Book Reviewed: Blankets, by Craig Thompson
You know those books that you feel like everyone else in the world has read but you? Like all the cool people you follow on Twitter or whose columns you read on pop culture websites have read this one book and you won't be as cool as them until you do, too? Well, that's how I feel about Craig Thompson's 2004 graphic novel/memoir, Blankets. On nearly every list of important graphic novels or best books of the 2000s so far, Thompson's seminal brick of a book gets mentioned. Earlier this month, my library finally got around to ordering a few copies of the hardback edition of Blankets, and I jumped in line to be the first person at my branch to check it out.
Needless to say, I knew a lot about Blankets before I even jumped in. I knew it was about Thompson's first love with a girl he met at Bible camp. I knew it dealt with his struggles over religion. I also knew it was supposed to be really, really good. So I was somewhat surprised by the fact that what I expected from Blankets ended up being different from the actual experience of Blankets. I don't mean that in a bad way. I quite liked the book. It was nice to be surprised by the things I liked but hadn't seen coming ahead of time.
Blankets is considered a graphic "novel," but Thompson makes no qualms about it actually being autobiographic. I mean, honestly. The protagonist's name is Craig, people! Thompson isn't afraid to go to some pretty dark places, and he's more than willing to paint himself (literally) in a bad light at times. Craig is an incredibly sympathetic character, but he never feels unrealistically good or pitiful or overly tragic. Thompson does a great job making Craig seem fully-realized, which had to be difficult considering he's writing and drawing himself here. The characters around him are well-drawn, too, particularly his short-term girlfriend, Raina. Raina manages to be naive and mature at the same time, more like an actual teenage girl than most books are willing to portray.
So yes, this is a book about first loves and religious doubt and the interior life of an artist. But it's also a wonderful look at the relationship between siblings (between Craig and his younger brother, between Raina and her special needs brother and sister, between Raina and her bitchy older sister). I'm a sucker for well-portrayed family dynamics, and Thompson gets into those dynamics in really interesting and detailed ways. Few artists or writers can portray the tenson between what we expect from those we love and what they actually give us in the way Thompson does here in Blankets. If you strip this book down to its essential theme, its this: the poetry inherent in the beauty and tragedy of our all too human expectations.
Note: I didn't mention it above, but the art in this book is really stunning as well. Thompson is all about detail. My favorite thing in this book might just be the way characters tend to tuck their hair behind their ears when in the heat of a moment, a telling sign that never gets told to us by the actual text. You have to pay really close attention to the art in this book, something that's not always true of graphic novels.