For years people have been saying that comic books are coming into their own as legitimate literature, as if that was the goal all along. When Wil Eisner and Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb were subverting the status quo, people rang out that the comic was coming into its own. When Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman brought character-driven conflict and adult themes to more mainstream fare like Swamp Thing and Watchmen and The Sandman the populace proudly proclaimed, "The comic is finally coming of age!"
And so on and so on. Every couple of years a new style or voice emerges, breaks free of its constraints, and the world once again readies itself for the Coming of the Comic Book. But it's time to rid ourselves of the delusion that this breakthrough in the art form is coming. It's here, it's been here for quite a while, it's only going to continue breaking the mold and expressing our loves, our fears, our hatreds and our hopes in a way that is both refreshing and challenging.
Blankets is a sprawling, 592-page graphic novel chronicling the coming of age of young Craig Thompson, who also happens to be the author and illustrator of the book. With a combination of strikingly simple (but never simplistic) black and white art and a tender voice Thompson captures the delicate story of a young man trying to figure out where love, family, and God fit into his life. Craig is brought up along with his brother in a rural and strict fundamentalist town where to be artistic and inquisitive is to stand out as a weed in need of pruning - by overbearing parents, bullies, too-friendly babysitters and a herd mentality that seeks to quash any idea that goes against the grain of the town. Over the course of years (roughly ages 8 to 20-something) Craig's love for drawing brings him to a place where he can meet his family, love, and ultimately to a relationship with God that works for him.
The surprising thing about Blankets is how much it manages to make universal, despite the (to me, at least) unique facets of Thompson's upbringing. Craig's experience with first love is expressed over the course of a two week visit to his girlfriend Riana in such a tender, halting way that it feels both universal and exquisitely intimate at once. Likewise his musings on the role of God in his life and the emotional forces that serve to widen and then finally close the gap that separates him from his brother. Both of these struck personal chords with me, and as I devoured the book over the course of an extremely late evening I could only repeat over and over again how true it all was, how much of my life it seemed to speak to, even though it was really nothing at all like my life.
The artwork is fantastic - there's a cartoonish quality to the work that imparts a sense of innocence and wonder to everything that occurs, and the use of broad swaths of white and black undercut much of the emotion that's carried in the dialog. The style is very malleable and will often change between panes to reflect a different theme or feeling in the book - the biblical references versus the imaginations of childhood all come from the same hand yet leave very different impressions with what they convey to the reader.
In short, Blankets is a prime example of the power that comes with using a unique way to tell a very old story. Were I to give someone new to comics a crash course in the myriad possibilities this art form has to offer, Blankets would be in the first pile of selections.