This week, I chose to analyze the construction of this page from Blankets by Craig Thompson.
The page begins with a broad top panel depicting black, imaginary waves, and ends with an image of the bed that Craig and his brother ripped the cover off during high-stakes imagination games. In this page, Thompson uses panels with traditional black frames that contain the action. However, the panels are shaped in a way that emphasizes the direction of movement and action on the page; the central gutter intersection is pulled toward the right margin of the page as if tugged by the shark’s nose. Though the four central panels are bounded in disparate moments, they echo the motion of the uncontrolled waves in the top panel of the page. The final bottom panel returns the reader to stillness and reality and enables the eye to flow easily up to the top of the following page.
The way that Thompson uses alternating shots of reality and metaphor/fantasy throughout the book is apparent in this page. While the scene describes a game of imagination play between children, Thompson continues to alternate between naturalistic depictions of events and hyperbolic visual exageration for emotional impact.
In addition, this page reflects an ongoing theme of safety/lack of safety in beds and sleeping spaces that Thompson uses as a motif throughout Blankets. While this page depicts a mundane domestic scenario, there is a tension throughout the book that threads together the comfort of a safe bed and the dangerous and/or sexual charge of intimate domestic space. More traumatic or anxiety-inducing scenarios following this one outline moments where the safety of a bed is removed or returned, such as when, after the brothers urinate on one another, Craig’s brother is made to sleep in a closet, or when Craig as a teenager is afraid of being caught in his girlfriend’s bed. The shark that appears in this page returns as a motif of danger and guilt in a scene where teenage Craig burns all of his art in a barrel behind the house and a cartoon shark emerges from his mouth.
Craig Thompson’s fluid motion lines, detailed inkwork, and intense black spaces make this page visually appealing and fluid. While his style is not hyperrealistic, it is playful and animated, and has an active, vibrant feel even in just two high-contrast shades. In considering Thompson’s style, I like to compare it to Alison Bechdel’s.
Both authors write vividly about a complicated, semi-traumatic adolescence and use visual representations of literary or religious metaphor throughout their works centered on domestic life. However, the artists’ styles are markedly different. Where Bechdel uses thin, careful black linework with blue shading, usually relies on naturalistic images of her family, copies literal maps and letters, and selects real objects or photographs to use to illustrate comparisons or metaphors, Thompson leaps into the imaginary, the surreal, and the strongly emotive.
I remember reading Blankets in middle school repeatedly during the hour between the time school ended and my mother was able to get out of work to pick me up. I would sit in the library and totally dissolve into the images. The way Thompson illustrates excitement and fear, uses varying line widths and visible brush strokes, and alternates panel layout, was very different than in the manga I had grown used to reading, though I found shonen manga emotive and compelling as well. The melancholy tone of the graphic novel and the use of metaphor make this work memorable, and this page demonstrates well what makes Thompson’s techniques so distinct.