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September 23, 2014

Don’t Ban Our Comics! #2: Matt Burbridge reflects on BLANKETS

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Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS is an autobiographical "illustrated novel" (as noted on the cover) that recounts events mostly from Thompson's late adolescence, wherein he questions the deep-seeded faith of his Christian upbringing and succumbs to the temptations of young love. The book begins with a memory of Craig and his brother sharing shame, when one is shoved by their father into a dark crawlspace for being awake after they should have been sleeping. Thompson's remembrances of his life move at a casual pace despite the intensity of the subject matter. The opening scene of careless punishment acts to set the stage for grander and harder confessions. Each memory to follow hits and hurts as solidly as the one before it, punctuated by a moment in time --- often shown as a full-page splash panel --- to allow the reader to feel along with Thompson. It acts as a moment of careful contemplation, well timed by the author. His childhood memories in the first part of the novel focus on his complicated feelings on his parents’ devout faith in the church, a babysitter molesting him and his brother, his life as a social pariah and the results of all this affecting him into his formative years.

The story progresses into Thompson's later teenage years, when he meets a young girl, Raina, and is immediately taken with her. He struggles to come to terms with being attracted to a girl --- any girl --- physically. After meeting Raina, Thompson's intense faith throws him headlong into whirlwind of new and complicated ideas for which he was ill-prepared. One early scene that really emphasizes his difficulties with himself and his sexuality is quite literally just that --- he draws and narrates a memory where he receives a letter from Raina, masturbates on the imagined being of this girl he has only met, and it breaks him. He debates with himself whether God can forgive an indiscretion or he should feel free to feel. The book doesn't stop there, but for the sake of this entry I'll close this description with this: BLANKETS doesn't express anything negative. It inspires its readers to question the things that harm them. Thompson's unflinching and unquestioned faith denied him his ability to be at peace with himself.

The honesty in Thompson’s writing and the complexity of his designs opened me to whole new levels of curiosity. All these possibilities, born out of those two lovers staring back at me from the spine.

Upon concluding this book the first time, I wanted to return to pens, pencils and panels almost immediately. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who finished this book and hadn't walked away feeling something wholly unique and occasionally uncomfortable from it. Before I finished BLANKETS, I hadn’t drawn a single picture in almost two years --- maybe a doodle in the margins at school here and there, or the occasional art class project, but those really aren’t much of anything in public schools but a demonstration on how not to use the expensive materials the school system provides. Reading comics and graphic novels had grown old and hackneyed to a younger, more ignorant 15 year-old Matthew, though this never stopped me from occasionally browsing shelves for something that might change this perception. This habit in my bookstore shopping had come up fruitless for just shy of six months. Forcing myself to look for a Batman collection was a good move, because my eyes locked onto another book and author that this Chris Staros has referred to as “‘the Second coming of Christ’ for any publisher.” The paperback spine was easily the most strikingly beautiful blue a book could be. It forced me to look at it. The lettering of its title was in soft, intimate calligraphic brushwork, whispering “blankets” to any who came close. The base of the spine was adorned with a portrait of two lovers embracing. This, I can of course tell you now, is a portrait of a young Thompson and Raina. I didn’t buy it then. But this was my momentary first glance at Craig Thompson’s second novel, BLANKETS.

I didn't pick that book off the shelf that night, and wouldn’t for a good deal longer. But the spine would sit in my daydreams for at least the following week, until I needed to know its contents. While that might convince a few people that a ban on such a book is necessary, I wouldn’t take my obsessive thought processes surrounding comic art to be the fault of this book. I had been an avid reader through my childhood and grown bored of it during my earliest adolescence. I would read comics, but I couldn’t savor them. I was incapable of believing there was value in the comic medium. This was truth to me, somewhere in the back of my brain, right up until I saw those lovers on that spine just staring back. Over a week later, I had bought the book, and devoured the 500-plus-page tome three times over one weekend. The honesty in Thompson’s writing and the complexity of his designs opened me to whole new levels of curiosity. All these possibilities, born out of those two lovers staring back at me from the spine. A book about a young man’s religious questions and sexual awakening has, is, and forever shall be a staple of Western literary culture. I cried out of joy during what I will always remember as a moving scene of love between the teenaged Thompson and Raina. The subsiding of Thompson’s shame after he and Raina share these moments is made all the more powerful as a portrait of Jesus turns to face Craig with joy.

Following the weekend of reading this book and only this book, I found my interest in comics and graphic novels renewed. Drawing and writing soon became a daily habit. It was a habit I had long left aside, but soon felt refreshed and comforted by again. I remember my favorite images from that book like I remember where my wallet always ends up whenever I “lose” it (on top of my drawing table). I can with confidence say that turning to page 421 in the wrong place will fetch some pretty stern looks from a stranger or passersby. I do not have the book in front of me, but Raina looks absolutely beautiful on that page. BLANKETS is important, and I can assure anyone now who wishes the book banned that there is really no stopping it. So many people who don’t read comic books have read that book. BLANKETS is a book that can never be stopped and inspires people every day to make, write, create and question the hardest things any of us can question: ourselves.