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Blankets

Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2004
By: Iain Burnside



Writer/Artist: Craig Thompson
Publisher: Top Shelf

It is difficult to put into words the beauty that you will find in this book. Hell, it is hard enough to even read it without needing to take several breaks in order to try and find some breathing space from the overwhelming emotions that spill out of every panel. Merely opening the book at random lets them roam out, like some ancient spirit trapped in a book at Hogwarts library. Essentially, Blankets is but a love story - nothing more, nothing less. Yet it is written with such vulnerable bravado and drawn in such a raw, fragile fashion that it easily oversteps its boundaries and becomes a personal wake-up call to the reader.

It is also perhaps the single greatest advertisement for the graphic novel on the market today. Forever mistakenly intertwined with the comic book format, along with its cousin manga, graphic novels are at last beginning to gain widespread recognition as a viable literary medium. Successful, Academy Award-nominated, film adaptations of efforts like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour have helped to pave the way and persuade your local bookstores to expand on that musty range of Batman and X-Men collections buried at the end of the science fiction section (or, if you’re really unlucky, the children’s section). Now most of the larger chains are looking further afield than DC and Marvel, further even than Vertigo and Dark Horse, and have a number of smaller creator-owned titles in stock. Some of them even get hand-picked for the hallowed “Our Staff Recommend” section. If any of them truly deserve to be in such a coveted position, it is Blankets. In fact, it even manages to outgrow the graphic novel label, instead billing itself as an “illustrated novel”, hinting at the very mature content within.

Clocking in at around 600 pages, Craig Thompson’s non-serialised opus is an autobiographical snapshot of a pivotal moment in his adolescence – his first love. As the old song says, the first cut is the deepest, and Thompson deserves the utmost praise for being brave enough to dig so deep and share so much with the world, as this book is as open and honest with it’s emotions as it could possibly be. Young Craig’s formative years were, like everyone’s; full of confusion and turmoil lightened only by brief glimmers of happiness desperately clung on to for fear of returning to the status quo. We are first introduced to his family life, restricted to a remote house slap bang in the Middle of Nowhere-ville, USA. Craig and younger brother Phil were raised by two loving yet strict and stoutly Christian parents and had to share a bed when they were children. This obviously led to an extremely tight bond between the two, as evidenced by some charming scenes of imaginative playtime as only a child can manage. However, things are still far from idyllic. There is a dark undertow threatening to pull Craig down to its murky depths no matter where he goes, from the harsh disciplinary methods of his father to some sinister run-ins with a babysitter, both of which end up with Craig feeling extremely guilty over being unable to protect Phil.

The undertow follows Craig outside of the homestead too. At school he is surrounded by less than savoury characters that mock him for his ‘grunge’ clothes and haircut (this book is set in the early ‘90s), simply do not understand why he is not interested in the same things they are, and take great pleasure in bullying him and making his life hell. Speaking of which, there are also several pastors, church-goers and Sunday School teachers all tugging at Craig, trying to get him to stay on the path they laid in order to use his intelligence to enter the ministry. Craig obviously does not want to spend the rest of his life in servitude to the church, yet he really doesn’t know what else to do. Although it would offer a way out of his small hometown, it would mean spending years trapped in the teachings of a church that he feels increasingly detached from. Through the combination of isolation from his peers and a growing crisis of faith, Craig is whisked off to a special Christmas Camp along with several kids from other churches in the area.

This is where he meets Raina.

This is where the already captivating book really starts to soar, with each page becoming more and more beautiful until we’re in love as much as Craig and Raina are. Sure, certain things are overblown but then we’ve all said and done some crazy things under the guise of love, especially as teenagers. Every single action, word and mannerism rings true. The illustrations will take your breath away as Thompson allows his pencil to connect straight to the soul and just runs wild across the page. There are large sections with no dialogue at all that are far more inventive and engrossing than any silent issue of any comic ever produced by Marvel. Even the supporting cast get treated with nothing but respect and admiration, in particular Raina’s father, a man in the middle of several situations that he cannot control such as his baby girl growing up and embarking on a serious relationship and his wife demanding a divorce. This is not one of those “happily ever after” books either. This is 100% real and as painful as any real-life situation would be.

All in all, Blankets has only one flaw – that I cannot actually give it six out of five bullets. Other than that, this is essential reading and not just for those of us who would like something more than spandex-clad superheroics in our comics now and then. It is essential reading for anyone who has ever been in love. A truly captivating piece of literature – I salute you, Mr. Thompson. Well deserved pair of Eisners too – what more recommendation do you need?



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