A Verifiable Classic

The new edition of Blankets, set on top of a copy of Habibi
The first time I read Blankets, I think I was a junior in high school. I know it must have been around then, anyway, because I discussed the book at length with my friend Lauren, and she and I got to know each other when she starred in a movie I made at the end of my sophomore year.

(The movie, if you're curious, was a "stranger comes to town" story, set in a high school. I wonder how it would hold up, if I were to watch it now. Luckily, it's either lost to time or buried under a pile in my closet, so I'll probably never have to find out.)

One day a week, I would walk from my high school, on the outskirts of what passes for a downtown in Chicago's north suburbs, to a tutoring appointment. The end of school and the beginning of the appointment were staggered by a couple of hours; this heartened me, insofar as it meant that I wasn't the only one getting help, but it also allowed me a weekly foray into Highland Park's public library. In a moment at which libraries are increasingly being threatened, I am continually grateful that this particular library continues to hold on, even though I haven't actually spent more than a few consecutive weeks at home in almost three years. Without that library and, in particular, a couple of shelves just the other side of the science fiction section, I'm not sure you would be reading these words right now. Without the Highland Park Public Library, without their ever growing collection of comics, a collection that now takes up several whole bookshelves, I'm not sure I would have discovered that there was more to the medium than four color caped crusaders, nor am I confident I would have eventually discovered Kirby, Moore or Gaiman.

To say that my visits to those shelves are an important part of who I am now is like saying that those tutoring sessions I was killing time before helped me get into college; that is, it would be nothing other than true, although I used to be loathe to admit it.

It was on one of those days that I discovered Blankets. I think it must have been winter. I think I must have slipped the book under my red parka to protect it from snow. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the tutoring center, and opening the book. I remember not getting any work done that night. I remember sitting down on my bed, and reading Craig Thompson's book all the way through.

Let's call that 2006. I've occasionally thought about buying a copy since then, but I never really saw the need: it was always at the library, after all, and I still go home for stretches long enough that my ability to find a copy of the book seemed assured. But with the release of Habibi looming, Top Shelf released an edition of the earlier book that is as beautiful as an object as it is a marvelous piece of comics, an edition that physically matches both the dimensions of the new book and the spirit of the old one, that is to say, Top Shelf released an edition that belongs on my top shelf. So when I ordered my books for the semester, I ordered Blankets too.

And then, with the books I actually have to read for my second-to-last semester in college, it showed up on my doorstep, big and thick and beautiful, all white and black on the inside and highlighted in various dark blues on the outside. Last night, five years after I made this mistake the first time, I opened up Blankets. Two and a half hours later, I was done. Sure, I tried to put it down. Maybe I even succeeded, once or twice, but never more than briefly. By the end, I was committing the cardinal sin of comics reading: I was skimming, just a little bit. Looking at the words rather than the words and the pictures. I had to reread the second half of the last chapter. I did, but rather than really conquering Blankets, it had, for the second time in my life and five years after the first incident, conquered me.

I can't really tell you why I fell so hard for Thompson's book the first time around. There's a distinct possibility that I liked it because everybody else liked it so much; even now, I'm not convinced my critical self is entirely independent. I suspect, however, that I was taken in by the spirit and the romance, by the impressionistic conveyance of a feeling-- love-- that I had been longing for a couple of years already but had eluded me up until that point. I suspect that, when I first read Blankets, I fell a little in love with Raina at just the same moment that Craig did.

Since then, I have more than once fallen in, and then out, of love, and now, rather than see the sort of love I would like to share with someone, I see in Blankets the arc of my own relationships. I see the quilts stuck in the cubby hole (and I know that I am not yet brave enough to dig them all out). I understand that Thompson chooses to reveal memories slowly, in the same way that we only allow ourselves glimpses of pains past, and I understand that, while it is a book about many things, Blankets isn't really a book about anything. It functions in the same way that our own narrative instinct does, it is a story constructed with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with motifs and themes and characters, but without being self-consciously about anything, like, say, the journey of a Jewish kid from the north suburbs of Chicago that begins with a stop at the library between the final bell and ACT tutoring and ends with him sitting at his computer, writing about how he got all the way there. And the story that bookends that story is just as striking at the end as it was at the start.

I think I know, by the way, why that is. Has there ever been as effective an impressionist as Craig Thompson? The simultaneous reality and unreality of the comics medium probably makes stories told in the medium inherently impressionistic, but Thompson really manages to get the senses confused, to tell a story with the feel of fabric in a fully visual medium, relating not the exact actuality of a moment but instead revealing in its complete, if not exactly its persistent, truth.

Habibi comes out in a little under two weeks (although I hold out hope that it will arrive early enough that I can lug it to Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Book Fest); I believe I read, somewhere and several years ago, that Thompson wishes to do for Islam in the new book what he did for Christianity in the old book, that is, humanize it. The fact that I can't find the quote anywhere makes me wonder if I made it up and, to a certain extent, I hope I did. Although, because of its subject matter, some will measure Habibi's success by its characters, I think we can expect carefully honest and earnest constructions; instead, I hope the book is judged by the standards and in the terms that Thompson has already set. I hope it (and, after having just reread the earlier work, I am confident that it will) has the same classic comics appeal of which Blankets is now a verifiable example.

1 comment:

  1. Well Josh, you've created another excellent editorial.

    Sorry it took me so long to find the time to read it.