The Comic Book of Revelations

Blankets
By Craig Thompson
Top Shelf Productions
592 pages, $29.95

Craig Thompson broke onto the comics scene with the precocious Goodbye Chunky Rice, written and drawn when he was 25. It told the story of a relationship whose cord is ultimately cut by distance, by the need of one of the lovers to leave the small town in which they live and test the waters of the wider world. The lovers were drawn as a turtle and a mouse, but it was clear that under the fur and shell, they were actually adolescents. You could tell by their seriousness, and by the faintly morbid glamour of their parting.

Goodbye Chunky Rice gave evidence of a graceful formal assuredness, a second-guessing need to underline its symbolic props, a certain reliance on sentimental formula, and an open and ultimately winning earnestness. Thompson’s newest book, Blankets, is more deliberately grown-up, but retains all of these elements: it seems more an amplification of Chunky Rice than a development from it. The end result is a book that’s less satisfying as a whole, but richer and more rewarding to read.

Blankets is the more-or-less autobiographical story of Thompson himself — growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Wisconsin, trying to find a voice, an authentic self, both as an artist and as a human being. This search becomes bound up with the story of his first love, for a girl named Raina (the titular blanket she makes for him as a gift also makes an appearance in Chunky Rice — in a past life, Raina was a rodent, and Craig a hardbacked reptile).

The scope of action is fairly circumscribed — aside from some scenes of wintry nature, much of it happens in classrooms, rec rooms, and especially bedrooms (both the one Craig shares with his brother growing up, and the poster-laminated room where Raina sleeps and where Craig is inducted into transcendent carnal mysteries). Despite the apparent modesty of this circuit — comfortably zoned in the circumambulations of high school life — Thompson’s thematic ambition is enormous. He wishes to tackle, head on, the opposition of book-faith to faith of experience; the function of religion in social life; the obligations of truth in one’s family; the tensions between romantic love and familial love; the erosions of sibling intimacy when kids grow up and make their separate ways in the world; and the vulnerability of love to time. (Of course, many of these issues are intimate issues that can be dramatized on an intimate scale; and a bedroom can be a universe, where some of life’s most indelible discoveries are made.)

Blankets is most persuasive in its nearly tactile evocation of first love. The revelations of sexual and romantic love are treated with the awestruck reverence they command in the adolescent heart. It’s only natural that, to someone trying to be a good Christian, these experiences would ring with the thunder of Biblical truth. Thompson has a beautiful facility of line, and the fluid drawings have a nearly devotional quality — he not only wants to materialize the past, he wants to make it sacred (the hands he draws seem particularly eloquent, like the poised and articulated hands of saints).

The amount of labor that has gone into the thing is undeniable — even a bit cowing. It’s a brick of work, almost 600 pages — over the period of four years, amounting to about a page every two days. This comes to a better page rate than if he’d written, pencilled and drawn a bi-monthly comic over the same span of time, without the income a bi-monthly comic would’ve generated. This extended dedication and focus over the imperatives of groceries and rent is awe-inspiring.

It’s a fine line between high-flown sentiment and pure goo, and the book doesn’t always land on the side of the angels.
It’s so exemplary and inspiring, in fact, I wish the book were a greater success. It’s a fine line between high-flown sentiment and pure goo, and the book doesn’t always land on the side of the angels. There’s a self-absorbed intensity to adolescent drama that makes it difficult to unpack as aesthetic drama. Especially for “sensitive” types, the emerging struggle of us-against-the-world makes it very hard to see the world. High school made me hate the jockocracy as much as anyone else, but the broad strokes in Thompson’s Manichean jocks vs. artfags worldview are just too damn broad: every football is an omen of doom, and you can identify all the good, sensitive souls by the fact that they’re the ones who are always awkwardly adjusting the unruly locks of their hair.

Thompson’s rambunctious symbolism pays off for some splashy effects, but he’s hobbled by a need to spell his cosmology out and push it past its metaphorical effectiveness. There’s a nice bit where Thompson alters a painted portrait of Jesus to symbolize his rift with certain Christian orthodoxies of the body. Sadly, he spoils it by later altering the portrait once again, in an act of symbolic affirmation that’s goofy enough you almost wish he’d gone all the way and had Jesus climb down from the wall, slapping him on the back with a wink and a stigmatic thumbs-up. This, unfortunately, is the symbolic “closure” for one of the most deeply felt epiphanies in the book, where Craig finds that feeling the world around him, honestly and clearly, is a sufficient rebuke against generations of received theology.

