If the 15-year-old Jill Thompson were to talk to present day Jill Thompson, she might be disappointed to learn that she's not drawing "Uncanny X-Men."
"I wanted to be John Byrne," the artist said, recalling her 15-year-old ambitions. "I assumed one day when I was old enough, I would be able to go to the Marvel Comics office. I would walk in with my portfolio, and they'd go, 'Jill, this is Terry Austin, and he's going to ink you for the rest of your life, because you're the best penciler we've ever seen. And here's the X-Men. Thanks. Welcome to the company.'"
Known for her work on "The Sandman," "Scary Godmother" and "Wonder Woman," Thompson shared stories about her career in comics during a spotlight panel at San Francisco's WonderCon this past weekend. "Hellboy" creator Mike Mignola engaged Thompson in an informal conversation before taking questions from the audience, kicking things off with a discussion about Thompson's first job in comics.
"I always consider my first professional job one that I got something of value for, and I did a comic for a little tiny black and white publishing company called Just Imagine Comics and Stories," she said. "They published out of Naperville, Ill. I used to work for them at comic conventions at their table, selling comics, but they also published anthologies."
Thompson said when she had free time at the shows, she'd take her sketchbook to Artists Alley to watch the artists at work. She said at one point the company needed her help to fill an anthology, which was three pages short. "So they had me go around to Artists Alley and ask each artist to draw one panel."
But that still wasn't enough to fill the anthology, so the company had Thompson draw a strip called "Bananaman." "It was a parody of 'Superman II,' but the guy had a big banana on his head," she said. He fought villains like Sour Grapes and Rotten Apple.
In exchange for working on the strip, the company flew Thompson out to Comic-Con in San Diego, where she met more comics professionals. "I knew I was being paid something that was worth so much more than money," she said.
The Illinois native spoke about shopping at Rick's One-Stop Comics in Oak Park, Ill. "He eventually got all my allowance ever because he started selling me back issues at exorbitant prices," she said. But the retailer also encouraged Thompson to start going to a monthly comics show held in Chicago, where she met her idols Byrne and Terry Austin. Thompson described the first time she showed the pair her sketchbook, saying she was scared of Byrne at first, because she saw him yell at a fan who asked for a topless Vampirella sketch. She got in line to meet him, had second thoughts and moved to the end of the line, over and over again.
Terry Austin saw Jill Thompson doing this, and eventually asked her if she wanted to meet Byrne. "If it wasn't for Terry Austin, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today," she said. "John Byrne scared me so terribly, I was going to leave and never come back."
Austin looked through her sketchbook, then showed it to Byrne, who flipped through her sketches of Dazzler, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine as the rest of the fans in line watched. "He closes it and says, 'I think we should break her fingers, because if she's this good now, she'll be really good later."
Thompson wrote Austin a thank you letter, and he wrote back. "I carried that letter around with me in my schoolbooks until it fell apart."
Thompson said she continued to attend the San Diego convention and met more professionals, including artist Bill Reinhold and writer/artist Bill Willingham. As she became more confident in her art, she started showing her sketchbook to artists for critiques. Many of them encouraged her to go to art school at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where she received degrees in watercolor and illustration.
Thompson started drawing comics professionally while still in school. First Comics was a few blocks away, so she showed them her portfolio, which led to drawing a "Munden's Bar" strip, the back-up in "Grimjack." She went on to work on First's "Classics Illustrated" series with editor P. Craig Russell. "I would just go over to his house all the time. His work was very influential on me," Thompson said, citing "Killraven" in particular. "I thought he drew everything out of his head," she said, not realizing artists could use photo references. "For a long time, for years, I thought you had to know how to draw everything from memory, like how to draw a Cutlass Supreme car."
"I thought when you went up to Marvel and DC they gave you a test," Mignola said. "I thought they put you in a room and said 'Draw 60 guys on horseback.'"
Thomspon also drew a sample page for Willingham, landing her a job doing the "Fathom" miniseries for Comico.
Thompson said she landed the "Wonder Woman" job when cartoonist Evan Dorkin and colorist Robbie Bush stopped at her house on the way to a convention. Busch said DC was looking for someone to draw "Wonder Woman." "I never read 'Wonder Woman' in my life," she said. Thompson borrowed some issues from a friend and sent in samples to DC's Karen Berger. Berger wanted more samples and offered to pay for them, which Thompson said was more money than she'd ever gotten for painting comics. Those samples led to her getting the job. From there she did work for Berger at Vertigo, including arcs on "Invisibles" and "Sandman."
After the "1990s bust" in the comics market, Thompson said she wasn't getting as much work as she once had, which gave her time to come up with "Scary Godmother." "For years people said, 'Why don't you come up with your own thing?'" Thompson said. She'd thought about it for years, but hadn't come up with an idea that she thought had legs. "I could draw interesting things, but there was no meat on the bones in any way," she said, until she thought of "Scary Godmother." The concept was born from finding out she was going to be an aunt, and she wanted to make a book for the baby.
"One day I went, 'Oh my god, this is the thing everyone has been telling me I should be doing,'" Thompson said. So she sought out and eventually found a publisher for the project, Sirius Entertainment. "Scary Godmother" was eventually turned into an animated project by Mainframe Entertainment.
Despite her success in the creator-owned arena, Jill Thompson says she still sends out proposals for other companies' characters. "I still have a lot of ideas for things that are not creator-owned. I send proposals out for things I'd like to do, or I have an idea and think would be fun to work on. I'd just like to be prolific."