An Interview with Minions Artist Jason Thompson
As artists, we are always learning from each other and JasonThompson’s career is filled with many unique turns that led him to where he is today. And more interestingly, it’s always fun to hear about artists switching gears from comics to film or vice versa, so I thought it would be fun and educational to talk with Thompson about his career and how he got into comics and film. It’s a multi pathed journey that will be of interest to any artist, let alone story artists.
Thompson, as he’s affectionately known among our friends, recently crossed over into animation as a Story Artist to work on the upcoming, Minions: The Rise of Gru, from Illumination Entertainment.
Originally from Northern California, Jason graduated in 1995 from UC San Diego with a degree in English. After college, he quickly found a job as an editor. In 1996, he landed his second editorial job, at Viz media, the American manga publishing house. His previous experience and actual degree in English helped him land the highly sought after job at the comics publisher.
While Thompson minored in art at UCSD, he didn’t pursue it as a career until this point.
Living in San Francisco with roommates and working at Viz gave him the financial opportunity to make his own art and furthered his growing interest in comics. He started dedicating 3 hours on weekdays and 8 hours a day on the weekends to making his own comics. He saved up a little money and with the knowledge he gained from working at Viz, found a reputable printer for his first book, “Dream-Quest”.
One of the things that really stood out to me while interviewing Thompson was his dedication to the craft.
We all sacrifice for our art, but it was interesting to hear that after all these years, he still remembers his rigid schedule for getting time to draw, something we preach here on the daily.
“Dream-Quest” was his first published comic, featuring his signature “Mock men” characters, inspired by the Mock Turtle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and his insecurities in drawing the human figure. As you can see in the example below, Thompson has nothing to be insecure about with his art. While the figures are simple, the overall art is rich with design and detail.
Thompson continued working at Viz, moving up in the editorial department and helped to usher in “Shonen Jump Magazine”. His next big personal project was the unfinished web comic, “The Stiff”, published weekly on the now defunct Girlamatic website, which was a premiere site for upcoming female (and a few guys!) indie comic artists.
While working on “Shonen Jump Magazine”, Thompson was burning out at Viz and wanted to do more of his own work. While in a meeting for Shonen Jump Magazine, one of the Japanese editors asked Thompson,
“Tell me… did you ever want to draw comics when you were a boy?”
That made him rethink things and realize he still wanted to make comics and eventually led him to quit Viz all together.
When Random House was looking for someone to author, “Manga: The Complete Guide”, Thompson, took the opportunity. “Manga: The Complete Guide” was a success, garnering a 2008 Eisner nomination for “Best Comics-Related Book”!
As we talk a lot about here at StoryboardArt, networking was huge for gaining traction in Thompson’s career. Thanks to an old Viz co worker, Dallas Middaugh, when Random House was looking for someone to author “Manga: The Complete Guide”, Dallas remembered Thompson had pitched a similar idea when they were both still working for Viz.
Good hustle and networking is a testament to Thompson’s character and something he was able to translate to later success. All young artists (and people in general) should think of their future opportunities, in regard to maintaining a network. Those you know today can land you a job in the future!
After the success of “Manga: The Complete Guide”, Random House published Thompson’s next 2 books, King of RPGs in 2010.
Next in his sequential art and writing journey, Thompson wrote and drew layouts for Victor Hao, the artist on the book King of RPGs. Thompson enjoyed creating layouts for Hao and this help hone his diligent work ethic even more.
Although he was landing better gigs, most of his advance payment on the book went to the book artist Hao as a page rate. They produced 2 volumes together.
Thompson moved to Seattle in 2010 to be with his fiancé and later, wife, Jumana Al Hashal. In Seattle, he continued to make indie comics and work as a freelancer, not letting the move distract his work in the least.
While in Seattle, he applied for a cartoonist job at Wizards of the Coast and got the job based on the fact that his work was different from everything else that was turned in. He drew an online comic for the Dungeons & Dragons company, called “The Keep on 16th and Valencia”.
