February 2004

Karin L. Kross


Sweet and Sad: Craig Thompson's Graphic Novels

I admit: in my interview with Craig Thompson in this month's Bookslut, I gushed. It would have been hard not to. His books, Good-Bye, Chunky Rice and Blankets, are so winning and touching that one can't help but get enthusiastic about them. Visually, they're very different, but they're united by their delicately woven themes of friendship, love, and absence, and by Thompson's skill and empathy.

When I picked up Good-Bye, Chunky Rice at the comics store, the clerk couldn't help herself. "I love this book!" she exclaimed. "The art is so cartoony, so you might not think that much about it at first, but it's so good." I'd argue that the "cartoony" art is one of its strengths: the rounded, childlike lines are a perfect foil for the melancholy mood of the story. On the one hand there's Chunky Rice, a boy-turtle who is leaving his small town for a new life on a faraway island, despite his pain at leaving his best friend, a mouse named Dandel. On the other is Solomon, haunted by and seeking redemption for a childhood act of brutality that he was forced to commit by his father. Described like that, it sounds like the makings of something bleak, but it's so tenderly told and beautifully drawn that the reader is left, instead, with a sweet feeling of hope.

A similar mood is sustained throughout Blankets, an autobiographical tale that, for all the page count, is surprisingly intimate. The book is a meditation on memories: of Thompson's first, passionate romance with Raina, whom he meets at church camp; of his struggles with his Christian faith and being raised in a strict religious household; and of his childhood relationship -- both loving and conflicted, as sibling relationships often are -- with his younger brother.

Many others have written in praise of Blankets, and the praise is more than justified. The art and writing are beautiful; but more than that, they interact in the way that only happens in comics. Wordless panels express what words cannot say; words add subtleties of meaning to the visuals, and vice versa. Thompson's control of the medium here is akin to that of Dave McKean's in Cages; both combine tightly-rendered realistic and expressionistic images to tell their stories.

Thompson is also an excellent storyteller; the delicacy and purity of the romance with Raina draws the reader right alongside Craig-the-narrator, experiencing his longing, hope, and fear as he does. At the same time, there are moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, like the well-meaning churchgoer who advises Craig not to go to art school, on the grounds that the naked models there will draw him into sin; these moments balance those -- as when the teenaged Craig burns his drawings -- that are almost too painful to read. In all, it is a masterful work.

That the comics form can be used to tell stories like this is not really news, particularly to readers of this column. What is noteworthy is to see such a remarkable talent at work -- this is a thing to be greatly enjoyed. Blankets
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN 1891830430

Buy this book >>>
Good-Bye, Chunky Rice
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN 1891830090