At 582 pages, Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets is a weighty beast of a graphic novel. My haptic sense was daunted upon first discovering it, the contents of it’s smooth pages as yet unstriated by my eyes. Blankets was given to me by my amazing principal supervisor to read around a year ago, and I think I must have finished it in the course of an evening (reading very late into the night!) Thompson tells his story with such conviction and sincerity that I found myself experiencing through shared memory the emotions of his character. This book truly resonates. Thompson proves with Blankets the incredible power of the sequential art narrative medium when wielded by a highly skilled practitioner of the craft.
I have chosen to review Blankets in the hopes of gaining a greater understanding of how the text works so effectively. In addition to re-reading the book critically, I will be copying his art style with the intention of picking up a few of Thompson’s ‘tricks’. As I have found, seemingly simple art styles usually have a solid foundation of drawing ability.
What looks basic is often incredibly complicated in construction and form, it takes a master to pare a drawing back to its essentials. Expressive line work, gestural figure work, emotive characters; these are the tools of the superior storyteller. Combined with a deeply personal and engaging storyline, Blankets truly glows. This is the sort of story I aspire to producing myself.
Blankets is the story of Thompson growing up in a middle working class family with deep religious underpinnings. His mother is, according to one of his many bullies, “so religious it makes everyone in town sick” (p.21).
Thompson lives with his parents and little brother, with whom he shares a bed for much of his childhood. Thompson is often bullied and taunted and he finds escape in exploring the outdoors with his brother, and in drawing. He later turns to God with the encouragement of his church and meditates on religious ideology as a means of solace. In his teens he meets a girl named Raina at church camp and the two take to each other instantly. They initiate a relationship of letters, telephone calls and “perfumed packages overflowing with flowers and poems, tape-recorded love songs, and sweet high school nothings” (p.145).
Craig is invited to spend time with Raina’s family over the school break and manages to convince his mother to allow him two weeks, with the reassurance that they are a Christian family. Raina’s parents in reality are not the god fearing zealots that Craig’s parents are; they are in the midst of a divorce; their family structure is vastly different to Craig’s. Raina has an older biological sister, Julie, with a husband and child of her own, and two adopted siblings, Ben and Laura, who both suffer forms of retardation. Raina’s mother is shown popping pills every night, and her father is only there briefly each evening. Craig experiences feelings of contradiction between his feelings for Raina and his religious teachings; after spending the night sleeping next to Raina he muses “Perhaps… I should be apologizing– praying for forgiveness. Perhaps I should feel guilty…” (p.313)
Eventually their two weeks is over and Craig is sent home; in time they drift apart and break up. Craig experiences his first love, his first heartbreak, and we see him lose faith and break ties with the church after leaving home. Blankets is a story of losing one’s innocence and coming to terms with not only the dizzying heights of love, but also intense sadness and disillusionment.
The predominant theme is that of first love as shown between Craig and Raina. Also explored are a child’s sense of wonder at the world, authoritarianism, bullying and feelings of being an outcast, divorce, religion and faith. These are weighty themes and to mix all of them together so deftly is a credit to Thompson. Themes explored are multi layered and connect seamlessly. Blankets are a recurring theme, and serve as a symbol for issues such as familial connection, security (of the family unit, and of relationships), warmth (literally and of human interaction), and as a signifier of childhood innocence. The blanket that Raina used whilst playing as a young girl, the blanket Craig and his brother share as children, and the quilt that Raina makes for Craig are all heavily featured. Often we see Craig and Raina wrapped up in their quilt and it gives us an immediate connection to feelings of intimacy when being close with a loved one.
Other themes explored are bullying and racism, and the impact these things can have on a child’s feeling of acceptance. Sexual abuse is shown obliquely, and through suggestion we get a feeling for this type of horrible event that a child’s mind is unable to comprehend (29 – 31). An issue such as child abuse could easily fill a text this size, however Craig chooses to make the subject a side-note. We may gather that either he doesn’t wish to dwell on the topic or he has blocked mush of the experience from his memory.
We see this experience come up in Craig’s subconscious in strange ways, such as the toys in Raina’s spare room all asking “who touched me?” (223)
The social and financial divide is evident in Craig’s clothes, and the fact that he is unable to afford to go skiing during the Christian camps he attends throughout school holidays. Craig experiences intense bullying, not just as a result of this divide but also because of his religious family, his Italian father, his little brother, and his fondness for drawing and the world of imagination. He does not fit in to the ‘normal’ classification of a child and as such he is habitually harassed. However, as Thompson makes clear, there are also problems that adults face, such as Raina’s parent’s divorce. It is made clear that life’s difficulties do not cease once on enters adulthood, they only change shape.
Thompson makes clever use throughout Blankets of the sequential art narrative medium’s structure, codes and conventions. He plays with panel structure, shape and texture, breaks through panels, interlaces them for effect, and portrays scenes with a complete absence of panel structure in parts. He only breaks with convention in order to work in conjunction with the narrative; every move is calculated and has reason. For example, in pages 125 to 126 this absence of panels imparts a sense of interconnectedness and otherworldliness, of being in an insular bubble, separated from space and time. Conversely, in the final panel of page 101 the absence of a panel border gives an immediate sense of disconnection. we feel as Raina and Craig do the
feeling of absence of the other via the breaking of the panel. I make use of this technique in a page from my comic 1994, shown here.
