Jan 29, 2010

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Dear friends who haven't read Blankets yet: please read it right now. I'm serious. And if you're thinking, "Could it possibly be as good as everyone says it is?", the answer is yes - as good, if not better. You might also be thinking, "What is Blankets?", in which case: Blankets is a graphic memoir by Craig Thompson, which focuses on his childhood and adolescence. He grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where he didn't feel he fit in, and was raised by strict religious parents who, thought well-meaning, were sometimes quite cruel.

Blankets details the story of Thompson's loss of faith, of his acceptance of his wish to become an artist, and of his relationship with his first love, Raina. Remember what I was saying the other day about how memoirs rely a little bit too much on being true sometimes, as if that were a get out of jail free card? Well, that's not the case at all here. Blankets is autobiographical, yes, but it's also one fabulous piece of storytelling.

The lovely Aarti from Booklust and I both read this book last weekend - I read it in a single sitting, in a total of about three hours, and began our discussion immediately after I finished. What follows is our joint review of the book, which I hope you'll enjoy reading (yes, we had a lot to say, but Blankets is just that rich):

Ana: I have literally just finished the book, and I have to say I'm sad it wasn't 1200 pages long instead of 600. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. My expectations were high, but they were still surpassed. Don't you just love it when that happens?

Somehow Blankets was pretty different from what I was expecting. I knew the basics - it's a graphic memoir about a young man who grew up in a strict religious family and later on lost his faith - but I had no idea what to expect from the tone, and I'd imagined it differently. What surprised me was the tenderness with which the story is told. He never sounds angry - just sad, frightened, and so movingly human and vulnerable. I also appreciated how subtle and understated it often was, but I'll return to this point in more detail later on.


Aarti: I finished the book last night and really just say "ditto." I wasn't expecting it to be the way it was, too. I was expecting more anger- maybe because my last graphic novel Fun Home at times sounded a little angry. But yes, I think "movingly human and vulnerable" is an excellent description. I loved the way he drew his younger self- how small he & his brother were compared to his father. The scenes where his parents confront him about his drawing a naked woman, and he is all curled up in a ball on the bed. The scenes where he leaves his cabin at church camp to do confession in the game room under the loud heater. The end, when he goes walking alone outside. I also thought that the scenes with Raina's father, when he is standing outside his son's door with his shoulders slumped, or sitting out in the car hoping his wife will speak with him, or when he is all alone cleaning up a house he no longer lives in... they were all just so touching and so beautiful.

I think for me, Fun Home was more about the words and Blankets was more about the pictures. But they are so different it is unfair for me to compare the two (however, the two of them being the only ones I've read, I think I kind of have to). I just loved the drawings in this book. And I think it showed me just how powerful the graphic format can be for writing memoirs. There is so much more "show, not tell" in the book- something that so many teachers harp on in school through using other verbal cues, but which the GN format does by its very nature.

I also found the relationship with Raina very real and bittersweet. I could see why she didn't want a relationship, but I also felt for Craig at the time. It seemed like Raina's life was just so exhausting. That section of her family life really spoke to me, too, because one of my friends is pregnant with twins currently and was really scared for some time that they might both have Down's Syndrome, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to go through with the pregnancy if she was going to be raising two children with special needs. I think that decision would be so hard to make and probably involve a lot of judging on the parts of a lot of people. But seeing the way Raina's family dynamics worked, with two kids with special needs- I think it is a huge decision to undertake and can affect so much in a relationship. It isn't something to enter into lightly.


I also felt for Craig in all of his efforts to reconcile his drawing with his relationship to God. How he wanted to draw instead of sing and tried so many ways to do both but people just wouldn't listen to him. And how people kept describing Heaven in ways that make it seem very, very disenchanting. (And how would they really even know how Heaven is, anyway, to say "You're wrong" about it?) I could totally understand his quote at the end saying that he believes in Christ and his teachings, but not in the Bible or the dogmatic approach so many people take to religion. I think a lot of people feel that way. I find it amazing that people exist who think the Bible has not been changed over the past 2,000 years (or longer, with the Old Testament); that it's still exactly what God said to his people. (They should read Small Gods, really!) And I've always found it interesting that Christians believed that Christ was a new prophet for religion and took up with him, but fought so strongly against Mohammed when he did the same thing hundreds of years later. I would think that would make them more understanding, but no- they just became terrified of the new religion.

