Friday, September 09, 2011

Review: Blankets

While attending the Baltimore Comic Con I stopped by Top Shelf's booth because I wanted to take a look at Kagan McLeod's Infinite Kung Fu. After reading about this graphic novel online I had to see it for myself. It's an independent book about kung fu, mythology and zombies all written and drawn by one guy. And did I mention that it clocks in at a hefty 464 pages?!?!But I'm not here to talk about McLeod's magnum opus. I'm here to talk about something completely different.

While flipping through the various books on their table I was approached by one Top Shelf's salesmen who asked if I had read any books from their library. I told him that I just wrapped up Jeff Lemire's Essex County and I absolutely loved it. We chatted for a few minutes and he mentioned that if I enjoyed Lemire's work I should really pick up Craig Thompson's Blankets. Blankets was one of those books I would hear about from time to time and it was always being praised. It even made Time magazine's list of the greatest graphic novels of all time. I heard and read so many good things about this book that I was hesitant to pick it up. When a book is almost universally adored I worry that it will never live up to my heightened expectations. It is difficult to sit down and read a work like that without any preconceived notions. It's like you are expecting to be blown away by every page and if you're not then you assume the book was terrible. It's not fair but often times unavoidable.

If there is one thing I can say about Top Shelf it's that they put out some wonderful hardcover treatments, and the latest offering of Blankets was no exception. Seeing this book in hardcover made me feel a little less guilty about not picking it up when it was originally released in paperback. So with the book in hand, and a little push from the salesman, I finally decided to pick it up. But the question still remained: Does Blankets live up to the expectations? In a word........Absolutely.

The book is autobiographical. I feel this is important to point out because this is what makes the book so outstanding. I don't think this work would have packed the same emotional punch for me if it had been just another work of fiction. The book focuses primarily on Thompson's early adolescence, with occasional flashbacks to his childhood. We see how he handles growing up in an evangelical Christian household, his joy and subsequent heartbreak from falling in love for the first time, and his transition into adulthood. Usually books like this don't appeal to me. They tend to fall victim to the "woe is me" trap where the author uses the book to say, "Hey, look at me and how bad my childhood was." Every page is an attempt to one-up the one prior with some gut-wrenching story of abuse or neglect. Thankfully Thompson avoids this trap, and although the book addresses some heavy issues it does so with grace. For example, there is a section of the book where Thompson alludes to the fact that when they were young, he and his younger brother Phil were sexually abused by their babysitter. Thompson addresses it, but never dwells on it. It was just another part of his life that had a profound affect on the man he grew up to be. It's never mentioned again for the rest of the book.

The majority of the book focuses on two themes: Thompson's struggle with Christianity and the pursuit of his first love, Raina. It's the latter that I found the most affecting. This should come as no surprise since at one time Thompson was credited with saying that the novel came about from his desire to describe how it feels to sleep next to someone for the first time. When Craig and Raina first meet he feels like an outcast. He's having difficulty fitting in at school and he even finds himself rejected by other "Christians" he meets at bible camp. It is here that he meets Raina. They connect instantaneously and begin a friendship, and even though they live far apart, they continue to grow close through phone calls once they leave camp. They miss each other and the comfort and acceptance that the other provides. This longing to be together causes Craig to ask his parents if he can visit Raina at her home for two weeks during the winter. This is where the book really took off for me. The pages that follow capture the wonder of first love better than any other work of art I've seen. The knowing glances, the gentle touches, the first kiss, the first night in the same bed together, it is all done masterfully. This section is a love letter. Not only to Raina, or the girl who Raina was modeled after, but to that sense of innocence. An experience that comes once in a lifetime.

Craig and Raina love each other. That can not be denied. But Raina's life is complex. She is saddled with responsibilities that no teenager should have to assume. Her parents are in the midst of a divorce. She has three siblings, two of which are adopted and mentally disabled. The third sibling is her biological sister. A woman who married young and had a baby that she ignores. With her family in shambles, Raina attempts to pick up the pieces and feels the responsibility to care for her adopted siblings and her infant niece. Craig offers her peace. When they are alone she is able to put aside the weight of her life and just live. But really it's not that simple. It's always there in the back of her mind. After the two weeks pass, Craig returns home uncertain of what their future will hold but still hopeful. Until he gets the call. Raina can't handle another person in her life. What she calls "another responsibility." Craig wants a future with her, but she knows she can't give that to him right now and breaks up with him. Craig understands and they remain best friends. But he is devastated. So much so he burns everything Raina every gave him. Everything except a blanket she made for him. That's something he can't part with. He stores it away in his parents house with some of his other possessions that he no longer cares to deal with. He then calls Raina and lets her go forever.

I'll admit I'm not entirely sure why he did that. Why Craig felt the need to sever their relationship completely. The reader is given the impression that Thompson understands how much Raina has to handle and fully comprehends why she can't handle a relationship. But he had to know that he was important to her. That she loved him even though she couldn't give herself to him completely. Maybe hearing her voice just hurt him too much. Either way, this scene, this phone call, hit me the hardest. It's a testament to Thompson's writing and illustrations that I was able to feel something for these characters I've never met.

I guess this is a good time to mention the art. For the most part Blankets is drawn in a "realistic" style. But there are moments where Thompson utilizes abstract and symbolic imagery to convey emotions and ideas that words can not properly express. This happens a lot when Thompson flashes back to his childhood and you see he and his brother playing in bed together. The room transforms to an ocean while the bed acts as their ship. Sharks circle, the wind howls, and the brothers have to float their ship to safety. It's a great way to show the inner workings of a child's mind. Or there are times where Craig looks at Raina and she's drawn as an almost god-like being with angels carrying her at each side. An example of how perfect she is to him. Thompson's storytelling ability is near perfect. He is able to tell so much of the story with the character's face alone. They are so expressive that certain pages do not even require dialogue. This is where his art really shines.

After Craig says goodbye to Raina the book provides a quick overview of what happened next. Craig moved out shortly thereafter and started a new life in the city. He returns home for his brother's wedding and again a few years later for Christmas. The book concludes with Craig returning home in his early twenties a new man. He knows who he is and he has come to terms with what his faith means to him. He has reconnected with his family and they are closer than they have ever been. He's content. So much so he's able to dig through his old belongings and pull out the quilt Raina made for him years prior. It is now comforting where it was once heartbreaking. He is at peace. 

I can't say enough good things about Blankets. If you have ever loved, felt like an outsider, or questioned your place in the world,  you should read this book. In a genre dominated by superheroes, a book like this shouldn't even exist, much less have been such a success. But thankfully it does exist and the comic book world is a better place because of it.

1 comment:

Birdiebo said...

This book has always caught my eye and I'd only heard great things about it. After reading this though, I'm even more excited to go out and pick it up! Great article!!!