Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Since I mentioned my feelings on Blankets in my Comics Journal Review, I thought I would repost my review from Fourcolorhell, which, I think, absolutely no-one saw. I’m giving it to you unaltered, though I thought about rewriting some of it for clarity (I really liked this book, and I don’t know how forcefully that comes across) and timeliness (man mentioning Bendis’Alias... we were such crazy kids back then). No, it’s better to let it go as is. So, without more needless posturing…

Craig Thompson

List price: $29.95
ISBN: 1891830430
Format: Paperback, 582pp
Pub. Date: July 2003

I took a while for me to get around to reading this. I haven’t read Goodbye Chunky Rice (and so wasn’t clamoring for more of Thompson’s work) and I have a mild aversion to autobiographical comics because I can’t stomach the self-indulgence that is sine qua non for the sub-genre. The thing that finally made me get up and buy it, despite the spate of reviews declaring it a flawed work, was that the first printing had sold out and there was a nebulous feeling in the air that this was, in some way, an important work (the unqualified positivity of Neil Gaiman’s opinion may have had something to do with this).

The first thing you will notice when you bring this thing home, and you should bring this thing home, is the mass of the object. Clocking in at around 600 pages, it is doubtless the largest original (read: not previously serialized) graphic novel that has been produced. The trade dress is nice in literate press sort of way, and it just feels substantial and non-embarrassing to hold.

The story, as if you need another rehash, is a near autobiographical (I’ve heard there is a missing sister, for instance) coming of age tale, about a sensitive and pious Christian kid dealing with a narrow-minded set of values within both his family and the surrounding town, a relatively normal (if obnoxious) relationship with his brother, the casual cruelties of adults and other socially darwinian teens, and the confusion of his first exposure to the larger world and the guilt inducing feelings stirred up as a result. These emotions are largely focused on Raina, a girl he meets at a Christian retreat, and whom he later visits for two weeks during a school break.

The main thing that struck me after reading the book was how quickly it went. From Hell, which is a similar size with annotations, seemed to take ten times as long to read and Maus, which is half the size, still took much longer. Now, granted, this is not intended to be as dense, but, as deeply felt as it was, it came off feeling a little more slight than I would have liked. 30 bucks seems like a bargain for a comic this huge, but it reads so fast, that it about breaks even on the dollars per hour of enjoyment scale with your average issue of Alias. It sounds weird to suggest this, but it seems “serious” works are usually imply gravity and craftsmanship with dense page layouts and wordiness, and this may represent one of the first “decompressed” serious autobiographical comics.

Tangent: There is a USA show I enjoy watching called “Monk.” As soon as I first saw the show, I realized one reason I liked it was that it was something of a throwback. I initially attributed this to story structure elements such as strong act breaks and “on the nose” tying up of loose ends. But the more I watched, the more I realized that the relatively low number of shots and the abundance of medium shots (held for a length of time) are part of what made the show seem pleasingly “old fashioned.” I like this because the actors have more room to actually act, and not just give microscopic sub-performances to be edited together later to tell a story. Maybe this is my personal averse reaction to the MTV editing-in-lieu-of-ability style of video making that has influenced so much of the modern narrative paradigm. Its no wonder that classically trained actors and actresses love the stage, where the performance is of the utmost importance. In any event, it occurs to me that there is a similar formalist issue in comics, with an art comix rejection of any decompression of storytelling, the implication being that this emphasizes flash over substance. Perhaps the Blankets reads so fast because it rejects the notion that tightly packed storytelling is necessary to create something important, and indeed the airy pacing may better fit the dreamy subject matter. It still felt slight, though.

I try to read and review before I’ve read any other reviews, but in this case, both due to my purchasing tardiness and the delay in the return of the web site, I’ve got to deal with the prevailing set of opinions. The most common criticism is that Raina is not a fully realized character, and only exists in reaction to Craig’s desires. Now, this brings up some complex issues, not the least important of which is the fact that this is something approaching autobiography, and thus other people essentially DO only exist only in relation to the author/protagonist, especially those who are relegated to such a short, emotionally charged time in the author’s life. But I don’t think its fair to dismiss her as a badly fleshed out character, just because she is kept firmly in the subjective lens throughout the book (this subjectivity is the only way such a character can really function). So let’s look at two aspects of this character’s “reality:” the way she is written, and the way she is (physically) rendered.