Ok, enough meandering from me for now!

Ana: Everyone should read Small Gods!

You know, even having read other graphic memoirs, I had somehow linked Blankets and Fun Home too in my head. Bechdel does sound a little angry at times (which I understand), and maybe this unconscious link is why I expected Thompson's tone to be similar. His tenderness really took me by surprise. I loved the fact that even though he suffered at his parents' hands, and at the hands of other community members (like that Sunday School teacher who told him his vision of heaven was not valid), he never portrays anyone as a monster. Did you notice that he dedicates the book "to my family, with love"? Reading that again after I'd finished the book made me cry. The characters are all so human, so nuanced. They're sometimes cruel, and they make mistakes, but he writes with the knowledge that they were doing the best they could - the best they knew how. The emotional place the book seems to be coming from is one where there's sadness, but forgiveness too.

Blankets Blankets

Another thing I wanted to address was what you said about the art: Yes, absolutely! Craig Thompson knows how to take full advantage of the comics medium, and the art is as much a part of the storytelling as the words are - often a more important part. There were so many panels that left me teary-eyed... Craig alone in bed when his brother Phil was locked in the cubicle for the night; when Raina's father catches them sleeping in the same bad and his facial expression changes from anger to acceptance; Raina and Craig together, in each other's arms, as she sings him The Cure's "Just Like Heaven"... I could go on. The art is beautiful, detailed, and a great part of what sets the book's emotional tone.

I was saying earlier that I wanted to return to what I said about it being so subtle and understated: what I meant is that there are things he shows us but doesn't dwell on; doesn't comment on, even. For example, the sexual abuse he and his brother suffer at the hands of a babysitter. And also how both this experience and his faith influenced his views of sexuality and tinged his passion for Raina with guilt. It's not that these things are addressed superficially - they're actually a huge part of the experiences he's writing about. They're not dealt with superficially, but it's almost as if they're too frail, too raw to touch or dwell on. Like he's telling readers, "Here's what happened to me. I'm not entirely sure if I can talk about it, so I will show you instead". That, too, is what made Blankets feel so vulnerable to me - and I love it for it.

I came across a quote about the book on Wikipedia that I wanted to share: Thompson has said that the novel grew out of a simple idea: to describe what it feels like to sleep next to someone for the first time. Isn't that beautiful? Of course, the book does a lot more than just this, but it also captures that feeling perfectly: the tenderness, the longing, the hint of fear, the perfect happiness... ah, I'm getting teary-eyed again just thinking about it.

Please visit Aarti's blog for the rest of our conversation!


And for other opinions of Blankets, visit Lu, Chris, Heather, Shelf Love, Katrina, or Bart. (Did I miss yours?)


  1. You guys make it sound too good! I just totally want to get it!

  2. I enjoyed reading your and Aarti's views on the book, Nymeth! I'm definitely adding this onto my wishlist!! Now am off to read the rest on Aarti's blog. :)

  3. I pulled this one out of my ginormous library stack two days ago, assuming it would be my next read. I've been stalling, but I think it's finally time to give it a read! Thanks for the extra push - it sounds absolutely wonderful. :)

  4. Yep, I knew you'd love it. In that way you just sometimes *know*. Honestly, one of the most special books I've ever read. I love your use of "tenderness" to describe it...that is absolutely the perfect word.

  5. Somehow, this book was already on list of potentials for the GN Challenge. I'm not sure where I got the recommendation, but I'm happy to see the glowing review! I love the style of the illustrations, and I love the way you reviewed it. Great job guys!

