Cartoonist Craig Thompson Fills His New Book With Planet-Eating Space Whales And Sartorial Talking Chickens

By Aaron Scott (OPB)
Sept. 5, 2015 4:03 p.m.

Courtesy of Craig Thompson

In the galaxy of graphic novels,

Craig Thompson

is a singular talent. His books don’t just tell different stories: they take place in entirely different universes.

He burst onto the scene with the semi-autobiographical work about his move to Portland called “Goodbye, Chunky Rice.” Its delightfully quirky writing and cartoony style won him the Harvey Award for Best New Talent.

He followed up with the incredible autobiography “Blankets,” about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family in Wisconsin. The 600-page tome was a game-changer, sweeping the comic awards and redefining the literary depths a graphic novel memoir could plumb.

Then Thompson completely changed gears with “Habibi,” an epic allegory set in a modern Arabian Nights fantasia.

Now, he just released “Space Dumplins” on Scholastic Books, and it's already hit the "New York Times" best-seller list. It’s the zany adventure of a girl who has to save her family from giant planet-eating whales whose excrement has replaced oil as the universe’s fuel. Did we mention there’s a sartorial talking chicken named Elliot?

We reached Thompson in his home in Los Angeles (he moved there earlier this year) for his very first interview about the book, before he leaves town for a book tour that will bring him to Portland on Sept. 11 and 12 (see below for details).

Our conversation spanned his blue-collar roots, the friends who inspired the characters in “Space Dumplins” (including local fashion designer Adam Arnold), the draw of galactic whales, and what attracted him to writing a children’s book. Also, he reads his manifesto in the voice of the character Gar, the lumberjack father who harvests space whale, um, “dumplings.”

Here are some of the highlights:

Craig Thompson with the real-life Violet in the real-life trike that inspired the Space Trike.

Craig Thompson with the real-life Violet in the real-life trike that inspired the Space Trike.


On why he wanted to pen a story in a retro space-age setting:

I feel like “Space Dumplins” takes place in a mythical Northwest. It’s really inspired by Portland and the logging industry history and I guess a bit of the Midwest working class flavor that I grew up in. It’s sort of this clunky, crude, industrial version of space, where the space ships belch out smoke and drip oil and everything’s kind of crusty and dirty and working class.

It began with wanting to write something my 10-year-old self would be stoked about. I always loved Mel Brooks' "Space Balls," but I wanted it to be even cooler. So in a way, it's sort of that space-spoof, sci-fi, comedy romp.

On whether the desire to write a joyful space romp was a response to the heaviness of his last two books:
Every book I do is a reaction of frustration with the previous project. So my first book, "Goodbye, Chunky Rice," I drew these cute, adorable cartoony characters. And I really wanted to get away from that with "Blankets" and do something naturalistic with human figures and a more loose, expressive lines.

After “Blankets,” I was so sick of drawing myself and these minimalist Midwestern landscapes, I wanted to do something outside of myself and epic. That was “Habibi.”


And then, yes, with “Habibi,” there was a heaviness, a darkness to it that I was mired in for seven years. There’s a lot of beauty too. I was really excited by the Arabic calligraphy and geometric design. But the project was taxing, and I wanted to do something more light-hearted and playful.

And again, the most important element for me was doing something that kids could read. I feel that my generation of cartoonists has labored so hard to prove to people that comics aren’t just for kids anymore, to the neglect of that core audience.

Violet, Elliot Chicken and Zacchaeus in their space trike.

Violet, Elliot Chicken and Zacchaeus in their space trike.

Courtesy Craig Thompson

On the inspiration for the three main characters: Violet, Elliot the Chicken, and Zacchaeus the Last Living Lumpkin:

There’s a little Eloise, a little Pippi Longstocking, a little Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes,” but mostly [Violet] was inspired by a real life Violet, the daughter of two of my best friends.

