blankets

blanketsa few years ago, i read this really amazing graphic novel called blankets, by craig thompson.  at the time, i had only read a few other graphic novels, such as frank miller’s the dark knight returns and batman: the dark knight strikes again.  although i had never been a fan of comics and have only minimal appreciation for animated anything (movies, tv shows, etc.), the two batman’s really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what a graphic novel could be – complex, interesting, nuanced, character-ful (as opposed to two-dimensional, flat, cliched, unrealistic, and downright boring).  so really, i have frank miller to thank for my then-newfound appreciation for graphic novels.

blankets, however, is nothing like the batman novels, or any of the other superhero comics.  as the cover illustrates, it has nothing to do with superheroes or extraterrestrial activities whatsoever.  instead, it’s a simple story of first love, experienced and lost.  i am reminded of it now because the main action of the novel occurs in winter, and the entire story is set against a backdrop of snow… and it’s winter now.  i wrote a review for this book after i read it back in 2005; looking on it now, it’s kind of idiotic.  only to be expected, since everytime i look back on my writing, i can only see how ridiculously bad it was.  but it aptly summarized my feelings about it, so here it is below.

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blankets is a coming-of-age story, set in a small town in wisconsin, and at first it seems the rather typical tale of the outcast child who is raised in an uber-religious family, goes to church camp in high school, and while there falls in love with a beautiful girl (raina, a quirky fellow outcast from michigan).  coming-of-age stories, or bildungsromans, are almost always cliched narratives, trapped by their very genre into perpetuating the same stories.  much could be said in a similar vein about many other genres, though, and part of the frame of this type of scripted story means that such novels are completely accessible and understandable to a huge audience.  in this respect, blankets is no different.  that a novel fits in a particular category, however, does not automatically mean it is deficient or lacking in some way.  in fact, playing with the conventions of a particular genre and exploring what can be done within its constraints can lead to amazing results, and is what blankets does best.

the first chapter really moved me upon first read and is an example of how thompson can seamlessly weave multiple story lines together into an effective whole.  the novel is bracketed by the story of him and his brother, phil, and opens with an episode where phil gets sent to a cubby hole as punishment for staying up late and arguing over a blanket.   thompson’s depiction of the fear that each felt then is so vivid and visceral, especially through the use of visual cues.  throughout, thompson moves between the settings of school, of family life, of religion, and of growing up.  each vignette is complete in itself, yet fits into the whole of the novel.

the strength of this book really lies with its graphics, which complement, reinforce, and sometimes entirely eliminate the need for actual text.  as a simple, narrated story, blankets would fail.  it’s too banal, too simple, too much of a repetition of well-rehearsed themes.  the novel achieves its impact and poignancy because the graphics lend it intensity and visually stun the reader.  i like the way thompson draws his graphics in boxes, differentiating between darkly colored boxes for particular types of memories, and drawing boxes within boxes, drawing outside the boxes, using no boxes at all, and placing a single image on a blank page.  a particular poignant and effective use of this occurs when he and raina are separating from their two weeks together (480-481): in the first drawing, they embrace but have clearly defined, distinct bodies.  in the second, only their combined outline is drawn as a unified whole, which wordlessly conveys the moment in stunning immediacy.

thompson’s graphic depiction of events also allow for a visual silence, creating a visual space to open up that emphasizes pauses, reflections, breaths.  these scenes are really what made me fall in love with this novel.  i love his motif of blankets, more articulately defined when his character speaks of drawing, of creating something on a blank page.  but blankets are everywhere in this novel, most obviously embodied in the blanket that raina makes for him, but also in the blanket that opens the book (the one they fought over that led to a night in the “cubby hole”), hiding under sheets in the rec room at camp, being covered in blankets while raina and craig are in bed, the blankets of snow that pervade throughout this novel, and the very white pages or “blankets” upon which memory can be written, shaped, and retrieved.

apart from the blanket motif, this novel seems to be mostly about loss.  this secondary theme itself loosely relates to the original theme of blankets, in the sense of having a childhood blanket that is lost or given up as we age.  blankets is about loss in its myriad of forms: loss of innocence, loss of faith, loss of first love, loss of connection (and ultimate realization of solitude and aloneness), loss of vulnerability (or the ability to be vulnerable), loss of one’s parents (in that all children eventually lose their parents at some point, because in growing up we lose our illusions of them), loss of home (and the safety inherent to our ideas and conception of home, and the accompanying decision to risk, experiment, explore).  in ways all of these aspects are pared down and simplified; nothing in real life is so simple as it is depicted in this novel, but that’s what i like about it.  it is elemental.  pared down not only visually, but also textually: focusing on certain things,  avoiding others.  a lot of issues were brought up in this book that could have been developed thematically, but were relatively untouched (i.e. craig’s relationship with his dad/mom, school life and friends, relationships within the church, etc.).  like a good essay, though, which has essentially only one or two foci, i felt it was more effective to concentrate on the two main relationships to raina and phil, and to shape the novel around that.

i think it is because of this loss that permeates the novel that the way thompson depicts the smallest details, the nuances, the gestures, the small cruelties, the brief moments of happiness, the inexplicably enormous fear, moves me so deeply.  what i loved most about blankets was that it was tender, minimal, and honest, painfully and comically so.  most of all, it was quiet.

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