  6. I requested Blankets from my library after reading Chris's review and I can't wait for it to arrive!

    You both make it sound so touching and profound.

    I find it curious that most of the graphic novels that I have read (Persepolis, Embroideries, Maus, Fun Home) have all been memoirs; I don't read memoirs in any other form and it is interesting that the medium allows their stories to be told and for me to enjoy them.

    I need to read Small Gods.

  7. Your review really hit a nerve and brought a lot of worrying times to me.

    When I was pregnant with the girls, we were told that there was a high possibility that they may have Downs Syndrome.It was an awful time for us and I had to undergo lots of tests. Never at any time did I decide that I could not go through with the pregnancy and in the end we stopped all the tests and left the decision to the hands of Fate. Luckily the girls were born OK, but I know that I still would have had them if they hadn't been.
    I think I need to read this book.

  8. I tried requesting this ages ago (or so it seems) from our library, and there are a zillion holds on it, suggesting that word of mouth has been great on this book. Can't wait until it comes my way!

  9. This is one of those books I've liked more and more each time I've reread it. There are several people with chromosomal disorders in my extended family, and I loved how respectful Craig Thompson was of the disabled people in Raina's family.

    I think this book resonated particularly with me as I read it first when recovering from a break-up with a guy whose upbringing was a lot like Craig Thompson's - the very religious family, the Christians camps - and it helped me feel less angry with my ex, and remember the good things about him rather than the bad.

    I don't know why I haven't bought it yet!

  10. Gosh, in reading this over, I think I have some pretty poor grammar up there! Also noticed I spelled "Review" wrong on my blog! YIKES.

    I must have just been so excited to read and review with you that everything else went out the window :-) Thanks! Was so fun!

  11. You've caught my attention. Your review has given me **goosebumps** ~ I can already tell that this book would be an emotional ride for me.
    Thanks for your sharing your real and captivating perspectives.

  12. This sounds wonderful. I really like the way you and Aarti read this together.

  13. Fantastic conversational review. I read this book in one sitting as well. The 600 pages just fly by. Ditto on liking the part where Raina's dad is standing outside Raina's room, about to get angry and then he understands and you can see it on his face. I like how fleshed out Raina's family was overall. The wintry Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula setting was nicely realized too.

  14. Such a perfect review, ladies :) You know, the whole time I read this book I had his dedication in the back of my mind "to my family, with love"....it would pop back into my head and I think that's what kept making me get teary eyed more and more. You're right, there was so much gentleness in this book. Ah, it was just perfect!!! I want to read it again. He really did use the GN medium to the best of it's ability here...just perfectly. And I LMAO at the pee fight too :p

  15. Ok, Ok!! If my library has it I will TOTALLY read it. :)

  16. As soon as I finish my current book, I plan to pick up Blankets and read it. I can't wait, especially after reading yours and Aarti's thoughts on it!

  17. Wonderful review - it reminded me of how much I simply loved this book. I think I need to read it again.

  18. This was the first graphic novel I read as an adult. I almost wish it weren't, since I couldn't help comparing everything I read afterward to Blankets!

    Weirdly, my husband and I grew up in Craig Thompson's world. We met at a Christian liberal arts college where women and men weren't allowed to visit each other's rooms except at set hours with the door open and all the lights on. He's totally authentic on the earnest, arty Christian kids in love front. Like you, I was impressed by his tenderness. I didn't come away from similar experiences with nearly as much balance and forgiveness.

    I think the most astounding thing about Blankets is that after blowing you away in the middle--all that beauty and intensity--it manages to end just as strongly. The walk in the snow was my favorite part, and the stranger's gift of a bottle of wine made me cry. Lot of crying going on over this book!

