11 Nov 2012
Blankets Book Review
When one receives a copy of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, it is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary graphic novel. Blankets is a work of art. Thompson goes beyond the typical confines of a typical graphic novel, and makes decisions most authors and illustrators would not dare to make. His eloquent writing, illustrating, and mode of storytelling makes the reader go through a roller coaster of emotions ranging from joy to pain as they follow the life and times of Thompson’s partially autobiographical character Craig. Just by looking at the cover, readers are taken into a world that, though recognizable as our own, somehow seems more like a dream world than the harsh life we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Thompson uses every inch of his pages to create this world and his characters so that, each time the reader looks at a panel or page, there is something new to discover or understand. In this world, Thompson creates a story of adolescence, religion, love, and loss that stands apart from most novels and graphic novels of the same topic.
The graphic novel opens on Craig Thompson, the author and protagonist, describing his relationship with his brother as they were growing up in Wisconsin. They are typical siblings with typical sibling conflict. However, their relationship is forced to improve in strange ways as they age in order to help them deal with their overly religious parents, school bullies, and sexual abuse from their babysitter. During his preteen years, Craig finds himself a misfit everywhere due to his personality and his upbringing. Through his teen years, he retains his misfit status, finding it difficult to mingle in any groups of his peers. This all changes one winter at a Bible camp, where he finds a group of teens that he feels he will fit in with. This group includes a beautiful girl named Raina who captivates and intrigues Craig. Over the course of the camp, Craig and Raina become inseparable.
A few weeks after the camp’s end, they arrange to spend two weeks together at Raina’s home in Michigan. There, Craig meets Raina’s family, which consists of her divorcing parents, her adopted siblings Ben and Laura, her biological sister Julie, and Julie’s infant daughter, Sarah. Since Laura is mentally retarded and Sarah is often ignored by her parents, Raina takes the responsibility of caring for both of them. She and Craig grow very close while they are together, but she begins to feel that she cannot handle another person dependent on her ends her relationship with Craig soon after he leaves. Craig then proceeds to destroy almost everything Raina had given to him and every memory of their relationship with the exception of the quilt she had made for him. This he stores in his parents’ house. Soon after this incident, he moves out to start his own life and discover who he is.
Through the course of these events, Craig struggled constantly with his religion and spiritual identity. However, shortly after leaving his family, he quickly comes to terms with both and returns to his childhood home after several years, acting like a completely new person. He quickly rekindles his filial relationships, disguising from his parents that he is no longer religious, a fact that alters his relationship with his parents. This visit home also brings reminders of his relationship with Raina, and he finally understands that, even though it was fairly short-lived, it meant something. Craig had left a mark on Raina, and Raina had left a mark on Craig. The story closes on Craig, reflecting on his life and his past relationships, realizing that he is happy with the reversal of his life, and is happy to have found peace in the fact that he can and will make a mark on the world, no matter how fleeting. He has found peace with the most important people in his life and himself.
There are a number of themes illustrated in Blankets; however, the most important ones illustrate the reality of first love and religious discovery. Thompson’s artful depiction of the two make us, as readers, reassess our own choices regarding religion, as well as reminisce our first love.
The experience of a first love is important to Thompson as it serves to remind us of our own first loves. The story of Craig and Raina is both captivating and moving. We see the way Craig depicts Raina as an absolutely beautiful individual and thus, are able to see love from his point of view. Furthermore, he draws his feelings for her with smooth, flowing lines tracing designs of swirls and paisley. Thompson consistently depicts Raina as an angelic figure with an abstract halo over her head or with abstract halos surrounding her. Overall, the emotions behind each pen stroke that comprise Raina’s face are evident to the reader as a display of affection. This theme has been common throughout history, but the one thing that sets Blankets apart from other books is that it is able to draw love without words.
The idea of religious discovery and development is prevalent throughout this book. Since Thompson is narrating his own journey through the book, it’s very revealing in that it details each step. As we begin Blankets, we learn that Craig has had a strict Catholic upbringing, and therefore seems sheltered from the world. However, as his relationship with Raina continues to blossom, he begins to question his own beliefs regarding sin and lust. Although his pastor tells him to go into the ministry Craig is unsure of his religious beliefs. This story details his journey, including all the ups and downs he experiences. Sometimes, the author questions his belief in the words of the Bible, but then reverts back to his original belief. Thompson allows readers to experience the feeling of a turbulent religious self-discovery as completely as he demonstrates feelings of first love, which is one of the reasons why Blankets is such a relatable story for the reader. Even though this theme has been widely explored throughout modern literature, this is one of the few times the concept has been illustrated in this thorough of a fashion.
The themes in Blankets are depicted through extremely detailed pictures and words alike. The majority of the panels in Blankets are supplemented by narrative text describing Craig’s reflections and expanding on the drawn images. The seemingly handwritten words complement the sketchy style of drawing, as though the entire graphic novel is an excerpt from Craig’s journal. The use of a script text provides a more casual feel to the more serious topics of divorce, breakup, and loss of religion. The use of first-person narration allows the viewers to not only observe but also be drawn into the overwhelming problems that the main characters face. To the readers that are not experienced with these issues, Thompson portrays Craig’s thoughts through flashbacks and religious comparisons, allowing them to connect with the protagonist better. The narrative style gives the reader insight to the private meditation of Craig, including all his secrets and tortured thoughts.
