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Powells.com
Saturday, August 23rd, 2003


 

Blankets: An Illustrated Novel

by Craig Thompson

A review by Chris Bolton

There are a few graphic novels that I show to people who think comix are "funny books for kids": Maus by Art Spiegelman, a volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (usually Season of Mists or the stand-alone Death books), and if they're fond of depressing but beautiful material, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware. But for the most part, such conversion attempts are futile. Either you appreciate comix or you don't; if the commingling of the written word and a static image doesn't strike your fancy, then it's unlikely that even the finest works of comic art will sway your opinion.

Craig Thompson's graphic novel Blankets is not a book to waste on conversion attempts. It's a treasure trove of image and word, to be savored by those in the know and neglected by those who won't appreciate its brilliance and beauty. Its length — nearly 600 pages — may seem daunting, but the pages whip effortlessly past: I read it in one night, virtually in one sitting, from about midnight to 3 a.m. It's a fast read, but Blankets is worth revisiting, if only to luxuriate in its astonishing imagery and pick up all the details you missed the first time when you were too eager to find out what happens next. Thompson's layouts are intricate and organic; instead of the rigid six- or eight-panel pages of standard comics, he varies the shape, size, even the borders of his panels, frequently achieving a collage-like effect that would simply be impossible in any other medium. Like the best comix stories, Blankets emphasizes the medium's exclusive strengths. Thompson's illustrations pack more beauty and power than much prose or poetry, and the frozen images allow the reader's gaze to linger, to examine, to climb inside the picture in ways that film cannot.

Blankets isn't simply a pretty picture book, however. Thompson's autobiographical story involves you in its characters from the first panel, in which two young boys endure the familiar agony of sharing a bed with a sibling. The conflicts between Craig and his younger brother, Phil, are hilarious and poignant, and immediately emphasize the advantages of the comix medium over prose or film. Thompson's visual style exaggerates the near-cartoony aspect of the childhood battles, then segues into realism as Craig enters adolescence. When the teenage outcast Craig, struggling to reconcile his artistic leanings with his devotion to religion, meets the similarly alienated Raina at a church camp, both are instantly smitten and begin a long-distance courtship. Finally Craig gets the chance to stay with Raina and her family. As Craig and Raina grow closer, their worlds opening to new possibilities, Thompson's illustrations engage in artistic flights that border on the fantastical, employing imagery that is sometimes metaphorical (dramatizing Craig's feelings, for instance, when he and Raina are depicted as wading precariously in uncharted waters, or floating in the air together above their surroundings) while at other times emphasizing the intimacy of the couple through a heightened montage style that blends the physical connection of Craig and Raina with the snowfall outside (it's nearly impossible to describe but astonishing to behold).

The narrative is every bit as strong as the art that propels it. Thompson's dialogue is spare but effective, and while the expression of teenagers' feelings can veer dangerously close to maudlin, Thompson manages to convey that emotional fervor in a sympathetic and engrossing style. I was reminded of the astonishment of first love, when any expression seems inadequate and yet one strives to convey these rampant feelings through art, bad poetry, letters, mixed tapes, etc. Despite one's cynicism, Thompson manages to draw the reader in with his fluid lines and raw sentiment. When an artistic rendering of Craig and Raina is painted over toward the end of the book, the sense of loss at the death of romantic innocence is palpable and stirring.

The two storylines are thematically linked by blankets: the blanket Craig and his younger brother were forced to share, and the blanket under which the older Craig and Raina find safety and intimacy. Along the way Thompson manages to touch on universal feelings of love, idealization, alienation, disillusionment, and regret; at every turn the images keep pace with his words, transforming a simple story into something elemental. Words cannot do it justice. One page after the next opens to wondrous images, and the feelings behind them are sincere and overpowering. I would be unlikely to share Blankets with someone who told me they wanted to understand comix. Instead, I would give it to anyone who told me they wanted to read a book that made them feel transcendent, sad, generous, hopeful — but above all, to truly feel something.


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