COMICS: John Reviews “Blankets” by Craig Thompson

blankets_01There are critics of the comics medium often react to the term “graphic novel” with scorn and contempt, insisting that the stories lack both the appropriate narrative ‘substance’ and sufficient length to earn the right to use the word “novel.”  Craig Thompson’s critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical graphic novel Blankets challenges both of those notions.  Clocking in at 582 pages, Blankets is both thematically and literally weighty, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up.  It’s a wonderfully illustrated tale of love found and lost, faith bolstered and sundered, and the physically and emotionally turbulent journey from adolescence to adulthood.  Thompson makes his memories of an occasionally traumatic childhood equally nostalgic and haunting, the trials and tribulations of his first romantic relationship both flowery and awkward, and his personal struggle with faith and belief both spiritual and skeptical.  In other words, Blankets is a fantastic work of contrast and balance, interwoven subtly enough to never take you out of the moment.

Some snowy interior art from Blankets

Some snowy interior art from Blankets

If I were to boil down Blankets to its essential theme, I would probably say that it is Thompson’s attempt to describe what it feels like to sleep with someone for the first time (for the record, “sleep with” in this case means sleep beside, not have sex with.)  Thompson draws parallels between the not-at-all-halcyon days when he shared a bed with his younger brother and the first time he slept next to someone he loved in a more grown-up way.  The eponymous blankets act as symbols for all manner of concepts and feelings throughout the story, and act as a bridge to connect the two eras of Thompson’s life.  Thompson remembers more bad memories of his childhood than good ones, including physical and emotional abuse by his parents and unreported sexual assault by his babysitter.  As a very awkward teen, Thompson falls in love with a girl named Raina and shares a brief friendship-turned-romance, one that he unconsciously  sabotages and ultimately ends in heartbreak.  In the aftermath of his failed relationship, Thompson reexamines the roots of his faith and finds that he can no longer convince himself to believe the way he once did.

Since he both wrote and illustrated Blankets, Craig Thompson is able to show his appreciation for balance and contrast in his illustrations as well as in his prose  through generous use of negative space (there really isn’t enough of that in comics these days.  It would just be used to sell ads!)  I’ve never seen snow drawn so beautifully, and I fell in love with every snowy scene (especially those that use the negative space as both the endless snow and a background of pure non-existence.)   Thompson’s art helps you get swept up in the beauty of the moment as easily as one flake among millions in the cold Michigan winter snow.

A colorized image, not included in the published version

A colorized image, not included in the published version

Unfortunately, the book is not a golden bastion of perfection (despite what my flowery praise would suggest.)  Since it is based to some extent on true events, the narrative sometimes lurches along and takes odd turns.  The standard right-leaning bell curve of plot progression is not so clear, and the love story that I thought was the central plot of the book ended abruptly and was left in the dust as the rest of the story ambled slowly to the finish line.
I understand that a lack of any sort of closure in a relationship is realistic, but sometimes realism is not what you want in a love story.
Additionally, the book can at times be very heavy-handed in its indictment of religious zeal.  If you are easily offended by the idea of someone questioning his faith in God and ultimately losing it, you might want to steer clear of Blankets.  His portrayal of the religious figures in his life is less than flattering as well, with both family and clergy members coming off as closed-minded fanatics who cannot fathom the possibility that there might be another, equally valid perspective held by non-Believers.  It’s been a while since I’ve been to a service, but I hope for the sake of churches around the world that the Faith is not quite so cultish in its combination of fervent devotion and willful ignorance.  Then again, perhaps I should take into account the fact that I grew up in the suburbs within commuting distance of New York City, and had been exposed to a more diverse community by age 6 than some people in the midwest ever encounter.
Blankets is certainly an excellent read for anyone who is looking for a novel-length graphic novel, and one of the most deeply personal romance comics I have ever read.  The art is spectacular, and the use of balance in both narrative and visual construction is truly impressive.  It may not be quite worth the hype it received (three Harvey awards and two Eisner awards,)  but it is certainly a credit to the medium and may prove to be another great bridge to cross the Great Demographic Divide and turn ordinary folks into comic fans.

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One Response

  1. I thought this book was excellent. The ending was a bit abrupt, but I read it over and over again, and it hasn’t gotten old. In a way, it sounds like everybody’s teenage experiences. Great review, book gets a 8/10

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