Top Shelf, July 2003
Craig Thompson, writer/artist
Originally written on March 8, 2004 for publication by The Comics Journal
It’s safe to describe Blankets as the year’s most talked-about, most hyped, most divisive graphic novel. It’s also safe to describe it as one of the year’s best. The victim of an emperor’s-new-clothes backlash that in at least some cases had as much to do with the book’s publisher or its author’s previous work or the p.r. campaign surrounding it as with the book itself, Blankets is a marvelously drawn bildungsroman with a heart as big as the Midwestern plains in which it takes place. For that, it has been pilloried, and I wish I could understand why. Actually, scratch that–no, I don’t. If loving this rapturously illustrated and warmly told story of ecstatic pain is wrong, well, you know the rest.
Blankets is the more-or-less straight autobiography that author Craig Thompson’s debut novel, Goodbye, Chunky Rice, hinted at. Indeed, elements of Chunky Rice put in cameo appearances throughout its successor’s 592 pages, hinting at a rich underlying emotional universe in much the same way that The Lord of the Rings provided deeper and sadder echoes of material first found in The Hobbit. It’s a book about long-distance relationships–one with a girl, one with God; how they burn impossibly bright and yet can be extinguished with a phone call (in the former case) or a footnote (in the latter). Refusing to coast on mere audience recognition, Thompson’s art both mines and mimes the riot of emotion such relationships engender, employing sweepingly expressive brushwork–each page seems to swirl like a snowdrift–and a vast–perhaps “dizzying” is a better word–array of formally experimental devices. And yet the art steers clear of the facile: Everyone notices the “blankets” of lush white snow, but a careful scan through the book reveals an almost obsessive use of powerful blacks, the unspoken yang to the wintry yin. Thompson’s narration is believably unreliable, at times appearing to believe every word of its descriptions of sexual or spiritual perfection, at other times imbuing the delivery with that unmistakable you-can’t-go-home-again regret, at all times trusting the reader to make the distinction. What we’re left with is a book about rejecting Christianity that, miraculously, judges not; a book about adolescence that recognizes that term as one describing an age, not a level of complexity, or more specifically a lack thereof. In love and in loss, what happens to our teenaged hearts matters. So does Blankets.