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Year of the Artist, Day 79: Jill Thompson, Part 1 – Elementals #13

02-23-2014 12;18;46PM (2)

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jill Thompson, and the issue is Elementals #13, which was published by Comico and is cover dated April 1987. Enjoy!

This isn’t the earliest comic Jill Thompson ever worked on, but it’s close, so I thought it would be a good place to start our journey through her career. Thompson was 20 years old when this came out, and it’s interesting to check out the way she drew it and some early intimations of her later style, even though she’s doing something else with the art. Here we go!

02-23-2014 12;02;49PM

Up until this issue, almost all the art on Elementals had been done by Bill Willingham (issue #9 was a guest-artist jam), and it’s very clear that on this issue, Thompson was aping Willingham’s style, whether on her own or because Willingham asked her to. Thompson, at this point, wasn’t terribly accomplished, but she was good enough to draw like Willingham, and we see that here – the lines are very clean, with not a lot of heavy inking (Rich Rankin usually inked the comic, but Keith Wilson does it here), and nothing is terribly disproportionate. Like a lot of new artists, Thompson was trying to draw as “realistically” as possible before she developed her own style, so she was very flexible. But bits of “Jill Thompson” break through. In Panel 1, Jeanette’s hair peeks out from underneath her hood, and Thompson makes it curlier than Willingham makes it. Yes, for the most part, Thompson draws Jeanette’s hair straight, but in this panel, it curls lazily out from her hood while over her eyes, it’s inked a bit more heavily, which implies more body. Thompson, who has a wonderful head of red hair, loves drawing red-headed women with big curls, and she sneaks a bit of this into this panel. Down in Panel 5, she and Wilson do some nice hatching on Becky’s hair through the thick glass – the blackness of her hair is tempered by the green glass, and so Thompson/Wilson don’t simply ink the entire mass, but use lines to show the lightening of her hair through the glass. It’s a nice touch.

02-23-2014 12;11;46PM

In later years, Thompson would get very good at horror, and here she gives us a gruesome slaughter of polar bears. The intestine in Panel 1 looks a bit silly – yes, intestines look like that, to a degree, but it doesn’t really look like it was ripped from the bear’s body. It looks like the work of someone who vaguely knows what intestines look like but didn’t study it too much. In other words, a young artist. I do like her facial expressions in Panel 3, as our heroes freak out a little bit because the bears have been ripped to pieces.

02-23-2014 12;14;18PM

This is a nice splash page – the Great Spirit of the Ice has absorbed Becky, which allows it to use water powers, and it knocks the other Elementals on their asses. Whoever placed the word balloon – Thompson or letterer Bob Pinaha – leads us to the spirit’s head, and the sweep of its arms and the way the snow shoots from it leads us back to the other Elementals, giving the scene a nice sense of motion. This is another example of Thompson aping Willingham – Jeanette and Tommy (Monolith) look very much like Willingham’s rendering of them, although it’s hard to draw Monolith any other way, I suppose.

02-23-2014 12;16;47PM

Here’s another small example of Thompson’s own style – such as it is when you’re 20 – sneaking in. Everyone is very “on-model,” but with Jeanette’s hair, we see a bit of the looser style that Thompson would later use. She doesn’t draw every strand of hair, letting it flow a bit more. We can see the same kind of effect with Becky, but because her hair is black (well, green, but with a lot of black), it’s not as obvious. So while Thompson was still drawing very much like Willingham, she wasn’t completely aping him.

02-23-2014 12;18;46PM

As I often do, I have to point out a young artist’s struggles with action. Thompson leads us in Panel 1 from Jeanette’s hands to the spirit, with Jeff’s hands at the top of the panel moving us from a wide angle to a tighter one, and we move easily to Panel 2, where we find Jeanette moving our eyes again from left to right. It’s a nice little pyramid of action. Wilson’s inks on Jeanette’s hands and in her fire adds some crackling darkness to the action, which works well. In Panels 3 and 4, we see some of the problems Thompson had with the action sequences. Jeanette stands stiffly, but that’s not too big a deal. Jeff flies over her, and he’s kind of awkwardly drawn – Thompson is trying to show him somewhat flat, but because she also wants to make sure to get his legs in, he looks oddly bent over. While his hands would naturally be larger because they’re closer to the reader, they look more out of proportion than they should be, so they look overly large. The motion lines are too thick and the white ink around them makes them look like spider webs rather than air, completing the whole odd drawing of Vortex. In Panel 4, we get Jeanette again, and she also looks awkward. Her shoulder are up because, I suppose, the force of her fiery blasts are pushing against her arms, but it’s still somewhat of a stiff drawing. The hatching along her face and on her body, along with the bright coloring, is effective, but the pose just looks odd. The “backwash” from her bursts is a bit odd, too – it circles up to her arms, but then it seems to disappear. It is engulfing her arms, or is it just stopping? These are nitpicks to a certain degree, but it does make the panel look less dynamic than it could. Thompson would, of course, get a lot better at this kind of thing, but here it’s just a function of her youth and inexperience.