I already had these two goofball dysfunctional characters, Elliot the Chicken and Zacchaeus the Last Living Lumpkin. Eliot was the troubled, neurotic, sartorial dandy. And then Zacchaeus, on the other hand, first surfaced with my “Carnet De Voyage,” which came out in 2004. In that book he’s a doodle that represents my subconscious, that chastises me when I’m being whiny, sort of like my little Id following me around.

And they were wacky, flawed characters, but they needed someone like a hero to create a catalyst of connection between the two. And then Violet was born almost four years ago, and that's when I conceived of the project.

On the appearance of Portland fashion designer Adam Arnold as a fabulous, albeit flawed, space fashion designer:
Adam Arnold is a dear friend of mine, and half my wardrobe has been concocted by Adam Arnold. Organically, I threw so many inside jokes in the book and nods to friends, that right away it seemed natural that Adam Arnold would be the quote unquote mentor, father figure and employer of Eliott Chicken, the sartorial dandy.

And in the first version of the book, it was a realistic version of Adam but a little boring for the sake of the book. So I decided to twist it a little and play up some of his more mean-spirited tendencies and make him more of a flawed character. And I checked in with Adam first: I’m going to turn you into a more obnoxious bad guy. And he was all for it. And then it became more fun once I was able to create a cartoon caricature.

Our heroes rocket towards a herd of planet-eating space whales.

Our heroes rocket towards a herd of planet-eating space whales.

Courtesy Craig Thompson

On the books environmental allegory and where the idea for planet-eating space whales came from:

Katrina was definitely an inspiration. All the environmental disasters that have ensued in the last decade or so are thrown into the batter. So the Gulf Oil Spill, the tar sands, fracking, all of it is there. So it was sort of a throw away gag at first, this idea of giant planet-eating space whales that create energy rich excrement. But then it was also perfect because it was the perfect metaphor for how dirty fuel is.

I also grew up with a father who is a plumber, so he really educated us children in the reality of waste processing.

On the two-tiered space society consisting of humans in protected, mobile planets and everyone else stuck in asteroid shanty towns and galactic trailer parks:
With "Space Dumplins," there's another personal element of social class conflict. I came from a very working class background. I didn't know anybody who went to college. All the adults in my life were farmers or truck drivers or plumbers like my father. And now I exist in this privileged art class, where the people I hang out with are all educated. We all eat organic groceries. And with that comes a sort of self-conscious guilt, too, that I was processing in the book in a fun, sort of playful, subliminal way.

Violet as a character really represents this sort of meeting ground. If America is really red and blue states, here’s this character whose namesake is Violet and who can create some sort of harmony between those conflicting energies.

The Chaperdrone meets Zacchaeus in his galactic junkyard and promptly washes his mouth out with soap.

The Chaperdrone meets Zacchaeus in his galactic junkyard and promptly washes his mouth out with soap.

Courtesy Craig Thompson

On his choice to go with the children’s publisher Scholastic:

I chose Scholastic specifically because of their outreach with children’s markets. Again, growing up in a working class household, it wasn’t a literary household. There were no books on the bookshelf other than a few Christian books and the Bible. My mom was awesome, she would take us to libraries, but we never went to a bookstore.

The only time I could purchase a book was via the Scholastic Book Clubs in school, — because they were heavily discounted — but it was also accessible to any kid who may never step into a bookstore.

So for me, there was something really moving about this opportunity to work with a publisher that has that outreach with different communities and some nonliterary communities.

On what excites him about his upcoming book tour to book stores, comic shops and classrooms.
I'm excited about the fan art, and I'm excited to see some homemade costumes hopefully. I did get an email from an adult fan who said his child, who happens to be named Violet also, is already working on her own homemade Violet space costume.

So I’m crossing my fingers that some of those are going to manifest when I’m on book tour, so that it’s going to be “Space Dumplins” cosplay.

If you want to dress up as Elliot the sartorial chicken, you can hear Thompson read at A Children's Place Bookstore on Sept. 11. On Sept. 12, he will read at Bridge City Comics at 11 a.m. and at Powell's Books at 2 p.m.