Ultimately, Thompson seems too much in the thrall of good taste. The most gleefully energetic passage in the book is a pee-battle between himself and his brother, back when they were young enough to be wearing Batman and Spiderman jimmies; the age-old rivalry between Marvel and DC comics becomes a matter of dueling urethras. Thompson’s work could use a little more of the stink of urine. (In a scene of guilty masturbation — a staple of auto-bio comics he was contractually obliged to deliver — even the streaking, shameful jizz is treated like an act of calligraphy.) He manages to weave in a number of formal tricks in the pee-battle, without losing the headlong rhythm of the scene itself. There are arrows, cutaways, faux medical diagrams, physical objects used as panel borders, panel shapes that bend outward like ballooning bladders, and finally a punch line delivered in a small white panel framed by heavy black negative space. Thompson really seems to think in the form of comics. Over the course of any dozen pages, you’re likely to find some novel formal trick, some incontrovertibly right way of framing things.

Here are two striking examples:

First, a page where Raina takes Craig to a party. The isolation of the two interior panels of course serves to bracket Craig and Raina off from the social activity of the party (it’s a nice touch that the word balloon in the second panel is actually part of the frame, a private question Raina directs towards Craig in the midst of the hubbub). Their traverse through the party opens out into bewildering distortions of size, a crush of bodies with no shared vanishing point: as you look outside the panels you’re looking through Craig’s alienated eyes. The subjective and objective views of the party are perfectly blended into a total atmosphere — one that’s garnished by some spot-on portraiture, frozen in bursts of eye-contact that punctuate the flow of the party.

Second, a two-page spread where Craig and Raina are feeling their way toward each other through some religious philosophizing. The mirroring of their postures at the outside edges of the pages serves to draw them together (while they remain the same physical distance from each other, the mirroring creates an invisible “X” across the pages, which perceptually seems to pull all the elements toward the center: physically, they may be across the room from each other, but mentally they are drawing closer). Craig talks about lust, and one of the segments of his word balloon holds a picture of his hand, reaching downward toward where Raina is on the page. Raina talks about temptation, and one of the segments of her word balloon holds a picture of her hand, offering an apple upwards toward where Craig is on the page. The gestures framed in their word balloons are more forward than their actual bodies: the hands symbolically try to close a circuit of offering and acceptance. In the middle of the two-page spread, two narrow panels are set like upright planks, and in each is a drawing of their symbolical selves: Craig exists in a landscape of “lust,” cluttered with grotesque and skeletal figures that are culled from an early episode of sexual abuse perpetrated by a baby sitter, and Raina exists in a landscape of “temptation” — the garden of Eden, her breasts barely covered by a strategically placed sprig of foliage. These upright panels, together with the boxes containing the gesturing hands, structurally form a cross, the theological system on which these notions of lust and temptation are hung. The spread would be too schematic and pretentious a conceit if it weren’t punctured by a bit of self-depreciating humor: the symbolical Craig, in his thorny garden of lust, is actually peeking outside of his panel and into Raina’s adjacent one — hoping to catch a glimpse of what’s behind that obfuscating scrap of bush.

It’s hard to square such formal sophistication with the subjective naïveté of the book, but while Thompson can make particular moments sing with formal innovation, over the long haul the material tangles him up. Thompson is so deeply lodged in the subjectivity of his experiences that the flaws of the main character get muddied with the flaws of the author. He never quite finds a controlled relation to autobiography: the perspective is not quite distant enough for the narrative to develop clear outlines, and on the other hand, it’s not raw enough for the immediacy to assert its own aesthetic truth. A crucial scene featuring Raina’s father is undermined because it’s obvious that Craig himself could not have witnessed it. More fatally, the denouement of Craig’s relationship with Raina doesn’t appear in the way the author intends it to: what’s meant to be a defining act of maturity actually seems petulant and self-absorbed.

Despite these flaws, the formal beauty and ambition of Blankets make it an absorbing read (another thing it shares with Chunky Rice is the feeling it gives you that there will be exciting and better work ahead). What recommends it most highly, perhaps — because it’s evidence that it gets its hooks in you — is the intense curiosity you feel about the real-life models used for the characters in the book, and particularly how they feel about their inked counterparts. Does Craig’s brother feel a confirmation of their youthful bond? Do his parents have a clearer understanding of his unorthodox spirituality? And, of course, you wonder: will Raina come across a copy? Thompson has an ability to evoke her — with a fitful sense of poetry, too — but he never quite fleshes her out. The way he draws her, she looks lovely, but there’s a patina of formula over it — her drawn face has a little bit of that vacancy you get from good-girl art in romance comics. Her face is almost as much a mask as the mouse-head she wore in Goodbye Chunky Rice. One hopes for the most unlikely of circumstances — that Raina has also, in the interim, found a calling as a cartoonist — and she’s now hard at work, telling her side of the story.