  19. I'm late to the party, of course, because you know I wanted to finish this book today before reading your review. I'd started it when I first woke up and saw Aarti had talked about some of the details of the book. It's not that I think it can be spoiled so much as I thought your review would mean more to me once I'd read the book. And it did. You guys have it perfect. That look of anger-to-acceptance on Raina's dad's face is not something I will forget soon. That was one of the most touching things - if not the most - in this book. It wasn't at all what I expected and I just loved it. And the way the relationship ends up, so inexplicable but understandable, and that second burning, oh my heart was just torn out. Yeah. I have to get Jason to read this, I think. I dont have a clue how I'm going to review it.

  20. I am looking forward to this book coming in for me at the library.

  21. Gorgeous review on this one. I loved it and found it to be a very emotional read.

  22. Wow...this one sounds absolutely fantastic and with 2 of my fav bloggers singing priases about it , it has to go on my Wishlist.

    The joint review was fun.

  23. I am convinced! This one is definitely on my TBR list of graphic novels this year. You haven't steered me wrong yet when I have taken one of your recommendations. Reading I Kill Giants (my 2nd graphic novel) had such a huge impact on me. I'm really glad that I have opened myself up to a new genre!

  24. I bought a copy of this after seeing Dewey rave about it, but I haven't got round to reading it yet. I really should push it up the TBR pile!

  25. Wonderful review you two! I really am going to have to get this one back out of the library at some point. With each review I've seen since I keep finding little touches I missed the first time around.

  26. I read part of it in the bookstore last week, but it was in German and I want to get it in English.

  27. Oh Nymeth, well now of course I'm going to read it. Everything you've recommended is gobbled up - you can't put a foot wrong with me. Blankets it is!


  28. I read it several years ago and now I'm going to read it again!

  29. Oooo, pretty art!!

    I saw Lu's copy of this and was so surprised! I didn't know GNs could be that thick!

  30. I so want this, Ana! The drawings are beautiful and tender. I'm hooked. I need to find this one now.

  31. Loved this book and the images, keep meaning to buy myself my own copy then get everyone I know to read it.
    My review is here:

  32. I read your first paragraph and stopped - I like to be surprised. I have this one here. Perhaps it will be be my next Graphic read.

    I first heard about it here -- glad you got around to reading it and it was good.

  33. I've added this to my wish list! Thanks for the amazing review!

  34. Veens: I hope you enjoy it!

    Melody: Thank you; I'm glad to hear it :)

    Natalie: Yes, it is time! It was an instant addition to my list of favourite GNs.

    Debi: You know me well :P

    Sandy, I can't think of a better introduction to the medium than this, seriously.

    Claire: I can't wait to hear your thoughts! And you know, I've noticed the same about memoirs. I can't seem to get on with them very well usually, but in graphic form they work really well. And about Small Gods: Yep :P

    Vivienne: I can't imagine how difficult going through that must have been :( I loved the sensitivity with which Thompson portrayed Raina's siblings with Down Syndrome. It's yet another thing that makes this book so beautiful.

    Jill: Yes, it seems to be a cult classic! I hope your turn comes soon, because I think you're going to love it.

    Jenny: I knew that to read it I had to buy it, as libraries here don't carry GNs, and I hesitated for the longest time because it was so expensive. But this year I put it at the very top of my Christmas wishlist, and I'm so glad I did! It's one I'll be returning to for sure.

    Aarti: lol, I notice lots of things wrong with *my* bits, but none with yours :P

    Julie, I hope you love it!

    Stephanie, thanks! We blabbed quite a bit, so I'm relieved to hear the final result wasn't completely boring for others :P

    Christy: The facial expressions were so well done, not just on that scene but all through the book. I'm in awe of Thompson's talent, to be honest!

    Chris: lol, wasn't that scene hilarious? :D Except how it ended, of course :\

    Daphne: yay! I hope it does.

    Wendy, I hope you love it as much as I did!

    Carrie K: I think I do too, even though it's only been a week :P

    Trapunto: I can see how comparing everything to Blankets would NOT be a good thing! And oh, the ending...it was so beautiful <3 I'm getting teary-eyed again just thinking about it. Lots of crying over here as well!

    Amanda: I'm so happy you loved it too <3 I can't wait to read your review. And yes, get Jason to read it!

