By Craig Thompson
Published by Top Shelf Productions
It's not at all unusual for a novel to run 600 pages, except in the world of graphic novels, where such an achievement is rare. Even the works generally agreed upon as the greatest the medium has produced have often been half that size, with Art Spiegelman's Maus telling the harrowing story of the holocaust's effect on his family in 296 pages; Chris Ware was a bit more expansive when he used just under 400 pages in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth to tell an elegant, intricate multi-generational story of quiet despair, but Daniel Clowes managed to deconstruct the lifelong friendship of two American teenagers in less than 90 pages in his masterwork Ghost World.
Until now only Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell challenged the 600-page mark for a single, significant graphic novel, at 572 pages -- but its ambitions include solving the Jack the Ripper murders, exploring how the passionate pursuit of art can strip away our illusions about reality and replace them with a new paradigm of personal power at levels both quantum and universal, and, oh yeah, explaining the underlying elements that ushered in the 20th century.
Lengthy page counts are also somewhat rare for economic reasons. Graphic novels allow a great economy of story by allowing the creator or creators to depict theme and events in both words and pictures, and readers are somewhat accustomed to shorter works. Longer ones challenge both the reader and the publisher financially -- if it's a gamble for the reader to spend 30 dollars on a single graphic novel, it's even more of a risk for publishers, who have to hope that the story will be entertaining and significant enough to justify the higher price point and that the quality of the tale and word of mouth will be sufficient to bring a return on their investment. So it's rare that a graphic novel creator will decide to take hundreds and hundreds of pages to tell his story, and even more rare that a publisher will take the chance of bringing such ambitious works to market.
Which brings us to the massive graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson. This 592 page book is an intimate, at times tentative tale of heartbreak and hope set in a snowy, faraway land known as Wisconsin.
Thompson's previous graphic novel was Good-bye, Chunky Rice, a 128-page parable that used cartoon animals to explore friendship and growing up, and how moving through your life can mean leaving those you love most behind. You'll find Thompson working through many of the same themes in Blankets. Thompson has said that the original incarnation of Good-bye, Chunky Rice was told not with cute little cartoon animals but with real people. It took time and growth as an artist for him to revisit these themes in a more realistic setting, but that's what Blankets does, and it does it very well.
Blankets starts out with a very small image, a single panel depicting Thompson sharing a bed with his brother as a child. It's the beginning of a childhood memory of a troubling incident in which he was locked in a room by his father to put an end to arguments with his brother. Through this and other incidents it's clear that Thompson sees families as flawed collections of people at best, and Blankets shows him overcoming the poor foundation his early life provided, having the courage to reach out to others even as he struggled toward adulthood.
Thompson's childhood, as we see it here, is scarred by terror at the hands of his schoolmates, and worse treatment by his father and other trusted people in his life. We also see him getting in trouble in school for his unique creative impulses, the same ones that he now uses to earn a living, so it's not surprising that he would choose to deal with all these issues in the pages of Blankets. What is surprising, though, is the degree of sensitivity and honesty he brings to the story. The graphic novel paints a convincing portrait of a life with all its minor victories and crushing defeats, and although it has a sweetness to it, Thompson gives it enough narrative strength to mostly avoid superficiality and cliche.
Religion loomed large in Thompson's life as he entered his teenage years and sought refuge from his personal misery with promises of a pain-free afterlife. He says he grew up striving for an eternal world that would wash away his temporary misery, and we see how his religious faith allowed him to tune out his high school tormentors. It also conflicts with his natural creativity, though, leading him to destroy all the artwork he has created as a sort of offering to God that conveniently allows him to burn the memories of a lifetime of abuse, as well. It's a chilling scene, Thompson's personal apocalypse, as he denies his desire to create because of his wish to serve God.
What's left at this point is a conflicted young man who is sent to bible camp, where he meets Raina, a beautiful girl who enters his life with immediacy and beauty, an impact nicely conveyed through visual metaphor as the newly-met couple walks into a full-page snow shower, one of the most striking images in the book.
Thompson takes his time in showing us the romance that develops between himself and Raina, and this is one of the luxuries of the longform nature of the book. A single incident such as stroking Raina's hair while she sleeps deserves the full page it receives, because it's a momentous landmark in his life -- reaching out and touching beauty and not being berated or abused as a result of his quiet, courageous act.
Through the use of flashbacks, Thompson balances and enhances our understanding of his growing love for Raina, contrasting for example his father's displeasure with Craig's nude figure drawing with his growing interest in Raina's clothed form. A visit to Raina and her family, far from his own unhappy home, provides a first-time realization that people can be kind and life can include room for quiet joy and mere happiness. Raina's family isn't perfect either, though -- in fact, her parents are going through a divorce. It's an unsettled time for both of them, as the teenage years are for everyone, but the pair is drawn together as much by their troubled family situations as by their natural attraction.
Ultimately Blankets is Craig Thompson being as forthright as he can about what he learned about growing up and falling in love, and how he developed his own beliefs and philosophies. His story is grounded in humanity and told with great skill and confidence, surprisingly so given the simpler and more tentative approach utilized in Good-bye, Chunky Rice.
Blankets doesn't push the medium's potential forward the way Maus did, and it doesn't challenge the reader's worldview like From Hell. What it does do is set a new standard for longform autobiographical comics work, proving that a graphic novel can be both long and intimate, sprawling and intensely personal. Thompson's voice comes through vividly as he parses out his life story with a skill that is surprising to see from someone so early in their career. Blankets clearly was a massive undertaking for its creator, but one that pays off to the reader in proportion to Thompson's efforts. Grade: 4.5/5
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