The Working Stiff: Jason Thompson talks 'The Stiff' & 'Shonen Jump'

Mon, June 23rd, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Jason Thompson is the editor of the U.S "Shonen Jump" and he's working for a Web site called Girlamatic.com.

You gotta love those manga fans.

CBR News has spoken many times with Thompson about his "Shonen Jump" editing, but he's currently flexing his creative side on Girlamatic.Com each week with a comic called "The Stiff" and as he explains, it incorporates all his major interests. "'The Stiff' is a manga-influenced romantic comedy (in the style of 'Maison Ikkoku,' 'Video Girl Ai,' 'Futaba-kun Change' or 'Love Hina') about Alistair Toth, a high school student, and his relationship with the new transfer student in his class, Alice Hoffmann. It's also a horrendous, gruesome horror story. I like to think of it as a cross between 'Video Girl Ai' and Charles Burns' 'Black Hole.' You can see it online at "www.girlamatic.com" -- new pages are uploaded on Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

Being a series mired in romance, the two leads are of course a male and female, and Thompson explains that his life did inspire them. "Alistair and Alice are the main characters. Alistair is an intelligent, opinionated, extremely inexperienced (in that way he's like your standard male manga character) 16-year-old high school senior. There are several other characters -- such as Jamie, a female friend of Alistair's -- and the story is told from their different perspectives. Many of the characters are based loosely on people I knew in high school or college, although as the story has progressed they've all changed a lot, and generally become unrecognizable (luckily for my relationship with the people they're based on)."

In particular, Alistair is unlike many male teen leads in comics- he isn't full of angst and isn't some kind of horny, sex starved man in waiting. "I've had the idea for 'The Stiff' ever since about 1995, but the plot has mutated drastically. After starting to work at Viz, I gradually became more and more influenced by manga, and I found myself most drawn to the romantic comedy genre, which was something I didn't find in American comics. I love them, but at the same time, from a feminist perspective and a Freudian perspective, I find these series often sick and bizarre (not to mention sexist, of course) -- series like 'Video Girl Ai,' fantasy-fulfillment 'will-they-or-won't-they-get-together' stories where the sexuality is repressed and exploited at the same time. The adolescent angst in 'Evangelion' was also a big inspiration. So "The Stiff" turned into my homage to these kinds of stories. This, plus horror fiction and movies, inspired the comic. As for the inspiration for Alistair, I'd like to leave it a mystery at the moment."

"The Stiff" seems to be a lot about discovering who one is and testing their beliefs, which is only a small part of the subtext woven throughout the series. Thompson explains, "There is a large psychological element, which comes mostly from horror stories. Self-identity and the nature of consciousness -- how we develop into the kind of people we are, and what if any existence this 'identity' really has -- these are interesting subjects to me. Because I plan to live forever, after all (even though I'm an atheist), so I have to make sure that my consciousness doesn't get wiped out when I die. There are also a fair amount of sexual themes, although it's not exactly a pornographic comic. (I'm not particularly interested in being a cheesecake artist so it'll probably disappoint anyone who's looking for that stuff. I'm more interested in the guilt aspect.) The challenge of writing is to work these themes subtly into the comic without having the characters just blurt them out in a melodramatic fashion like the debate team. I want to have a visceral effect on people. When I find myself depressed and scared by the subject matter of 'The Stiff,' I think I'm on the right track."

Unlike many other online comics, "The Stiff" is a pre-planned finite series and Thompson it's simply a matter of economics and quality. "Well, all comics end up being finite series anyway (unless you sell the rights to a huge corporation or your family keeps it going after you're dead) so I think it's better to plan things out that way. I like stories with beginnings and endings; this is one of the things I like most about manga (although many manga are more like TV shows that start out with a pilot episode and then sort of keep going indefinitely 'till everyone gets tired of it). 'The Stiff' was basically conceived as a graphic novel, although I haven't plotted out every detail because it's more interesting to me to write it as I go along."

Thompson also says that working on the web allows him to develop the comic at a more suitable pace and explains that he feels it impacts fans more because of the frequent release schedule. " Lea Hernandez and Joey Manley were nice enough to invite me to do something for 'girlamatic.com' (I suspect my very cool former coworker & 'Narbonic' creator Shaenon Garrity also had something to do with it), and I'm glad I'm doing it as an online comic because it forces me to keep to a schedule and it's constantly under the eyes of readers. I love the idea of telling a really long story, but working on a graphic novel all in one 200-page chunk, or even an issue every few months, is very isolating. So it's good to have reader input while you work, and webcomics provide that -- they give you the opportunity for tension and cliffhangers. I didn't originally design the story for the web, so it's fairly traditional in appearance, but after 'The Stiff' ends, I'd like to do a work that takes more advantage of the web -- maybe something with an interactive element, and definitely something that updates even more frequently."

As for his other job, Thompson says that sales remain great on "Shonen Jump" and the focus is on providing readers with the best value. "The magazine keeps changing with every issue, so if someone hasn't looked at it in awhile I'd recommend that they go back and check it out again. Issue #9 will feature a special bonus insert... (insert drum roll) Also, the number of pages in the magazine will probably increase in the second year."

Speaking of "Shonen Jump," a big announcement recently was that the popular "Rurouni Kenshin" manga would start being published by VIZ- and since the announcement was made in "SJ," many assumed the comic would be published in the magazine. "Viz has the rights to 'Rurouni Kenshin,' but it hasn't been decided whether the manga will be printed in 'Shonen Jump' or direct to graphic novels," reveals Thompson. "There are some other candidates for 'Shonen Jump' too. 'Kenshin' is a great manga, I only wish Viz had published it sooner. (Of course, that's what I'd say about most manga, but we're working as fast as we can!)"

For the fans of "Shonen Jump" who've written in and allowed Thompson to see his work reaping such positive rewards, Thompson can't say enough. "Thanks for reading this! I haven't been so involved in 'Shonen Jump' after issue #6, because I have cut to part-time at Viz in order to work on 'The Stiff.' (I now only edit most of the manga, and the primary editorial decisions are made by the heroic team of Drew Williams, Livia Ching, Josh Simpson and Benjamin Wright.) I'll be at San Diego Comic-Con at the girlamatic booth in the Small Press area. I'm also trying to find the opportunity to release a graphic novel compilation of my older work, my comic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.'"

If you're not sure about checking out "The Stiff" and clicking that link seems like too much effort, Thompson puts forth one last try to bring you to his team. "'The Stiff' is a cross between several different genres. There is the horror aspect; there is the pseudo-autobiographical indy comics aspect (I love the comics of Joe Matt and Ariel Schrag); and there's the manga-influenced aspect. I'd be interested to know what people from these different backgrounds think of it, particularly people who have observed (with fascination) the dark side of the pretty faces and strange situations of romantic comedy manga. It's going to be a long story, and many things won't be revealed for awhile, but I hope people will check it out and stick around. It might seem at first to be a stitched-together Frankensteinian monster, but in fact I think that all the different aspects have congealed into an entirely new form of life."

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