Blankets: An Illustrated Novel

By Craig Thompson

Top Shelf Productions, 2003, ISBN 1891830430; 592 Pages, Paperback $29.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Ismo Santala

Cartoonist Craig Thompson follows his well-received debut graphic novel Good-bye, Chunky Rice (1999) with Blankets, a 600-page coming-of-age story told with subtle beauty and brimming with artistic innovation. Growing up in a small town in rural Wisconsin with his brother Phil and their fundamentalist Christian parents, young Craig tries to negotiate his way through a landscape in which roadside billboards proclaim “Jesus is the only fire insurance.” Featuring a smiling picture of Christ in a fire helmet, the image is a permanent fixture in Craig’s physical and mental landscape.
Indeed, the reality of Craig’s childhood and youth is made out of permanent fixtures: fixed words, truths, and actions. At the church’s annual Bible Camp, one of the enthusiastic instructors addresses the teenagers: “We’re talking about God here. Move over, He-Man, Jesus is the real Master of the Universe!” and gets a laugh out of his audience. As the rest of the assembly hall are “rocking out for Jesus,” Craig formulates his thoughts:

It was nearly impossible for me to accept that a group of people could adhere to the same belief, to be one in heart and mind, much less join together in a constructive goal. The personal Savior concept of Christianity is what appealed to me, the Good Shepherd neglecting the herd to search for the lonely, lost lamb...not this mass mentality.

It is at one such winter camp, however, that Craig meets a girl named Raina. Afterwards they start sending each other letters and gifts, assorted “sweet high school nothings.” By stretching the truth a little, Craig attains his parents’ approval to spend two weeks at Raina’s Michigan home (he wisely withheld the fact that her good Christian parents are planning a divorce).
Such material does not lend itself to a story overtly concerned with plot – in fact, Thompson has remarked that he wanted to write “a really long book where nothing happens, structured along an emotional experience.” Instead of plot, the dramatic tension in Blankets lies between the simplicity of its storyline and the means of its expression, its elaborate form. This form is achieved by Thompson’s black-and-white line work; clear and lively with a brilliant sense of perspective and composition, it consistently underscores both the clarity and ultimate hopefulness of the story. Thompson weaves visual motifs in and out of his narrative with a natural sense of rhythm: the snow, the leafless trees, the beds and blankets are all rich with symbolic meaning, yet due to the nature of the comic book medium, they never appear trite or heavy-handed (the barren trees, for example, are just images, not descriptive prose).

The capacity to seamlessly fuse an array of visual approaches is one of the many strengths of comic books, and Thompson takes great advantage of his medium. He applies a rich artistic vocabulary to illuminate the inner lives of his characters, and while his story is utterly unrealistic, his skillful use of formal devices adds a welcome layer of otherworldliness to the tale. Nearly all of the adult authority figures appear as giants, their bulky frames about to smash through the panel borders. His main characters are drawn in slightly differing styles – Craig’s nose is cartoonishly angular, whereas Raina’s facial features are made out of soft curves – and yet everything functions together in harmony. Among the most fascinating of his tropes are the angelic and demonic creatures of Craig’s vivid imagination. When Craig and Raina are about to sleep next to each other for the first time, she appears before him shimmering and accompanied by a group of angels. The feelings of remorse and fear Craig has associated with religion for most of his life are pushed aside, and words from the Song of Solomon (4:7,9) come to him:

All beautiful you are,
my darling; there is
no flaw in you.
You have stolen my heart,
my sister, my bride;
You have stolen my heart
with one glance
of your eyes.

It is a testimony to Thompson’s skill as a storyteller that when Craig walks into Raina’s room for the first time, the reader feels a bit disoriented – her walls are covered from floor to ceiling with posters of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, of early Björk and PJ Harvey. Although from the very beginning, Thompson has been quite specific about time and place (when the brothers where little, they slept in Batman and Spider-Man shirts; the high school jocks wear Nike), it is Raina’s mass of posters, the fragile reminders of actual linear time, that make the reader pause and reflect upon the timeless – but in no way less real – space conjured by the preceding chapters.
Blankets is an attempt to rejuvenate such well-trod themes as social isolation, religious guilt, and first love; the vitality of which has become too frequently obscured by countless hackneyed dramas and endless clichés. Toward the very end of this “illustrated novel,” Craig notes, while walking in snow, how “satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface.” In Blankets, Thompson does just this: through daring leaps of visual storytelling, he makes wonderfully fresh marks upon a surface long worn blank.

–Ismo Santala
18 November 2003

Additional Information

Doot Doot Garden – Craig Thompson’s whimiscally ingenious Web site holds a brief biography and an interesting portfolio, as well as information about his two major works.

Top Shelf Productions – The publisher’s comprehensive and engaging site introduces their roster of talented artists.

Contact

Email Ismo Santala at: ismo.santala@uta.fi

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.