Blankets tells a tale ripe with childhood innocence, the search for religious meaning, and the pull of obsession found in love. Written as a memoir, the story follows Craig as he grows from a child troubled by bullies and the fundamentalist religion that both scares and comforts him to a man tangled in obsession and searching for the meaning behind God. Craig recounts the childhood games him and his brother used to play and the fateful meeting that led to a relationship shadowed by naivete and shame. While a long read, clocking in at 592 pages, this autobiographical graphic novel is filled to the brim with amazing artwork and a story full of discovery and loss.
Craig Thompson employs a style rich with bold lines and designs and isn’t afraid to liberally use black to paint the mood of a given scene. His characters are well designed with more angular features, punctuated with thick brush strokes to convey movement and impact. His full page splashes provide a kind of imagination that works well with a story that talks liberally about a child’s and artist’s creative imagination, even going so far as to depict the sound of falling snow or breathing with highly detailed imagery. Thompson’s experience as a graphic storyteller really shines through in this graphic novel as there are many points where dialogue is left out in favor of pure imagery, and he manages to capture a wide range of emotions and stories just through sequential art. I’m always in favor of dropping dialogue whenever you can as the simplest way of showing something is almost always more enjoyable.
Besides the art style, the whole graphic novel displays a format and layout that plays with your imagination and uses the distortion of panels to reflect the current mood. I think this was one of the key things that really made me love this novel. Some of the panels do follow the traditional grid style, but there are a lot of moments where characters or backgrounds bleed through the divisions creating something that flows from moment to moment. And, at times, the panels would disappear altogether to something akin to a full page splash but not quite. Panel lines would distort, curving in a myriad of different ways, almost creating this fish-eye effect for moments that call for a certain amount of visual distortion either to project a character’s level of influence or to emphasize the blending of time.
I can gush all day about Thompson’s art style and wide swath of imagery present in this graphic novel, but the story itself also begs to be discussed. I highly encourage you to experience his art for yourself, and I’ll put some of my favorites throughout this review as a teaser. There is a lot to unpack in this story which is understandable considering the autobiographical nature and the nearly 600 page length, and much of it’s subject matter can be a challenge to talk about for a variety of reasons. However, I think the main focus of the story is how Craig transforms from someone brought up in a fundamentalist Christian home to someone who no longer believes in God. Thompson portrays his upbringing in an understandably conflicting light, both painting Christianity as something he took comfort in and as something that terrified him. For years, he looked to the Bible as an escape and as a way to explain all the bullying and terrible things that were happening to him, but, at the same time, that leads him to the belief that the only future to look forward to is the one in Heaven. He starts mitigating the effects of bullying by taking solace in the belief that he will have a better life in the after life. Paired with this sense of twisted comfort is the depictions of religious leaders from his childhood who all become distorted and “larger than life” to show the amount of influence and force they are using to impart these beliefs. Sunday school then becomes both a moment of fear and comfort as these fundamentalist ideals are imparted through a mix of fiery devils and teachers basked in holy light.
Along the same vein is Thompson’s discussion of sibling rivalry and betrayal. Most of us have known the frustration of dealing with a sibling, particularly when you are the older one. You have to share your space, your things, and your parents attention. Craig talks of his life with his younger brother Phil as one filled with the frustration of sharing the same bed while feeling that sense of need to protect. All of these feelings culminate in two powerful scenes: one where Phil is put into a closed-off cubby-hole because they had been fighting about sharing a bed, and the next where they both get sexually abused by a babysitter. In both of these moments, Craig is rocked by shame and guilt for not being the kind of brother who could protect Phil, feeling that powerful sense of helplessness when faced with something out of his control. I think, in some ways, that last event may have inadvertently led to them eventually becoming more distant. In this light, Craig’s recountings of his adventures with his brother becomes more wistful as a way to say that he regrets ever loosing touch with Phil in the first place. However, if we take the story out of the context of an autobiography, I was a little disappointed that the sexual abuse storyline didn’t get more closure or attention for that matter, but I still think we see its effects later on.
What obviously made me want to review this graphic novel (besides the art) was the romance that permeates through a good section of the story. Revolving around a girl named Raina, who he views as “the girl of his dreams,” their romance is filled with innocence and shame as Craig tries to reconcile his faith with his equally powerful sexual desire. Almost all of the imagery surrounding his relationship with Raina has her basked in the light of God or equated to the Virgin Mary. He seems to hold her to such high-esteem that it’s no surprise when their relationship starts to turn south. Relationship and personality differences that would seem like deal breakers to many are glossed over by Craig in favor of touting her perfection and beauty. You can chalk it up to the innocence of adolescent first-love, but this does provide a great chance for discussion on how Craig’s faith has impacted his view of sexuality. Even as he is pulled in and aroused by her beauty, he becomes ashamed by the temptation of sex. To him, giving in to something as simple as masturbation is akin to sin, the natural act of sex “tainted” by the memories of his fundamentalist teachings and the sexual abuse he faced as a child. Many times we see Craig and Raina entangled together in a loving embrace over a bit of warped and screaming devils ready to pull them into Hell. But, through distancing himself from his religion, he seems to reclaim that human element and come to terms with his sexuality.
Don’t be daunted by the length of this graphic novel, the story managed to pull me in right away to the point where I finished reading much faster than I thought I would. Craig Thompson manages to build a world that is engaging and imaginative through his art and storytelling, relatable to many who may have been brought up around these same fundamentalist beliefs. His depiction of the rural Midwest provided a great backdrop for both childhood innocence and adolescent longing. Even if you think the subject matter may be off-putting, I highly encourage you to read it if only for the art.
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