PREFACE: My dearest friend Samantha Fleitman brought up the graphic novel I am about to review two summers ago when she found out that I was beginning to delve into the medium. The seasons progressed, and I began to read more and more and constantly forgot to read Blankets. I must admit that it was somewhat due to the intimidating length, but that’s a lame excuse. Alas, on Friday, I determined that THIS was the weekend that I started and finished Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and it is thus the subject for this week’s review. Many thanks to Samantha for the recommendation!
Released in 2003, Blankets is a bit older than what I normally review here, but given the relevance of its message and narrative, it is by no means a dated novel (after all, all of the 2000s seem kind of like a blur to me anyway). An autobiographical coming of age story for Craig Thompson, the creator, Blankets intimately follows Craig’s transition from a young boy to a young man. A hybrid of the Bildungsroman and the Künstlerroman, Blankets simultaneously weaves Thompson’s more abstract battles with his spirituality with his very Earth-bound battles with family drama, bullying, and love. In the process of mixing these two realms of conflict, Thompson’s persona as an artist and voice as a storyteller emerge.
Born to an evangelical Christian family, Thompson grew up in rural Wisconsin as an outsider, with his family’s lower middle class status and his mother’s extreme evangelicalism casting him as a pariah among his secular and Bible school classmates. The first eighth of Blankets gathers and develops the context of the creation of Thompson’s voice through non-linear moments from his childhood and adolescence. From a very early start, Thompson has a strong connection with the Bible and a complementary guilt complex nourished by his family and his conservative church. He is a quiet boy often picked on in school, and in turn, is often the catalyst for arguments at home with his brother, Phil.
After the introduction of young outcast Thompson, the narrative begins to linearize as a teenage Thompson meets Raina, his first love, at church snow-camp. As the other campers ski and snowboard, Raina, another outsider, and Craig ditch chapel hours and spend time getting to know each other. After the end of camp, the two begin their enamored long-distance relationship.
The blossoming and growth of Craig and Raina’s relationship dominates the rest of the novel, which seems like it could lead to boring or stereotypical comments and details about young love, but Blankets opts for a much different course. Thompson, in the narration of the relationship between him and his first love, ties in fragments of his childhood and moments of her childhood, building their relationship in a naturalistic, anti-hyper-dramatic, and even in an anti-sexual way. As their relationship progresses, Thompson builds Raina into a nearly saint-like character with the way he worships her for her natural beauty and poise in the midst of handling her parent’s divorce, caring for her mentally disabled older brother and sister, and nurturing her niece whose parents completely disregard. Mixed into all of the storyline of Craig and Raina are moments of Thompson’s reality as a soon to be high school graduate considering ministry school and as a young Christian who is perpetually connected and disconnected with the Bible and afraid of disappointing God, making this coming of age tale more layered than a basic story about a young person trying to deal with his or her current circumstances at home or at school.
By the end of Blankets, much of the original dogmatism of Thompson’s Christianity has eroded, with the method of the erosion being the grand strength of the novel. In the process of placing Raina up on a pedestal after spending two weeks with her in her home in Michigan, Thompson feels conflicted between earthly love with carnal desires and divine love with reverence of a superior, perfect being. In worshipping Raina, his love for her is that of into divine love instead of love between two partners, making it almost too suffocating and overwhelming to Raina when the two are apart.
When Raina calls Craig to end their romantic relationship, he begins to attempt to reconcile the concepts of earthly love versus divine love which then transitions into reconciling religious fervor versus piety. As Thompson becomes enraptured by the book of Ecclesiastes, his faith moves away from the blinded, fervent devotion of a divine, infallible, omnipotent being who must be worshipped in the Church with song and ritual. Gradually, he begins to discover more of the gifts and powers of God through the earth itself through his admiration of all of God’s creation, with the understanding that it is all fleeting and transforming.
From this enlightenment of faith, Craig also realizes that his love for Raina is unsustainable and ends their friendship, for his abstract love for Raina prevents him from understanding how to love her as another fallible human being. In a moment of parallel symbolism, Craig destroys all of the gifts Raina had given him (with the exception of a quilt) that have become idolatry for him, paralleling his concurrent distancing from the church and the eventual hiding of his Bible. By placing God, Christ, and Raina on a pedestal of perfection, Craig is unable to fully develop his true sense of faith in God and love for another human, stunting his ability to make a decision to move forward with his life because he views himself as an inferior being. With the discovery of his faith and his understanding of his relationship with Raina, Craig makes the final change in his path with his decision to go to art school after graduation, a decision which he could not make because he once feared that going to art school would be sinful.
By the end of Blankets, Craig returns to his home as an adult, and re-discovers his Bible and his quilt. His faith no longer involves the devotion to a perfect being and the consequent fear of offending God, and in parallel, his thoughts of Raina become more bound to his experiences with her. By the end, Craig’s faith and belief stems from learning the teachings and actions of Christ on earth, reminding him that the beauty and admiration of Christ lies in his interactions with people, and not as simply an omnipotent deity in the sky. And simultaneously, the beauty of his relationship with Raina lies in their time together in each other’s company as human beings, and his admiration of her lies in her character’s strength in being able to gracefully continue with love and affection through a difficult time rather than her existence as a pure, perfect saint.
Blankets is a beautiful coming of age story that captures so much more than just a first love or a first major conflict. It weaves together multiple crises of familial, societal, and spiritual origin to allow us to comprehend how the growth and shift of our individual belief systems manifest into our actions and our relationships with the people and the world around us.
Blankets is available via Top Shelf Productions.