Horror is High School: Al Schroeder Interviews Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson has been delighting and horrifying webcomics readers for years, but perhaps his most memorable creation is The Stiff, currently running on Girlamatic, a disturbing story that straddles horror, teenage angst, teenage romance, but remains uniquely its own mix. Jason's mix of horror and high school seemed especially appropriate for an interview in the month of Halloween.

Tell us something about yourself that isn't generally known….

I used to take a lot of theater and film classes in college, and I applied for a graduate program in Screenwriting, but then I decided not to do it.

When were you first bitten with the bug to create?

I've been drawing and writing as long as I can remember. When I was in high school I moved away from art and wanted to be an author, so I didn't seriously consider drawing comics until I was in college, when a friend loaned me a bunch of Zot!, Sandman, Swamp Thing, Bratpack, Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, and a bunch of other good American comics of the 80s and 90s. He introduced me to the whole possibility of self-publishing. At the same time, through a different circle of friends, I discovered manga and anime.

I can tell some of the writers who have influenced you – you did a webcomic version of Lovecraft's Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath and of Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea and one of Alistair Toth's classmates is named Shirley Jackson – but I'm doubtless missing many more. Who influenced your writing/storytelling style?

I love horror novels, and particularly I'm a huge fan of the author Ramsey Campbell. His writing is just so brilliantly packed with suggestive moments and double meanings – he doesn't waste a sentence. I also love manga; I like to observe the storytelling style of long story manga, whether shojo or shonen or whatever. I liked the structure of Neon Genesis Evangelion (the anime series). I was inspired by autobiographical/confessional comic artists like Joe Matt and Ariel Schrag. There might be a bit of Alan Moore's From Hell in my layout and plotting, because it's one of the only examples of a really long horror novel in comics form. There's also Charles Burns' Black Hole, which is even closer to The Stiff theme-wise, though I've tried my best to differentiate it.

Again, I can make some guesses at who influenced your drawing style….I keep on wanting to read "Alex Toth" instead of "Alistair Toth" when it comes to your main character – but I'm probably missing many more. Who influenced your art style?

Actually, the Alex-Alistair thing was unintentional, but you're not the first person to ask. My favorite artists for the last few years have been manga artists, and my favorite manga artists overall are Kazuo Umezu and Hirohiko Araki. I also like the character designs of Masakazu Katsura and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. It's hard for me to think of specific American and European artists who have influenced me as much. When I was in high school and before, I mostly liked artists with really detailed styles, like Kevin O'Neill, Dave Gibbons and Herge, or science-fiction and fantasy illustrators like Erol Otus and Richard Corben. And also newspaper-strip artists. My art style at the moment is sort of a tug-of-war between the manga-ish desire to draw things fairly quickly and breezily, and my original desire to spend hours drawing every little detail. I'm kind of caught in the same trap (if it is a trap) as a lot of manga-influenced artists my age: I obviously like manga, but that wasn't the first art style I grew up with, so it's like a house that's built on the foundations of an earlier structure. I'd like to make it a more seamless fusion.

You have a huge cast to play around with – obviously the story centers around Alistair, but there are many more – I personally like Jamie best, the plump bisexual friend of Alistair – so who's your favorite character in The Stiff?

It's hard to say. By the end of each chapter I'm looking forward to switching to the perspective of another character. I like both Jamie and Dan a lot.

It's refreshing to have a male protagonist who isn't horny and sex-obsessed, but it's a little creepy, too. It's as if the scariest thing you'll ever encounter is high school – and whether to embrace or deny the changes going through your body at that time. What do you see as the main themes in The Stiff?

Age, sex, change and escapism.

Alice Hoffman is supposedly your other "main" character, but in many ways she remains a mystery to me – and to Alistair too. She seems almost a sex-reversed doppelganger of his. Anything you can tell us further about her, or is discovering what's behind her mystery the whole point of the remaining part of the book?

I'd rather not say too much, but her name is based on the 18th-19th century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. I later discovered that there's a modern author named Alice Hoffmann, but it's just a coincidence.

Why did you decide to do this on the Web? What's your favorite part about being able to put this out on the Web – and the most frustrating?

The best part and the worst part are the same – being able to change things whenever I want, to go back and fiddle with old pages and make them better. I've done this with almost every chapter, and it's extremely satisfying, but it also eats up time that I could be using to draw more new pages. Also, the story's B&W print origins are pretty obvious (I had already drawn the first chapter when I decided to put it online), which is probably a weakness for a webcomic. Maybe someday I'll do a webcomic which takes more advantage of the format.

How long do you think The Stiff will run? How far have we gotten in the story?

I've plotted it out chapter by chapter, and it'll probably be about 1,000 pages. So there's a LOT to go. I hope I can draw faster.

What other projects do you have planned that you can tell us about?

I'm working on an environmental-themed comic, and also on some adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft short stories, which will go online between Chapters 5 and 6 of The Stiff. And if people like it, I might do more of my webcomicsnation comic King of RPGs.