Carnet de Voyage
By Craig Thompson
224 pages, B/W, $14.95
ISBN: 1891830600
Published by Top Shelf Productions

When a glorified sketchbook is a more compelling graphic novel than three-fourths of the official output that comes down the old funnybook transom, you know you've got a true talent on your hands. Such is the case with Craig Thompson, the immensely driven cartoonist whose Blankets was one of the finest -- and most controversial -- books of 2003. Carnet de Voyage was intended as more of a diary-keeping exercise, research repository, and stop-gap measure rolled into one than as a book in itself, but this beautiful and substantial travelogue, documenting Thompson's promotional trip to Europe and research trip to Morocco in the spring of this year, paints a compelling portrait of the artist as a successful, if lonely, young man. And it too is one of the books of the year.

What's most notable about Carnet from an artistic perspective is that it takes him even farther away from the smooth, cartoony style of his debut book, Goodbye, Chunky Rice, than did Blankets. I think this is a welcome development: Anyone who has seen the portraits or sketchbook pages that have been published knows that Thompson's strongest work comes in amid their dense, swooping lines and suggestive casualness. Gone too are the snow-draped vistas of Blankets, replaced with a riot of rooftops and busy marketplaces that both evokes the benign chaos of North Africa and the urban capitals of Europe and meshes perfectly with Thompson's sketchbook style.

Created on the run during Thompson's travels and produced under a tight publisher-mandated deadline, there's little time for forethought in preparing any sort of narrative flow -- hell, at one point Thompson is forced to switch from brush pens to felt-tips because he leaves his drawing materials behind. There are, therefore, the occasional tics whose repetition grates. How many times do we need to see Moroccan huckster try to rip Craig off, for example? And must he keep apologizing for being American, especially considering almost no one is giving him a hard time about it but himself?

But it's the mounting frustration of life on the road (to use the rock-and-roll cliché) that forms the spine of the book. Thompson, a sensitive soul predisposed to flights of melancholy (as any reader of his other works could likely tell you), takes his trip during a uniquely difficult time in his life. The girlfriend who provided the inspiration for both Chunky Rice and, in a less direct way, Blankets, has left him, and on top of this she's gravely ill. His near-pathological commitment to drawing has left his hand crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that's not only painful but career-threatening. Digestive problems, insomnia, a sprained ankle, discomfort with the commerce end of the comics business, and feeling that he's God's lonely man also dog him throughout his travels. His only comfort, surrounded by strange sights, is to draw the simple thing he enjoys back home -- trees, cats, pretty girls. But even this is just more cause for self-criticism. What kind of traveler am I, he asks, if I'm drawing stuff I could just as easily find back in Portland. "Wherever you go, there you are," he quotes, and unhappily at that.

It's not until the final segment of the book -- his visit to Barcelona for a comics convention -- that Thompson shakes free of the physical and emotional maladies that plague him. Thompson clearly thrives when he's around other cartoonists, many of whom (Blutch, Lewis Trondheim, Charles Burns, Mike Allred, Charles Berberian) add guest drawings into Thompson's sketchbook. Though Thompson never articulates this, it seems that he finds their comfort with their own success (both artistically and financially) an inspiration. And it's sometimes a rather direct inspiration at that -- his art definitely gets more Blutch-y when he's around Blutch, and after Allred contributes a hilarious portrait of Thompson (all wide eyes, jug ears, and interlocking fingers), a portrait by Thompson several pages later displays an unmistakable Atomic-Pop edge.

These cartoonists aren't the only artists whose work feeds Thompson's. In the architecture of Gaudi Thompson finds a kindred spirit, one of swirling, overwhelming forms. Erupting in splash page after splash page, Thompson's infatuation with Gaudi's work creates a palpable sense of exhilaration in the reader after so much clutter and discomfort during the rest of the journey.

The freeing impact of Sagrada Familia is rivaled only by -- you guessed it -- a woman. Hillevi, a Swede who lives in Barcelona and impresses Craig with her simply expressed lust for life, is the first person in months with whom Craig establishes intimacy (of any kind, really); again, a series of splash pages bring home the joy Thompson feels in this new relationship. But she also offers Thompson a bluntly direct assessment of his personality: "You have so many layers," she says, "that you can peel away a few, and everyone's so shocked or impressed that you're baring your soul, while to you it's nothing, because you know you've twenty more layers to go."

Critics of that tendency of Thompson's will surely find as much to pick apart here as they did in Blankets. There's that same tendency to idolize women without directly addressing the needs of human sexuality -- needs that get sublimated, once again, into a delightfully dopey fixation on scatology. (There's a diarrhea scene here that rivals the piss fight in Blankets for its awesomely funny and dynamic depiction of potty humor.) There's the same super-sensitive posturing, undercut this time around by a little critter who occasionally pops up to say things like "cliché" or "ooh! so sad!" And yes, there's his nose, which has gone from a sort of block of wood attached to his face to an even cruder and more rudimentary pointy triangle. Not since Dick Tracy has comics seen a nose that could be as efficiently used as a lethal weapon.

But Thompson is as keen a critic of his own excesses as anybody. The three-page sequence that ends the book shows him to be nearly crippled by his showy displays of emotion. He doesn't want to print his sketchbook for publication because he doesn't want be responsible for killing trees (one of which he quite literally hugs). Hillevi, a cat, and the ill-fated tree are all showered with gut-wrenching, and confusing, cries of "I love you!" So too is Thompson's ex, shown alone in a pool of water as Thompson curls up into his phone, his hands gnarled with arthritis and overuse, as is his heart. Carnet de Voyage is a trip with an artist whose greatest gift and greatest fault is his ability to feel too much. I sincerely hope he keeps on chronicling his journeys.

-- Sean Collins

Sean Collins blogs regularly at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.

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