Blankets by Craig Thompson. Marietta, Georgia: Top Shelf Productions, 2003.
Blankets, a graphic memoir, captures the author’s internalized isolation from growing up in a strict religious family in a small midwestern town and the transformative experience of adolescent first love. This experience marks the beginning of Thompson’s receptiveness to “adulthood” and a path that will eventually lead him to reject his faith and recapture his love of drawing. Thompson’s distinctive black-and-white art (Good-bye Chunky Rice, 1999; Habibi, 2011) balances representational precision (especially in facial expressions) with lyrical line, decorative motifs and dark, harsh angularity in expansive spreads that reference religious texts and imagery.
The spread from Blankets shown above appears near the end of Chapter V: I Don’t Want to Grow Up, which is the middle chapter in the book and a thematic turning point of the memoir. In this chapter, the main characters, Craig and Raina, have shared poignant childhood memories, their vague after-high-school plans, and their thoughts about some of the basic tenets of their shared religion in one night of intense closeness. Craig also silently reflects on how childhood sexual abuse made him feel displaced from his body and fearful and disgusted by the physical transformations of adolescence. Then, at Raina’s invitation, they decide to extend their closeness and sleep together in her bed. When Raina leaves the room, Craig is engulfed by the fiery texts of his religion in unbalanced panels that poke at him. Upon Raina’s return, the text and images become lyrical references to the Song of Solomon, a biblical poem of human love, that continue through full-page spreads of Craig’s reflections on the miraculous beauty of a sleeping Raina after his early-morning return to his own room. The above spread shows Craig and Raina’s first contact in the common space of the living room the next morning. The wordlessness of the spread contains the quiet internalizing of the private communion between Craig and Raina the night before and serves to emphasize a sense of ritual and profundity. The first panel in the spread echos this feeling as a dark background offsets a bright aura around the new lovers. The spread is structured very simply, with square panels atop differently-sized horizontal panels. This construction also adds to the sense of ritual enactment. In the panels on the left page, Craig lets Raina position his arms in a stance that resembles Christ on the Cross, and indeed in the bottom panel, Craig’s shadow is that Cross. Craig’s passivity here is not the repressed consciousness that helped him survive the hurts and abuses in his childhood, but the quiet intensity of being fully present in the moment. The Christ-like stance and Craig’s expression convey his trust in Raina and now, himself. On the following page, Raina “blankets” Craig with his overcoat and beckons for him to follow her outside. In the penultimate panel, Craig stares at Raina’s bare leg as he bends to tie his shoe and his expression is the pivot point of the spread and perhaps the whole memoir. An open eye and raised eyebrow reveal an awareness and acceptance of his physical desire for Raina, and thereby his own sexuality. This marks the point where Craig is finally ready to “grow-up” and integrate the fractured parts of himself. In the final panel, only Craig and Raina’s bodies are shown (their heads are out of the frame), as they leave burdensome cares and thoughts behind (at least for the moment), and move into a light-filled physical world of new experiences. Overall, this spread quietly embodies the essential themes of Blankets: growing up, experiencing first love and the interconnected complexities it awakens in Craig about his self-image, his sexuality, his religion, and his ability to consciously move forward into his future.
From a librarian’s perspective, this spread shows the power of comics to convey the emotional and intellectual complexities of the author’s personal experience and our shared human experience of “becoming” adults. The simplicity of the panel structure and the “realism” of the characters and their actions makes this spread immediately accessible. The spread also conveys a positive message of handling others (especially when they are vulnerable) with attention and care. I would readily use this spread to recommend this comic to teen and adult readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories and memoirs.
For me, this spread from Blankets beautifully and simply presents a quiet dance-like enactment of our shared humanity. The simple structure of the page, its wordlessness, the expressive faces and gestures, and the symbolic references combine to poetically convey the content of the story as well as universal concepts of moving into our own future with agency.