Writer/Illustrator: Craig Thompson
Publisher: Top Shelf
What's it about?
In an autobiographical tale, Craig Thompson tells the story of his childhood and adolescence, focused through the lens of first teenage love. In many ways, it is a very typical and relatable story of growing up.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family in Wisconsin, Craig struggles with his relationship with his brother, with God, and the other people in his life. Plagued by feelings of inadequacy heaped on him by his parents and other adults, and rejected by his peers at school, Craig is a loner who isn't quite sure where he fits in this unpleasant, trying world.
At Church Camp as a teenager, Craig meets Raina, a young woman of his own age to whom he is instantly drawn by her apparent loner status and her disregard for the established rules. The camp friendship becomes a letter writing flirtation, which results in Craig spending two weeks visiting her house. All the while, the story is interspersed with tales from his own childhood, showing the many many events that have influenced his development as a brother, a Christian, and a man.
It sounds like a relatively mundane tale, and nothing especially out of the ordinary happens to Craig or to Raina - one traumatic experience from his childhood aside, but he tells the story with such care, and renders his characters with such sympathy and beauty, that somehow a story of teenage love becomes a book that I for one was actually unable to put down.
What's good about it?
First, of course, the art and the page layouts, which effortlessly combine words with pictures into one unified narrative, and which I will rave about later.
Beyond that, there's the care and compassion with which Thompson constructs the characters around him. It would be tempting, with the kind of experiences he's talking about, to paint adults and authority figures as adversarial and monstrous, but Thompson never gives into that temptation. His adults are torn, stressed and sympathetic characters with easy to understand motivations so that, while we feel for the plight of the boy Craig, we understand the reactions of the adults round him and why they act the way they do.
Well, for the most part.
This is a book about children, but it's not a book for children. All the way through, Thompson relates his experiences with a tender voice that presumes we, the readers, will understand what the boy is putting himself through. He presents his self esteem and self flagellation without commentary, and it is left to us to find the sympathy he needs.
Reading Blankets is like having a conversation with Thompson himself. While the main romance does follow a linear timeline from the first meeting to the dissolution of the relationship, he constantly dips into his childhood for anecdotes that relate to and and connect with the experience in the story. The connections are seamless, and the whole story comes together in the beautiful way that the subject matter deserves.
What's bad about it?This book should come with a trigger warning for child abuse, to be honest. One particular incident is particularly explicit, and although Thompson doesn't dwell on it, it's referred to more than once. On top of that, even the frustrated, reactionary punishments meted out by his parents can be pretty hard reading for anyone who had a hard childhood.None of this is handled in any sort of inappropriate manner; it's touching and disturbing and deliberately painful, a very powerful reminder of how painful childhood can be. But it's a hard read for someone sensitive to those issues.
What's the art like?
One of the advantages of having one creator over separate writers/pencillers/inkers is that the words, the pictures and the layouts flow together in one continuous art form; the words form part of the art and the art is so expressive that it speaks volumes on top of the dialogue. Like the best comic art, Thompson can tell decent chunks of his story without words at all.
The book is all in black and white line drawings, hand drawn and shaded in a way that really makes you believe Thompson sat down and drew the whole thing from beginning to end. His art is deceptively simplistic and almost cartoonish, but so expressive that the emotions and movement of each character comes through in very few lines.
This simple, flowing style is perfect for the simple, beautiful story of love and growing up that Thompson is telling here. Raina is flawless and beautiful, and Craig, the first person protagonist is blocky and awkward, suited to a teenager still not sure of himself.
I never expected to like Blankets, but I cannot forget it.
Price: Amazon have it on sale for £15.75, but usual price around £22.50
Craig Thompson has another comic in print: Good-bye Chunky Rice, and a third coming out later this year called Habibi.