    Kailana: I hope it comes soon!

    Staci: Thank you! It's a book that will leave few people indifferent, I think.

    Violet: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :) And thank you!

    Kathleen: You so need to make this your 3rd graphic novel!

    Marie: yay!

    Jackie: I remember that her blog was where I first heard of it. I so wish I could discuss it with her now.

    Darren, thank you! And I bet I'll find lots that I missed if I reread it too.

    Lenore: Yeah, the original is generally better. But at least you got a glimpse of the beautiful art!

    Aimee: Aw, I'm happy to hear it! I hope you love it!

    Gavin, I'm not surprised to hear you're a fan too :)

    She: You need to borrow it asap :P

    Alice: Yes - there's such tenderness to the art. I loved that about it.

    Katrina, thank you! Added your link.

    Naida: I hope you enjoy it!

    Beth, yes, make it your next GN! I think you're going to love it.

    Kathy, you're welcome!

  35. I just read Blankets this past weekend too, coincidentally, and was directed here to check out your reviews. I absolutely loved it -- so heartbreaking and real and beautiful. And I'm a little bit in love with Craig Thompson after going along that journey, haha!

    So enjoyed this post -- hopping over to read the rest of the conversation, too! :)

  36. I read both parts of this review and have to say that you both did a fantastic job with it! I hadn't heard of this book, but it's gentleness and subtlety really attract me and I am in the process of adding it to my collection. I know it is going to be a fabulous read and I will be coming back to both of these reviews when I am finished reading.

  37. wow wow wow I want to read this so much!

  38. I jipped class to go to the library and i found this book. I thought the same thing as you, "I wonder if this is as good as everyone says this is." I got half way through before I had to go. It's great so far. The trade of of realism for symbolism was a good choice. I'll definitely finish it next time I jip class.

  39. It's interesting how you point out a link of sorts between Blankets and Fun Home. I haven't read the latter yet, but lookee what I just found while reading the wiki page about blankets:

    "In October 2006, a resident of Marshall, Missouri, attempted to have Blankets and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel removed from the city's public library.[3] Supporters of the books' removal characterized them as "pornography" and expressed concern that they would be read by children.[4] Marshall Public Library Director Amy Crump defended the books as having been well-reviewed in "reputable, professional book review journals," and characterized the removal attempt as a step towards "the slippery slope of censorship".

    Long story short... when the library board's committee got around to actually *reading* those illustrated novels, both of them were promptly restored to the shelves -- just a bit of fun trivia, but I think it speaks volumes about how the relevance of Graphic Novels a creative medium keeps growing, and yet how the populace often still regards these books as being just "comics", obviously meant for children.

    Such is humanity, with its often ready-made ideas and resistance to cultural change. On a brighter note, it also goes to show that visual-literary creations have indeed been evolving and growing in reach, and all the while there seems to be much room for development and progress, still.

    We've come a long way since Will Eisner conceived the concept of a Graphic Novel, but somehow when I read books like this... if feel there will be increasingly greater and more ambitious works blending pictures and words together, and that is of course a good thing!

    I just read Blankets yesterday, and I barely have words to express how awesome it is. No wonder there are scholars speaking of it as a big step forward in the American graphic novel.

    Craig Thomson is definitely an author I'll watch for from now on, and it certainly seems I'm not the only one :-)

  40. I was very disappointed in the ending when he said he said he still believed in God, but no longer considered himself a Christian. He should have said he was disenchanted with organized religion, but still believed in Christ, I would have been fine with that.

    But I don't see how he could have let the small minded people in the church he grew up in make him lose his faith. Okay, he also objected to Ecclesiastes having two authors, and the fact that the Bible had to be translated (which leads to problems). But for him to object to that seemed to be having unrealistic expectations.

    Aside from the very disappointing ending, I did enjoy the book, it was very well done. I was happy to see a Christian upbringing depicted in a mainstream work. Too bad he had to spit on it at the end.


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