August 2004

Gordon McAlpin

nonfiction

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

Although the book categorizes itself under Graphic Novels and Travel on its own copyright page, Craig Thompson’s new book isn't really a comic book; it's prose, peppered with comics sequences, as in Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Jules Feiffer's The Man in the Ceiling, albeit with a significantly higher comics-to-words ratio than either of those books and hand-lettered, not typeset. In the majority of the book, the weight of the narrative is carried by the words, not the pictures, which are in many instances unconnected to the text. To me, that makes it illustrated prose, not comics. Whatever its medium, though, Carnet de Voyage is intriguing for both its travel stories and behind-the-scenes of touring in Europe earlier this year to promote Blankets, as well as for Thompson's fantastic drawings of France, Barcelona, Morocco and the Alps.

In France, the more or less by-the-numbers discussions of wine and cheese are amusing enough as journal entries. Since he is being shuffled around by publishing types, it is understandable that the sketchbook pays more attention to the people he meets than to the buildings around him. As a travelogue, Carnet is most detailed during Thompson's time in Morocco, where he takes a break from comic book promotion to research his next proper book, Habibi, "sort of an Arabian folk tale of [Thompson's] own making." During Thompson's trip through Morocco, with the promotional tour forgotten for the time being, Craig becomes just another traveler. With no people around to distract him, he draws more buildings and landscapes than in most of the rest of the book, and in-between self-indulgent bouts of loneliness, draws amusing strips about "travel diarrhea." His observations of Morocco, its culture and the people he meets are fascinating. Should Craig Thompson ever be tempted to draw a second Carnet, devoted solely to traveling alone in strange countries, it would be a welcome addition to my shelf.

A close examination of Thompson's drawings merits its own pass through the book. In his March 9 entry, for instance, Craig writes that he has lost his drawing supplies and been forced to replace them with second hand felt pens. The difference in the art is marked. Stuck with the mostly uniform line of a felt pen, his art looks sketchier, flatter and less alive than in the rest of the book, which were drawn with Pentel Pocket Brush pens, mostly straight into the notebook without preliminary underdrawings in pencil, according to Thompson, when I met him at the Chicago Comics signing with James Kochalka last month. Once he leaves Morocco and replaces his lost art supplies, Thompson's artwork goes back to its usual, vibrant style.

It's easy to read Carnet de Voyage as a mini-sequel to Blankets even though it's not. There seems to be a progression the “character” of Craig has gone through, despite that the book stops somewhat abruptly before his promotional tour has ended. The various details of his personal life that he chooses to include occasionally veer into the same "melancholy introvert pining for beautiful girls" territory of Blankets, and these stories lend themselves to a sort of story arc. I suppose any good travel journal would do that -- it is hard to imagine how any person with an attentive mind could travel through foreign countries for three months and go home unchanged -- but while the arc in Carnet de Voyage is hardly epic drama, it still adds up to an engrossing story for fans of Thompson's other books.

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN 1891830600
224 pages