A lot of variety seems to be gathered under the term “graphic novel.” There are storytelling comic series, like the Sandman series; there are actual fictional novels, like Gemma Bovery or Pride of Baghdad, there are lots of memoirs, like Persepolis and American Born Chinese, and there are genres that fall in between, like the memoir/ biography/ history/ philosophy that is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The act of blending art with words seems to make the idea of genre more forgiving. When you already have people arguing whether it’s “really” a book at all, who cares about the smaller distinctions?
Blankets, by Craig Thompson, is one of these genre-swapping works. It’s billed as an “illustrated novel,” but inside the front cover is a modest disclaimer, saying that while the book is based on personal experiences (thus a memoir), names, events, and characters have been changed “in service to the story” (thus a novel). The effect is that when I read it, I wasn’t sure what to believe had actually happened, but I was profoundly caught up in the emotions and tenderness of what Thompson has created.
Blankets begins with Craig Thompson’s childhood in a small, rural town in Wisconsin. His parents are very strong fundamentalist Christians, and they don’t have much money — two things that make Craig stand out among his peers. His parents’ constant reminders about sin, along with their opinion that being an artist is not a healthy pursuit for a Christian, give Craig the sense that he doesn’t belong in either his parents’ world or the world of sex and drugs that his peers inhabit. Unpopular, ill at ease, and feeling the guilt of sins he’s never even committed, he floats unhappily along until, the winter of his senior year, he meets Raina at a Christian “snow camp” over Christmas break.
The rest of the book is a tender first-love story. Craig and Raina are both set apart from their families and peers, Christian and non-Christian, for different reasons, and they are able to meet in the middle and comfort each other for one achingly lovely season. Craig, normally haunted by sin, is able to see his love as part of a perfect creation; Raina shares the burdens and responsibilities that have fallen on her as the child of divorcing parents. Nothing lasts forever, but the love is real, and the story (and the art that illustrates it) is beautiful, if ephemeral.
There were a few things about Blankets that… I don’t know if bothered me is too strong a term. Not knowing what was true and what was exaggeration or changed “in service to the story” troubled me, especially with regard to Thompson’s parents, who are portrayed as clueless at best and cruel at worst. Also, for a book that hinges so much on faith, hypocrisy, and exploration of new avenues of faith, I would have liked to see a little more sophistication in the theology, especially at the end. It’s not that all the religious characters are portrayed the same way — Thompson doesn’t fall into that trap. But his own approach to his faith or loss of faith has none of the nuance that his adolescent romance does. I would have liked more.
That said, the art here was gorgeous. Thompson uses negative space wonderfully (all that snow!) There is a great deal of contrast and balance in the book, and he uses the simple device of beginning with the bed he shared with his brother and ending with a bed he shared with someone he loved in a more adult way. I would definitely recommend this book, which is beautifully drawn, beautifully written, moving, and very true to first love as I remember it. I am eager to read Thompson’s other graphic novel, Goodbye, Chunky Rice — and you’ll hear about it when I do.