Thompson has taken events of his life and threaded them together deliberately and organically. We are largely unaware of the format and structure due to it’s subtle manipulation. He uses a kind of three-act restorative structure; we are introduced to our protagonist, he is brought into events beyond his control (meeting Raina, the influence of the church), and he is ultimately changed.
Thompson weaves many minor themes and story lines around this major one and he does so as an omniscient storyteller; as a result, the story is able to jump back and forth in time. Narration is kept to a minimum with dialogue carrying the weight of the story. As such we are not as aware of the overriding structure of the narrative; we are closely tied to events as they happen. The use of dialogue as a narrative vehicle provides an intimacy and immediacy. Thompson also makes use of overlapping narratives, such as in page 62-63 where previously told vignettes are replayed in part to back up new narrative. This acts as a means of reinforcement, with one narrative serving as subtext for the other.
DEDUCTION REQUIRED / PACING & TIMING
As the narrative moves back and forward in time, from subject to subject and scene to scene, the reader is required to have some pre-existing knowledge of sequential art narrative navigation. At odds with spartan texts such as Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, Blankets moves at a relaxed pace. He does this without unnecessary ‘padding’. Thompson understands pacing; each scene is adequately long, and the timeline-hopping narrative leaves the reader with little chance of becoming bored.
New scenes are always introduced with an obvious break in the narrative, and often Thompson will use an element from the present to move us into the new time setting or scene. For example, on page 51 we see Craig as a small boy praying and surrounded by clouds. He breaks panel and with the panel flow we see him age, falling through the clouds; by page 53 we see him, for the first time, as a young man.
We are immediately shown that although Craig has aged, he has not outgrown the taunting, and adults in authority still pose an overbearing figure. However now we see that Craig has taken to reciting verses from the Bible as a means of dealing with these problems. Craig has grown both in years and faith.
The use of hand-written text and strong use of symbol lends Blankets a feeling of humanism and vitality that perhaps may have not been achievable with strict bordering and computer generated typography. As an ode to his past Blankets serves as a diary of sorts, and the use of traditional methods reinforces this idea. Thompson also makes use of various text styles to signify different aspects of the story, for example the quotations from the Bible which proliferate throughout.
The style is deceptively simple; characters are portrayed in heavily stylized fashion, with heavily intricate rendering of textures and the world around them. Thompson uses symbols as a means of showing emotion, such as fear, love, attraction, as well as the realms of the senses such as sound and taste. His style is gestural and communicates emotion effectively. The heavily rendered backgrounds give an extra feeling of realism to the settings which the simple characters stand out against. What is important here are relationships, the way that people interact with each other.
Thompson uses iconography to indicate subject matter such as worship and religious concepts like angels, demons, heaven and hell. This is in keeping with the religious themes of the book, and show that these concepts are heavily inbuilt in Craig’s mind. He sees Raina as an angel, his abuser as a demon. He sees the world in views of black and white, good and evil.
Symbols are also used to signify the explorations of dreamscapes and the land of imagination. Dreaming goes hand in hand with blankets, and sleeping also serves as a means of escape from the seemingly harsh world of his youth. In what is perhaps a nod to Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo, we are allowed a glimpse of Craig being transported into wonderful worlds beyond the veil of sleep.After Craig decides upon a life dedicated to the church he decides that drawing is a form of “escapism…the most secular and selfish of worldly pursuits” (58). He takes all of his childhood drawings and burns them; in a full page image we see him expelling great iconographic creatures, as if exorcising demons. This draws a definite link between his the imagery he has captured, and the torment and suffering he has endured.
Craig Thompson work on Blankets is completely comprised of traditional media. His work is fluid and it is obvious that he has a thorough understanding of form. He uses a variety of brushes and his rendering is varied. The faces of his characters are left simple, whilst all backgrounds and clothes, materials and surfaces are textured and/or hatched. This style of work gives a believable setting upon which to place characters simple enough that we can identify with.
Overall Blankets serves as a meditation on memory- it resonated with me on many levels. The experiences of first love and first loss are told with patience and Thompson’s level of detail in all the little things said between young lovers gave this story a feeling of truth. Many layers of theme flesh the story out and give it an overwhelming sense of realism- I feel as if I am walking in Craig’s shoes, and sharing his experiences. The story is left open ended and we never find out what happens to Raina. It left me with a definite sense of hollowness and wanting more; clever writing indeed for Craig to be able instill in me the same feelings he was no doubt experiencing at that period in time.
In the final pages, Craig muses how satisfying it is to make footprints in the snow, to leave a mark, “no matter how temporary” (580-582).
Perhaps we can conclude that of all the lessons Craig has learned from his experiences, one of the overriding truths is that all things are temporary. The fear of his father, fear of God, the belief in the dogma of Christianity, torment by bullies, and also, unfortunately, sometimes also love.
I regard Blankets as a masterpiece of storytelling and visual communication. This text will feature strongly in my personal canon of influential works.