Early in the illustrated novel, Craig’s refuge in Christianity and drawing is continuously apparent in his thoughts. Instead of caving in to the social and familial pressures at school and home, he dwells on his faith and escapist ideals. His pensive personality is, by nature, passive and lonesome. When flipping through the pages of the book, the reader can’t help but feel drawn to Craig’s hopeless situation at school and Church Camp. The reader’s empathy for Craig makes his story of first love much more genuine and emotion-infused. Thompson is able to use the quiet and timid personality of Craig to build up to the tensions later in the graphic novel. The viewer is enraptured by how his righteous behavior conflicts and is eventually overtaken by temptations which are all too common in coming-of-age storylines.
Despite being in a seemingly cohesive relationship, Raina and Craig are distinctly different, yet, at the same time, they complement each other. Raina is often idolized in the eyes of Craig, a fact reflected in the image of an angel. She is depicted as a nurturing character, a contrast to Craig’s dependent and passive nature. In the relationship, their contrasting traits make the romance more touching; the readers can observe that they depend on each other for different methods of comfort. Initially, Craig’s emotionally needy personality is mitigated and satisfied by Raina’s presence. Yet, in the end, despite the impactful events that occur, he has developed and matured into an adult grateful for his experiences. Perhaps, the most rewarding experience that the reader gains from reading Blankets is to observe and even relate with growing maturity of Craig.
In Blankets, author and illustrator Craig Thompson uses a myriad of different artistic techniques, both apparent and subtle, to convey certain emotions and feelings in order to add to the main storyline and characters of the novel. From playing with the panels to changing the lines in his drawings, Thompson elegantly inserts subtle nuances to his images, adding to the dramatic effect of Blankets. Thompson pushes the boundaries of graphic novels in every chapter, creatively expanding the norms of comic books to tell his teenage love story.
To start, Thompson by no means feels bound to the panel. In the conventional comic, artists tend to draw only inside the confines of the panel whereas Thompson expands and uses many unconventional methods of panel usage in order to create different feelings. To begin, Thompson sometimes does not use any panels with his images and he lets his drawings float on the page without boundaries to give a liberated and free feel to the story. This can be seen throughout the novel but most notably when he is with Raina. Their images are not confined to a panel just as they feel limitless when with each other. Thompson also uses different types of edges for his panels, sometimes using just a simple line, but also often using darker and thicker borders to portray a difference in setting or time, as is done with the biblical story flashbacks. Alternatively, he uses rough and jagged lines to portray fearful or traumatic stories as is done with the scene with the babysitter. These lines not only clearly show the difference in setting but also add to the emotion of the panel, especially with the traumatic story involving his childhood babysitter as the ragged panel serves as an extension of the image, embodying the terrified emotion of Thompson and his brother as young kids. This technique relies on the reader responding emotionally to the manner in which the line is drawn as pointed out by Scott McCloud in Chapter 5 of his Understanding Comics.
Thompson frequently uses a unique technique of drawing panels within another panel often to add to a sense of disconnect or separation. For example when Raina and Craig are calling each other, they are placed in individual panels within a larger panel to accentuate their separation. Finally there are times when characters interact with the panels again to emphasize certain feelings portrayed in the story. For example when Craig’s painting in Raina’s room is being painted over, not only does the character in the novel paint over the image, but he also paints over the panel lines even though they are not directly a part of the drawing. This small detail is simply highlight the emptiness and erasure of Craig in Raina’s life.
Thompson also makes use of artistic motifs to the emotion of the scenes as well as to represent characters. The prime example of this can be found with the paisleys and swirly patterns that are associated with Raina. In Craig’s eyes, Raina’s heavenly presence is represented through these patterns. These patterns represent Craig’s feelings for Raina and although we cannot get into Craig’s mind, we visually see his emotion through these recurring patterns.
Finally Thompson makes use of different styles of shading to primarily evoke feelings of emptiness. Throughout the novel Thompson uses beautiful shading to add depth to his images but occasionally he removes the shading from an image to not only make it stand out, but to also visually represent emptiness. Notably when Raina and Craig are parting at the parking lot, the image is simply the outlines of the image sans shading. This visually stimulates the reader and embodies the feeling of emptiness felt by Craig and Raina as they are separated. This idea of blankness is later repeated with the snow and in the panels where Raina tells Craig she is not interested in a long distance relationship. The panel where Craig hears this is primarily left blank for the same purpose of evoking empty feelings.Overall, Craig Thompson’s Blankets is an extremely elegant graphic novel which depicts childhood, first love, religion, and self-discovery through a variety of intermixed elements. His novel draws the readers in, making them feel Thompson’s past emotions through every border, letter, and character. The simple beauty of Thompson’s writing and the complexity of his illustrations create a spectacular graphic novel that readers will, undoubtedly, read over and over, each time gaining a new perspective on the story of Raina, Craig, blankets, and oneself.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. Print.
Thompson, Craig. Blankets: a graphic novel. Marietta, Ga.: Top Shelf, 2003. Print.