The main objection Raina’s presentation is that she is kept inscrutable – that we have no clue why she acts as she does. It is left largely unexplained as to why she seems so eager to get close and seems to need Craig so badly, and then withdraws rapidly without explanation. Let me just ask: has anyone not had this happen to him or her at least once? Adolescents are confused little beasts in the best of circumstances, and demonstrate various levels of over-sensitivity, magical thinking, and inconsideration, all at an unconscious level. Everyone has hurt and been hurt by someone who has emotionally turned on a dime with no explanation ever offered. And, more specifically, it is not at all an uncommon occurrence for one partner to kick the other to the curb (for no apparent reason, of course) a couple of weeks after instigating talk about what to name the kids. If Craig has broken subjectivity to show us what Raina was really thinking, what we would get would be something mundane, such as “well, it couldn’t have come as a surprise... we both knew it wasn’t going to work out,” which breaks the beautiful spell that helps Thompson depict the way it felt, not the way it really was (whatever that means). The fact that Raina and even Craig himself are viewed in such a subjective light, adds a layer of meaning as we apply our own knowledge of adolescent sexual politics to the situation, which gives her a more complex characterization than if he had depicted her with full disclosure. The story is truer because her conflicted behavior remains unresolved. Bottom line, it would have been false to break into her head and give her motives. My largest concern in this (subjectivity) arena is actually that by framing the book with adult “understanding,” it may be slightly dishonest about Craig’s lack of objectivity about his own feelings and actions, but I think his adult inconclusiveness suggests that he is at least aware of his inability to accurately judge what had happened all those years ago.

Her physical depiction is actually a huge factor in making Raina unknowable. I had already seen Thompson’s “sketchbook” in Top Shelf’s Comic Book Artist #1 before I read this book, and I noticed that, even in his realistic sketches of his partner (wife? girlfriend? don’t remember), he seems to be attempting to capture not the essence of the character, but some idealized ephemeral moment. This is why these sketches mostly show her sleeping or staring at something. You know, he’s capturing the moments of transcendence and beauty, not laughing or talking or other character bits. His depiction of Raina is similar and, although she does talk, laugh, etc., she really doesn’t seem to be. She always seems to be slightly arched, eyes closed a lot, head tilted… you know posed, unnatural. But one would assume that this is what he remembers of her. Craig seems like the kind of kid that is more interested in the transcendent than in the real, more the impression than the detail. And he never truly rejects this.

The religious text (not sub enough to be subtext) of the book is pretty tame stuff, but has real resonance. I don’t think anyone from the hardened atheist to a big ol’ Jesus freak could find anything offensive here, as he eventually embraces a relatively non-judgmental (to both self and others) spirituality that is Christian specific yet generic enough to squeak by either way. But it helps a lot that he really, really remembers how it feels, and seems like a genuinely good person who is not interested in passing judgment. I like that he never blames his God for the fact that religious followers gave him a hard time (this is a fairly easy way out, and is often taken) and “his” Jesus looks on him approvingly at him after he knows physical love.

Well, you get the idea. I loved the book, though I thought it read too fast. I thought Raina was as fully fleshed out a character as could be (or should be) when depicting the captured image of another person from your own experience. I found a real resonance in Thompson’s depiction of his childhood, possibly because I was an awful lot like that character (a bit sensitive, a bit religious, a bit wracked with guilt and self doubt, but ultimately a better person after the bugs get worked out and everything gets more integrated). Blankets is very impressionistic and the underlying emotional truth trumps the question of what is real and what is bullshit. The blanket in the story itself (dispensing with the obvious security metaphors) seems to reflect this patchwork view of subjective truth. Raina’s blanket stitches together bold individual impressions into an object of beauty, with the strength of the individual pieces of cloth placed next to each other giving the illusion of detail in a simplified design. In the same way, the story emerges from strong well-remembered details in an overall simplified outline of a specific time in Thompson’s life. This is a good-though-not-flawless work that borders on essential reading.


At 1:12 AM, Blogger ADD said...

"This is a good-though-not-flawless work that borders on essential reading."

Yeah, I can totally agree with that; have you read Carnet de Voyage yet? Much shorter, but in a way more directly affecting and personal. Not without its flaws, either, but definitely worth a look.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

I'll read it soon... you're shipping it to me, brother. I'm actually looking forward to it because even some of the so-so reviews I've read make it sound like something I'd like.


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