(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
By Craig Thompson
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I joke about this a lot, but it's true that in some ways, in the squishiest little corner of my mushy little heart, I am still a teenage girl. My favorite TV show, ever and still, is My So-Called Life. I have read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye probably fifty times. I still listen to Fall Out Boy, for fuck's sake. I listen to other music too, obviously, hipster fabulous bands you've never heard of (I live in Brooklyn, after all), but something in Fall Out Boy's plaintive intensity just twists in me, just carves straight into my fluttering core and makes me reel--and plus OMGWTF Pete Wentz is so fucking hot, right? Um, what I'm saying is that I am a complete sucker for the angst, the power, and the pain of all the firsts of teenagerdom, when everything is the most important goddamn thing ever, the most intense, the most devastating, the most harrowing, the most blissful.
So there was every reason to think I was going to fall hard for Blankets. Except I didn't.
You must know the story by now, since this book made Craig pretty darn famous, winning all kinds of Eisner and Harvey awards and making bestseller lists everywhere. But in case you don't, here it is: Boy meets girl at church camp and falls in love. They spend two heavenly (but mostly PG-rated) weeks together at her parents' house, escaping their messed-up families and teenage traumas and scholastic hurdles by building a little world into which they can both sink, together, forever (forever for two weeks, I mean, so forever in teenagerland). That's not the whole story, of course, but that two-week-long date takes up a full 400 pages of a book that doesn't quite make it to 600, so it's fair to say that's most of it.
Well, so why wasn't I sucked right in? Why wasn't this just exactly the kind of lush melodrama I love to revel in? I guess because it really wasn't that interesting. Craig Thomas's language of love, as it were, is really pretty hokey, pretty cliché. The illustrations are often beautiful and complex, but the story itself just doesn't measure up. Raina asks Craig to paint something on her wall. She teaches him how to do a butterfly kiss, and he teaches her an Eskimo kiss. They make snow angels. They take long meandering walks or long meandering drives and have long meandering conversations about love and their childhoods and their families and God. There's just no urgency, no frenzy, none of that sense of if I don't kiss this girl right motherfucking now my insides will explode.
And then there's God. That's the other main thing about this book; religion is nearly as main a character as Craig and Raina. I've come out as an atheist before, and I acknowledged back in my Preacher review that, growing up a pretty casual Jew, I missed out on all the Christian guilt and anxiety that was such a strong part of the background of that book, and I had the same trouble with this one. Craig is just in agony about his religious future, especially with the creeping carnal desires he has for Raina. And Jesus looms large--literally--in every aspect of the story. He's looking down at Craig from the wall of almost every room, and even when there's no physical manifestation, Craig is reading (or thinking about having read) Bible passages and anecdotes. I can see how this could be very affecting and evocative for someone who grew up in this tradition, or who has a strong faith, but it just doesn't stir anything in me, and I find it very hard to relate, or sometimes even take seriously.
The best parts of Blankets, in my opinion, actually center around Craig's and Raina's interactions with their respective siblings. There is so much more raw energy and passion and pain in those relationships than there is in the central one. Perhaps that's because the romance itself is so fleeting, and family--at least for these characters--sticks around. Craig and his brother were incredibly close as children, which Craig relates in a series of very poignant flashbacks to Raina, but lately they've drifted apart. And during his stay with her, Craig watches Raina interacting with her own family--parents in the midst of divorce, two mentally disabled younger sibs, and a cold, distant, materialistic older sister--and though he doesn't comment on it too much, the first thing he does when he gets home again is begin a slow process of reconnecting with his own brother. That, to me, was so much more beautiful and meaningful than watching the two teens clasp hands breathe each other's air and moon at one another. It redeemed the book for me to a good degree.
One of the ladies in my Jugs & Capes group felt that the main problem was that Craig, who is about thirty-five, is just too young and inexperienced and self-absorbed to be writing a memoir. And maybe that's true. Maybe at thirty-five there really isn't much more than that one intense romance, the enduring heartache of not having been a good enough big brother, the struggle with one's faith. But much better books were built on much less than that, so I don't think I can let it off the hook that easily. It's not a bad book, certainly, and I'd definitely read more of Craig's stuff later, but this one just didn't dazzle me like I'd hoped it would.