Thompson went on to draw a Fathom mini-series right after this (which I don’t own) and some later issues of Elementals, which I do. It’s amazing how much more like “Jill Thompson” those issues of Elementals are – the first one, issue #20, obviously came out less than a year after this one did. But I’m skipping those tomorrow and checking out her early DC work! Won’t that be fun? You know what else is fun? Giving the archives a look!


tom fitzpatrick

March 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm

I actually remember this series.
I’m not entirely sure that this was my first Jill Thompson, but this series was the first time I saw Bill Willingham.

I’m enjoying your series of posts about art for a number of reasons, one of which is the discovery of this unexpected early work by artists I like. I never realized Jill Thompson had worked on “Elementals” and I wouldn’t have known this was her from looking at the art.

That said, now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see elements of her later style in it. :o)

I’m going to dig out the later issues and see what they look like. I’m intrigued now!

“Elementals” was a book I liked, but wanted to like even more. It had some great concepts and some really good stories, but from time to time it would get bogged down in over-long arcs and sub-plots. I have the feeling it never finished either. But I always enjoy leafing through older issues.

tom: I’m not sure if it’s Willingham’s first work, but it’s probably close!

Derek: Yeah, I’m having fun finding stuff that I didn’t realize I had – I own the a lot of Elementals, but haven’t read most of them, and I completely forgot Thompson worked on the series. The first five issues are great (and I wrote about them in Comics You Should Own), but the series went sideways not too long after those issues, and it’s too bad.

Wow, I’ve never seen Jill Thompson art so early in her career. Good stuff even then.

Thanks very much for all your work on this series! I look forward to it every day.

Wattan: Thanks for the nice words. I’m enjoying doing it!

tom fitzpatrick

March 20, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Probably not, I think he did some issues on Green Lantern (either in the late 70’s or early 80’s) before The Elementals. Tho’ I’ve never seen those issues.

Patrick Joseph

March 21, 2014 at 2:21 pm

tom- He did at work on the Tales of GL Corps Annuals that Alan Moore wrote.

The earliest stuff by him I can recall are the ads he did for TSR. They popped up in places like Epic Illustrated in the very early 80s. He also did art for the D&D reference books and possible modules.

I had no memory of Jill Thompson doing any work on Elementals, even though I had the first 13-20 issues, and the Fathom series. It’s been 25 years since I read that stuff though. It’s interesting to see bits of her style mixed in with attempts at following Willingham’s lead.

Yeah, Willingham did modules as well as the hardcover and softcover rule books for D&D. He also did some stuff for the Villains & Vigilantes RPG as well (along with Jeff Dee, who later drew the V&V comic for Eclipse, and Patrick Zircher, of recent Aquaman issues). Off the top of my head, I think Justice Machine Annual #1 by Texas Comics was his first comics work. He did the backup Elementals story, which was their first appearance that was supposed to lead into a Texas Comics Elementals series. But then the company folded and Elementals (and later, Justice Machine) went to Comico. Also, Willingham’s writing partner on early Elementals issues was Jack Herman, who co-created the V&V game.

Oh, and to tie it all back to Jill Thompson, she also did art for Villains & Vigilantes books, including a cover for an adventure module. So, I assume that’s where this group all met. In fact, V&V had a very robust group of artists that either worked in or would go on to regular comics work (Thompson, Willingham, Zircher, Jeff Dee, Bill Reinhold, Dan and David Day, Don Heck, Chris Marrinan, Dan Panosian, Will Meugniot, Matt Wagner). Maybe a future article on comic artists who did RPG work would be interesting?

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