Thompson also started making large “map” illustrations, partially inspired by the newspaper comic strip “The Family Circus”, where little Billy would run around his neighborhood or house, leaving a dotted path of mischief behind him.
Around this time and even before 2010, two interesting things were coming together, Kickstarter and tabletop games, another long time love / addiction of Thompson’s. Today there continues to be a strong resurgence in tabletop gaming and Kickstarter continues to be a leader in funding for them.
Thompson’s love for gaming led him to successfully Kickstart his first board game, Mangaka, which he co created with the help of his wife, Jumana Al Hashal, around 2011 and finally released in 2017.
Thompson’s commitment is another thing that should be noted and emulated. It took him 6 years(!) to carry out his vision and produce “Mangaka”. Even though he was already successful in several other venues of art, he didn’t let it stop him from trying something completely new to him. As a matter of fact, having built an audience over the years helped his Kickstarter succeed.
Thompson described the board game market as even harder to break into than the comic market, because the market is so glutted with games.
That didn’t stop Thompson and Al Hashal from doing it all over again with their current game, Cartooner. Mangaka, and it’s follow up Cartooner are a storyteller’s dream board game, described as “Pictionary for comics”.
Thompson’s D&D work eventually got the attention of Minions director Kyle Balda, who also happened to be a D&D fan. Balda contacted and hired Thompson early on in the production as a Story Artist in 2017. Balda was impressed with the art style and wit Thompson brought to his work.
As a Story Artist, Thompson did early concept work and beat boards, everything from napkin sketches to final beatboards which were then handed off to other story artists to flesh out.
Thompson describes his work on “Minions: The Rise of Gru” as “visual brainstorming” or “spitballing ideas”. It’s some of the more mentally challenging art he’s created to date, comparing the difficulty of coming up with story ideas, jokes and gags, far more difficult than inking comics, where he can let his mind drift, or just listen to podcasts. This type of idea creation required the full focus of his attention.
The best part of working on Minions was that it was a remote virtual production. Thompson worked from his home studio in San Francisco, when he moved back to the Bay Area a few years ago. Again, moving locations never slowed his career down at all. Working remotely, he would meet online with the director and other Illumination staff like Brad Ableson, Co-Director of “Minions: The Rise of Gru”, Liz Malpelli, Story Production Supervisor at Illumination, and Jed Diffenderfer, Story Artist and Director of shorts, to go over what’s been done and receive new assignments for the week.
Thompson worked on Minion from around September 2017 to April 2019 and reflects back on his recent Story Artist job as a very fun challenge and opportunity.
Today, Thompson continues making comics, still works for D&D on their online magazine, Dragon+ and continues to create new games, like his upcoming role playing game (RPG), “Dreamland” while promoting “Cartooner”.
I’m happy to say Thompson’s always pushed himself to do more, something we should all strive for in our art, no matter what level we are at or what medium and genre you explore.
Thompson’s journey from Indie Comic Artist to Story Artist on a major studio franchise is a career well deserved and one we can all learn from.
Some key takeaways from Thompson would be to:
- Commit to your craft, like he did with the long journey to produce his board games, or the dedication he exemplified when making time on the side to work on comics.
- Keep your options open, whether it’s comics, board games, storyboarding or anything else, don’t limit or pigeon hole yourself!
- Build that network of like minded individuals. In this interview, we saw a number of examples where Thompson’s good reputation helped him land jobs. Always keep that positive attitude, you never know when it’ll save you.
- Follow your interests. Looking at Thompson’s work, you can quickly tell, he likes Manga, Cthulhu stuff, and D&D. Make your interests work for you. There’s an audience out there!
You can check out more of his work at http://mockman.com/
So remember to Keep drawing and Board on!
PS. That’s a long art journey to go over! Let us know if you have anymore questions about Jason Thompson’s career or questions about how he did what he did or if you have any questions about your own journey. We are here to help!