I've been craving love stories lately, for some reason -- and by "lately" I mean, for the last year and a half or so, and maybe even longer. And not just love stories, but love songs and love poems and love movies and so on. My tastes therein don't seem to follow any sort of pattern: gooey, sappy love stories where everything ends happily, like Sleepless in Seattle? Love 'em, if done well. Sad stories of forbidden love doomed to failure, like The Bridges of Madison County? Love those too, also if done well. (In that case, the movie did it well. The book wasn't as bad as everyone else thought, in my opinion, but it wasn't all that great, either.) Romantic love is, to me, the most compelling of literary themes. But it's hard to find love stories that are really satisfying in that true, deep way; it's a hard theme to treat well, because you can fudge a "little tinker" story or a "man learns better" story on the strength of a really well-done central character, but for a love story to work, you have to have two well-done central characters. It's double the work, but if it pays off, for me it's triple the reward.
I recently read a graphic novel called Blankets, by Craig Thompson. I'd never heard of him before, but I saw the book sitting on a shelf in a bookstore in Toronto last time I was there, and I was instantly attracted to it. I could see, just by looking at the front cover, that this book was about love in the most bittersweet way. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, if it's a graphic novel whose cover is done by the same person who wrote it. It's a very stark image if a young couple standing atop a snowy rise, holding each other without making eye contact in that very sad way that young lovers do when they are about to part, in front of a thick wood of leafless trees.
The book itself is wonderful. Told in first person (and apparently autobiographical), Blankets tells us of Craig Thompson's early life in a small house with his fundamentalist parents, of how he had to share a bed with his brother for many years, of how one of their babysitters did bad things to them, et cetera. This part of the book meanders until Craig goes away to a camp and meets Raina, a young woman who in her own way is as alienated as Craig is. The rest of the book tracks their love story -- a first love story, with all of the emotional intensity that this entails -- with an unflinching eye. Thompson makes clear the way first love starts off so idealistic, and he does not spare us the inevitable discovery he makes that even those we love most of all disappoint us on occasion. The ultimate resolution of Craig and Raina's affair is both expected and heartbreaking at the same time. It certainly had me realizing that those girls for whom I once felt white, hot passion are now people whom I barely remember. Thompson is equally sensitive at depicting other issues from his life, such as his struggles against his Christian upbringing. Some readers may be turned off by how this turns out, but I did not find Thompson overly or unfairly negative about his upbringing.
Thompson's art may take some getting used to, for those who come to graphic novels by way of the slicker DC or Marvel producations, but for readers familiar with the black-and-white styling of an Art Spiegelman, it won't take long to fall into Thompson's world. He wisely withholds some of his most striking images until he's well into the book -- especially the erotic material.
Blankets is one of the very best graphic novels I have ever read. One of the Amazon reviewers says this: "This is a comic book that understands what a novel is, and a novel that has figured out how to be a comic book." I couldn't agree more.