Chicago artist Jill Thompson talks Scary Godmother comics | Interview

We chatted with Chicago artist Jill Thompson two Halloweens ago about her Scary Godmother comics and picture books. The beloved series has an affectionate cult following, and it inspired a Canadian animated special, the Scary Godmother Halloween Spooktacular, which has become a perennial October fave on Cartoon Network (check your local listings). With All Hallow's Eve upon us, we decided to revisit our 2010 chat with the Andersonville-based creator.

Fall is Chicago author-artist Jill Thompson’s favorite time of year; Halloween, her favorite holiday. She painted those passions into her most celebrated creation: Scary Godmother, a fun-loving series of children’s books from the late 1990s celebrating everything spooky. The name is, of course, a playful riff on “fairy godmother”—in the Fright Side, a world where the titular witch lives with other Halloween creatures, all the monsters are actually friendly. Unavailable for several years (despite two popular animated Halloween specials that air on Cartoon Network), Thompson’s four books have now returned to print in a single, handsome hardcover collection (Dark Horse Comics, 192 pages, $25).

The award-winning illustrator’s newest work is 24 pages of moody watercolors for Hellboy/Beasts of Burden. It’s the latest in her ongoing collaboration with writer Evan Dorkin—part of an occasional series about a pack of clever dogs and cats who investigate paranormal mysteries. This installment takes a quirky twist by partnering the pets with the well-known horned hero Hellboy, the star of his own comics (plus two Hollywood films).

Something like Lassie meets Twin Peaks, Beasts of Burden depicts the creepy adventures of loyal pets who sneak out to battle the ghouls that quietly haunt the town of Burden Hill. There’s real danger and consequences in the stories, including death, making them most suitable for ages ten and up. Meanwhile, the bat-winged Scary Godmother is more geared to younger readers. Both have earned Thompson multiple Eisner Awards—the comic-book industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzers.

Thompson says she doesn’t like to slap a recommended age on her work because she feels kids have different tastes and levels of maturity. Regarding Beasts, “If my [14-year-old] niece is reading Twilight or watching the WB, she should be able to digest a comic with mature themes.”

The spark that became Scary Godmother was lit when that niece, Hannah, was born. (The young protagonist in the books is named for her.) “I wanted to make comics that I can enjoy at my age, but still be able to hand them over to kids,” she says.

Thompson’s dad started buying comics for her when she was a girl—first Archie, then superhero stories. “That was like my crack,” she says. “What did I have in my little nerd-girl schoolbag? Spider-Man, X-Men, Conan the Barbarian. I was a Marvel zombie for a while.”

She was equally enamored with drawing, and eventually the two interests naturally meshed. After graduating from the American Academy of Art, she began pursuing a comic-book career, breaking into big leagues with a stint drawing for DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, followed by a collaboration with Neil Gaiman on his acclaimed Sandman comic in the early 1990s. But her biggest professional milestone was striking out on her own in 1997, writing and drawing Scary Godmother.

Thompson even dresses like her every Halloween. It makes perfect sense: Scary’s visage, with lush red tresses and an elongated face, is a cartoon version of Thompson’s own. “It’s my default costume,” she admits with a grin.

Dark Horse Comics' Scary Godmother collection can be downloaded digitally for $13. If you miss the Spooktacular on Cartoon Network, you can catch some of it online.