing more to promote it, considering the movie is the summer’s biggest hit.
In the next breath, she said she felt naive. Then apologized. Then said, being female she felt programmed to apologize. When she was young and just starting to draw comics, she said she would never look at reference images of superheroes. She had assumed it was cheating.
Thompson has long, curly red hair, a high forehead, a sharp, angular face. “Because of the nature of my look,” she said, “it doesn’t matter what I wear, if it’s remotely black, people say, ‘Isn’t it a little early for Halloween?’ And I’m like, really? I don’t think I look like a witch, but maybe I have the stereotypical profile of a witch.”
She said that because of her rigid posture, when she tools around on her bike, she occasionally hears people trolling her with a few bars of Margaret Hamilton’s jaunty “Wizard of Oz”: theme of the Wicked Witch. Years ago, she decided to embrace it and modeled Scary Godmother on herself.
This was prescient: Though the “Scary Godmother” series was rejected from many major publishers before it found a home at a small (now defunct) independent house, Thompson now owns all of the publishing and merchandising rights to the character.
The downside is that Thompson now spends a great deal more time on Scary Godmother than anything else; the past year or so, she said, has been dominated by wrangling with Chinese factories producing “Scary Godmother” dolls and backpacks.
Couple that with the slow nature of painting a comic, and new work is infrequent.
Thompson grew up in a second-floor two-flat. Her father managed parking lots, her mother worked at Swiss Colony.
“The first comic book I had was an ‘X-Men’ with (the character) Kitty Pryde, who was about 13 years old and had curly hair and lived outside of Chicago. It pushed all the right buttons at the right age, and my Saturdays would consist of riding my bike to the comic book store and buying new comics with money I saved. I saved enough for a sandwich, too. Then I would ride home in time for the 12 o’clock monster movie on Channel 32, followed by ‘Buck Rogers’ and ‘Star Trek.’ Meanwhile I drew the entire time. That was Saturdays, and in a way, it shaped my life.
“My dad took me to my first comic book convention. It smelled like old pulp. We made a quick circle of the ballroom, then he said, ‘Had enough?’ He was checking his watch. I bought a Conan portfolio and said I couldn’t wait to go to another convention. I’m sure my dad slapped his forehead. He dropped me off after that. Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue. He’d say, ‘Meet me outside at 4:30,’ and I’d get a little carnival ticket, and I would walk around with my spiral sketch notebook. I was the only girl there, and I would stand beside (‘X-Men’ artist) John Byrne’s table and just watch him draw all day.
“When I started sending art to Marvel, I was 11 then, and totally Marvel-centered, I would get back this beautiful form letter with Spider-Man on it that listed out in bullet points the things every artist needed to know, with the applicable boxes checked off next to each topic: anatomy, animals, perspective, buildings, interiors. I was submitting on loose-leaf paper with notebook holes and had no idea how comics were actually created. So it was always sad to be rejected at 11, but it couldn’t have been a nicer way to say, ‘Look, you suck.’ It was like getting a recipe every time of the things I had to work on.”
Thompson eventually attended Chicago’s American Academy of Art, former home of many an ad-men innovators, as well as comic legend Alex Ross and (briefly) Kanye West. Berger said that when Thompson entered the comic book industry in the 1980s, “You could count on one hand the number of women who were drawing in the industry, and unfortunately it stayed that way only until recently.” Thompson, for her part, said that “as stupid as it may sound, any criticism I got I felt was always based on talent, not gender. School had already taught me to prepare for a lot of rejection, and I was rejected a lot.”
Not until “Sandman” in the early ’90s did she feel recognized for her work.
“This is an embarrassing story,” Gaiman said, “but I was signing comics in San Diego, and this fan brought me a picture of (his character) Death that Jill had drawn for her. I had to find her, and that afternoon Jill was in my signing line, and I said I saw her drawing and asked if she was interested in working on ‘Sandman’ and she thought I was toying with her, and so I called Karen and asked if we could spring her from Wonder Woman.”
After that, Thompson was so in-demand as a collaborator, by the time she began “Scary Godmother,” she realized she didn’t know how to draw her own stories. She fell back somewhat on her years in an improv group in Cleveland: She would put the names of characters, activities and places in separate hats and assemble the stories at random.
Two decades later, some things have changed.
She has won seven Eisners and been nominated for more. “Scary Godmother” has such a cult following that a Canadian animated adaptation has become a Cartoon Network staple at Halloween. But also, her taste in comics, which had gone from superheroes to alt-comics, evolved, and Thompson became oddly protective of Wonder Woman.
She lobbied DC for years to do a new Wonder Woman book, she said. “I thought her situation (daughter of a queen, fathered by a god) would make for being spoiled. She would grow up with massive privilege and have to learn to appreciate peace. But DC didn’t want to change her origin.” During that time, her husband, DC writer Brian Azzarello, was given license to change the origin tale (and wrote several years of “Wonder Woman”); then Rucka was allowed to change the origin details yet again.
In the film, Diana Prince leaves her island with a man to save humanity.
In Thompson’s book, which stands alone and is not considered part of the character’s monthly continuity, Diana Prince leaves her island in shame and disgrace, on a mission to prove herself worthy of her gifts. The story is ambiguous, full of character flaws and uncertainty. But it’s not her property, Thompson said, then left the kitchen for her studio.