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Graphic Novel Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson

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Blankets by Craig Thompson has been mentioned by Blogcritics a few times, usually as a recommendation, often with gushing:

Elegantly illustrated and stirringly told. Damn, it’s good. And sweet. — Sean T. Collins, 2003

It’s certainly literature and it’s certainly art. — Michele Catalano, 2005

In a recent New York Times article, Charles McGrath remarked how Craig Thompson’s Blankets “would be insufferably predictable in a prose narrative” but worked as a graphic novel. McGrath recognizes that each medium has different strengths and weaknesses.– Paul De Angelis, 2005

It is one of the books often cited, along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, as a key work of literature in defence of the graphic novel. I will admit, the story is wonderful and incredibly moving, and the illustrations are full of life. But this does not justify putting graphic novels on a pedestal.

The problem with canonizing, as pointed out by Allan Luke in his talk on Insiders and Outsiders, is that it only works when there is an authoritative body that can go through everything and decide what to include or exclude. So far we have Blogcritics and The Comics Journal, but we cannot forget that these places are run by people, and the only authority they can speak with on a medium is their experience (which will never be perfect).

[ADBLOCKHERE]So, given the inability to assign individuals the responsibility of defending quality, we need a framework with which we can critique the material. Scott McCloud’s book Reinventing Comics supports the judgement of comics as art and as literature. This is a popular and commonsense approach to the medium, but fails to examine it on its own terms.

After 100 years of cinema, we now have a reasonable language and body of ideas with which we can interpret. Although this language is somewhat imperfect and in need of refinement, terms like “auteur”, “art cinema”, “neo-realism”, “road movie” and an assorted vocabulary of genres is what allows us to examine films. But there is an insufficient vocabulary for the understanding of comics and the graphic novel.

Interestingly, the quotes I have cited above all judge comics on narrative first, followed closely by a few quick comments on the artwork. However, this does not take into account the form with which we are dealing. Graphic novels are not literature, they are not where art meets literature for the positives of both, they are art objects and nothing more. To presume otherwise is to fall into the trap of not knowing enough about art.

Art has a long history of presenting narratives, and the only thing that has changed in the development of comics, and the contemporary graphic novel is form. Michelangelo’s portrayal of biblical events on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the depiction of Roman conquest in Trajan’s Column are both examples of narrative art that are upheld historically and critically.

Now, let’s see if we can critique this book by the standards it deserves.

Thompson’s Blankets uses pictures to tell the story of his fall from Christian fundamentalism to a more humanist appreciation for life and love; though this disillusionment and coming of age was from having lost in first love. The story in and of itself is about the power of the question over the individual, and the power of doubt as a source of liberation.

In the course of the story, the blanket becomes a symbol of human contact, which protects people the cold of the outside world. When Raina gives Craig a blanket she made, it comes to symbolize their relationship and the warmth it provides him, and when they later share that blanket, he is in a state of bliss. And in Craig’s childhood, he fights with his brother for the blanket, connoting the need for space.

Facial features on the characters are rather Eisneresque in their emphasis on the way flesh clings to and hangs from bones. This emphasizes a sympathetic approach to human beings that you would not find in the likes of Crumb, where the emphasis is on muscles and the rolls of fat, which emphasize the carnal aspects of human nature.

Thompson’s ‘mise en scene’ (to borrow a cinema term) tends to focus mostly on these faces and the situation as experienced by the characters are secondary. This technique invites playfulness and empathy, and it also invites us into the imagination of the characters. What’s more, Thompson does not obsess over details, and is sparse in his choice of what to illustrate. He will often use perspective to direct our eyes in the direction of where the characters are looking, and this strengthens our empathy for the characters.

Blankets, like many graphic novels, also relies on the principles of “the grid”, a key framework in publication design. Put simply, imagine a blank page and divide it into a grid with columns and rows of equal spacing; now, each subject is free to take up one square or the neighbouring ones, forming various shapes with which we can place images or text.

Thompson does not defy the grid, even when his panels are not framed, and this gives the publication its beauty. Also, by varying the size of panels and how they are framed, he emphasizes different levels intimacy, the story comes across as less ridged than Watchmen for instance.

The pacing also appears to have been inspired by Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, given the emphasis on subject, moment and aspect transitions, which slow the narrative down and give the reader space to relax and reflect. Combined with the illustrative style we experience life through Craig’s eyes, which perceive life as both beautiful and delicate, despite its pains and horrors.

The juxtaposition of childhood memories with those of youth and adulthood are also part of what makes this work so dynamic. This is nothing new, and it harks back to Soviet montage in which filmmakers would pull the audience out of a scene through the juxtaposition of shots, asking the audience to make meaning from the contrast. Thompson understands this principle, and the reader often finds themselves comparing different moments in order to get a good sense of character.

Is it a good book? Sure, Thompson has come to terms with the strengths of his medium and told an insightful story, but we do not have enough graphic novels in the world to start a canon with it. For graphic novels to develop appreciation and respect from society, we need to stop defending them, and get on with analyzing them ourselves. Using language that is suited to the medium, as I have attempted in this review.

About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Eric Olsen

    fixed – you can’t leave the http:// out of your links

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Oh groovey, thanks Eric.