In this week’s edition of my Small Press Spotlight series, I’m targeting one of the most critically lauded and popular graphic novels of the past decade: Craig Thompson’s Blankets. This title was released by Top Shelf Productions in 2003, and has since went on to win Harvey, Eisner and Ersatz awards for his writing, art, and the collection as a whole. It was even applauded by Time, as they placed it on their list of the top 10 greatest graphic novels ever.
That spot is well deserved, and it rests very high on my personal all-time favorite list. While I readily admit that I need to brush up on my reading of some of the more acclaimed works, the quality of this achievement is impossible to deny, and I’m sure you’d agree if you’ve read it. If you have not, I highly suggest picking it up sooner rather than later. See my look at it after the jump.
Blankets is an autobiographical look at Craig Thompson’s early life. Growing up in an Evangelical Christian household in Wisconsin, Thompson takes us through his childhood growing up with his brother Phil and through the rigors of harsh winters and dealing with some less than reputable adults. Craig grows into a bit of an outcast, as he isn’t very comfortable with any aspect of himself (especially his waning spirituality) save his love of art. Thankfully, he finds comfort and love in his budding relationship with Raina, a fellow misfit who also begrudgingly attends Bible Camp.
Such is the rather straightforward set up of this title, although it is told using flashbacks to help parallel similar events between different times in his life. Plot wise, it could be easily pigeonholed as a coming of age tale, but to do so wouldn’t be doing Thompson or yourself as a reader any favors. This is far more than that.
Thompson the writer effortlessly captures the feelings of what childhood is like, and those with brothers of a similar age will likely relate as well as anyone. His grasp on the glee and imagination of youth is matched by his ability to depict the awkwardness and wistful nature of being a teenager. In particular, his handling of first love rings true, as the whole story resonates with emotion. Every page crackles with the life and death nature of love in high school, bringing you back to the first time you laid next to someone you loved (or thought you loved) and felt as if you could never, ever have something like this again.
I’ve loaned this story to a number of friends, and there is one uniform response: “I want what Craig and Raina had.” When reading this story, you will be displaced to the time when relationships were all vigor and passion, all indelible love and intractable lust. Everyone remembers their initial feelings of love and what it meant to them then, and part of Thompson’s genius is his ability to masterfully capture those emotions in this story.
Possibly even more difficult to handle with grace than the love aspect of the story was the other primary thread throughout the story: Thompson’s transition from a youth on the fast track to being in the ministry to someone who gives up on his religion. He handles this with care and sensitivity, and the religious themes throughout the story really tie everything else together. If he hadn’t handled that aspect so well, the whole story would have crumbled, and a lesser writer would not have had the fortitude to prevail against such a topic.
Inexplicably, I’ve went six paragraphs without mentioning the most dynamic of all facets of this story: the art. While Thompson the writer is a crafty one with real feel for what he’s doing, Thompson the artist is a virtuoso, deftly creating imagery that not only accentuates the power of the story but takes it to a whole new plane of existence. Think of Thompson the artist as the Michael Jordan to Thompson the writer’s Scottie Pippen.Continued below
Thompson’s figure work is cartoonish without sacrificing realism, as his renderings help make these characters more three dimensional than they should have any right being. The starkness of Wisconsin and Michigan winters are handled with appropriate power, giving us a real sense of the hopelessness associated with such a season in such a place (not very difficult to imagine whilst living in Alaska, I must admit). For all intents and purposes, his standard artistic tendencies are exemplary without really standing out.
Yet, it is his ability to capture his imagination and the abstract nature of it that really allows him to shine. Whether it is himself and his brother and their minds running rampant when they discover a pair of animal skulls or how he envisions Raina and himself interacting with the quilt she made for him, it gives him the opportunity to really stretch as an artist and create truly dynamic and unforgettable imagery.
Thompson’s aptitude with layouts allows him to seamlessly mesh his script with his art, allowing both elements to bring attention to each other to the maximum effect. The power of some of his pages is really something to behold, as his two sides collaborate to create a work that is devastatingly real and utterly unique.
I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: if it were up to me, this would be required reading in high schools. It captures the thrills of youth and all the aspects that dominate that time period (faith, love, family, loneliness, etc.), but from the perspective of someone who went through them already and fully recognizes the allure and harsh reality within it. When you’re young, everything feels like the end of the world, but Craig Thompson is here to show you that it really isn’t. This is a wonderful work, and I’d fully recommend it to anyone from teens on up. I personally cannot wait for more from the talented Mr. Thompson, and I’m horribly envious of his enormous amounts of skill as a writer and artist.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, by all means, buy it now. It’s only $19.77 on Amazon and the thing is a mammoth steal, both in size and value (592 pages!).