by Craig Thompson
2004 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album
2004 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
It seems like every other darling of independent comics is exactly the same: a coming-of-age story that's about a guy who's almost identical to the author. They have a slightly off-beat worldview and the normal people around them treat the main character with derision. Eventually they find a lover who helps end their isolation and they have some kind epiphany about their lives but not without some tragedy on the way.
I despise this formula. It tends to come across as work by people with overblown egos as a showcase for how great they are. The life changing epiphany which accompanies the climax of the story typically is a shallow one. I wind up hating the protagonist and since there's no plot beyond the minutiae of their empty lives I wind up hating the book.
In Blankets Craig is the autobiographical protagonist is a poor boy raised in a Christian fundamentalist family (I'm using his first name for the character and the last name for the creator just to keep them a bit separate). As he approaches graduation from high school he is looking into going into the seminary. Eventually he meets a free spirited girl at Bible camp and falls in love. He travels to spend two weeks with her and her troubled family where he experiences self-discovery.
I should hate Blankets like I have the dozens of other times I've run across this exact formula. Instead I found it to be very effective and I think that's due to Thompson not holding onto any romantic notions about his adolescence. His clumsy, emotionally immature actions drive the story and there's an actual emotional arc involved. Craig not only has the appearance of change over the course of the book but goes through three distinct stages of development (perhaps even four or five I include the flashbacks and epilogues). And none of these stages are perfect; at the end of the book he just isn't as lost as he once was.
Other characters are not as dynamic. They tend to be trapped in some way but don't get to push at their boundaries. I wasn't bothered by this since Blankets is completely Craig's story and a self-centered worldview is part of that. Also the characters seemed to exist as patterns for what the future could be if Craig didn't find a way.
The rose colored glasses that Thompson avoids using on himself do look back on his relationship. Blankets is the story of a gentle first love that starts sweet and grows passionate. And yet this also comes across as part of the character arc; the idealized memories give way to the adolescent reactions. So early on it's puppy love and later it's teenagers finding their way and then it still has to change for the conclusion.
Artistically I enjoyed Blankets quite a bit. Thompson has a very fluid style that creates lively characters which are necessary to support his story. He can shift those characters from loose cartoons to idealized forms and make it feel natural. In addition Thompson has a flare for spectacular layouts which he peppers through the book. If every page had the characters fitting into the panels of a quilt, for example, it would have become annoying but Thompson uses them to play up just the right moments.
In that group of semi-autobiographical coming of age stories from independent comic creators I can safely say that Blankets is the best one I have ever read. If they were all presented this honestly then I might not be as hostile toward the genre as I am. There are other similar books that I have also enjoyed (see Stuck Rubber Baby and I think I'll follow this up with another one) but this is easily the best of them due entirely to how well Thompson can tell his story.