Conversation: Craig Thompson and Jonathan Lethem

Photo: Andy Friedman

Jonathan Lethem’s upcoming story collection, Men and Cartoons (November; Doubleday), is—like his 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude—a series of nostalgic love letters to comics, tinged with the losses of adulthood. Craig Thompson has just followed up his graphic-novel epic, Blankets, with a modest European travelogue, Carnet de Voyage (September; Top Shelf). They talked with Boris Kachka about their verbal and visual obsessions.

Jonathan, many of your new stories are about getting over superhero worship. Craig, were you ever into superheroes?

Craig Thompson: I definitely had a phase, but it was pretty short-lived. I was into Cracked magazine, Mad, funny and cutesy Harvey comics. Even the Marvel line of Star comics—awful commercial properties for kids.
Jonathan Lethem: What’s striking for me is how much our culture as a whole has a superhero hangover. I’m not writing so much about guys my age who adored comic books as a world where, whether it’s Kiss, the rock band, as superhero or …
C.T.: Or Jesus?
J.L.: Or Jesus the superhero, it’s a way of not completely reckoning with the reality of male human adulthood—a kind of wish fulfillment. What strikes me is that the contradiction inherent in the superhero is such a vibrant metaphor for adolescence—wanting to be famous and adored and at the same time to be invisible and different.
C.T.: Keep the integrity of the oppressed.

What do you think of Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers?

J.L.: It’s quite brilliant—Spiegelman at the top of his game. And for a New Yorker, it is very intimate. It’s also this beautiful vicarious expression of anger. You just feel he’s extremely open with his rage and bewilderment and fear.

He’s become such a granddaddy of the comics world. Why?

C.T.: Maus is the most important graphic novel out there. It’s more than just the subject matter of the Holocaust. It’s the real vulnerable personal aspect of it all. That book wouldn’t work without this conversation, this engagement with his father.
J.L.: Well, my first hero was R. Crumb, who’s kind of the Philip Roth of comics. He’s angry and expulsive and tries to tell magical stories but always comes back to a confessional impulse. Is there something about the form that lends itself to confession?
C.T.: I certainly think the medium is better suited to personal stories than to action-packed science fiction.

Conversation: Craig Thompson and Jonathan Lethem