I first discovered Craig Thompson during a lunch break visit to Waterstone’s. I was 18 at the time, speculatively browsing the ‘graphic novel’ section of the store. Amongst the usual super hero fare and shelves of manga, Thompson’s ‘Blanket’s’, with its light blue cover featuring a beautifully drawn winter scene, immediately stuck out amongst the overwhelmingly predominant use of the colour black on the rest of the nearby shelves.
That evening I feverishly worked through all 592 intricately drawn pages in one sitting and have been a fan ever since.
What immediately drew me to Thompson’s work was the way in which he uses his gorgeously rendered and expressive drawings to enhance his often achingly beautiful stories. In my opinion, it’s this added visual experience that makes graphic novels such an effective and unique medium for storytelling. And whilst other graphic novelists, such as Jeffery Brown and Charles Burns, use a more simplistic or cartoonish approach in their works with great results, it’s Thompson’s obvious skill as an artist, and his generally more emotive subject matter that makes him such a firm favourite with me. (And for many more besides!)
For anyone who hasn’t read graphic novels before and is interested in dipping their toes, Craig Thompson’s books are a great, accessible place to start. Personally, Thompson acted as a ‘gateway author’ to other less well-known graphic novelists, such as Chris Ware and Joe Sacco, and increased my awareness and appreciation of the medium as a whole. Hopefully the following brief synopses will give a good idea of where to start and what to expect.
GOOD-BYE, CHUNKY RICE (1999)
Thompson’s first published graphic novel explores the heartache and loneliness of saying goodbye through a sweet and touching story of a turtle who is leaving his hometown and best friend behind. Set in a sleepy seaside town anyone who has experienced loss or separation from a friend will be able to relate to the themes lovingly covered in this poignant book. There are, however, also lots of moments of genuine humor and joy throughout, chiefly provided by my personal favourite characters the beanie wearing seafarer Solomon and his pet bird Merle, who provide some of the most humorous scenes of the book – as well as the most heart rendering. Although now readily available through Amazon, at the time I had to wait over a month for my copy to be imported from the US, but it was thoroughly worth the wait. With a breezy pace and significantly shorter than his other works, this might be the perfect choice for Thompson first timers.
Set in the rural Wisconsin of Thompson’s youth, Blankets is an autobiographical story of growing up, struggling with faith and falling in love for the first time. My personal favourite (probably more for sentimental reasons than anything else I admit) Blankets depicts the pain, joy and confusion of growing up in such an honest and beautiful way that you find yourself remembering your own experiences of becoming an adult. Although there are great subplots such as Thompson’s struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and his relationship with his brother that add depth and emotional appeal, it is above all else a first love story between Craig and Raina. And it is the exchanges between these two, set against wintry forests and grunge poster laden bedrooms that provide the most memorably bittersweet, heartwarming and ultimately relatable moments in the book.
Easily Thompson’s most ambitious and technically accomplished work, Habibi, based on a Middle Eastern fable, explores the developing relationship of an escaped slave and abandoned baby who live together in isolation in the desert before being separated leading them onto very different but ultimately entwined paths. The epic and complex nature of the storyline is reinforced by dazzlingly ambitious and impressive artwork throughout, featuring cityscapes, palaces, painstakingly intricate patterns and colossal scenes of human waste. In a time of well-documented racial and religious tension, Habibi skillfully reminds the reader of the deep connections between Christianity and Islam and in my opinion provides a welcome positive portrayal of Islamic culture.
Vastly cinematic in its scope both visually and thematically, Habibi doesn’t shy away from tackling big issues such as our treatment of the environment, the relationship between the 1st and 3rd world and the shared origins of Islam and Christianity. But ultimately, like Blankets before it, at its heart it is fundamentally a love story between Dodola and Zam and it’s their compelling relationship that will keep making you want to read it again and again. I’ve enjoyed rereading Habibi many times, and there is always something new to discover in this impressively executed epic. Highly recommended.
Other works I haven’t mentioned include Thompson’s travel journal Carnet de Voyage which documents his travels through Europe and Morocco, featuring stunning sketches and drawings as well as more light-hearted and humorous subject matter of which a great review can be found here. And info on an upcoming release ‘Space Dumplings’ slated for 2014 can be found on Thompson’s personal blog.
And finally another plus is that his works just look great on the bookcase. The special edition hardback copies of ‘Habibi’ and ‘Blankets’, which were purposely designed to fit snugly side by side, are books that I am particularity proud to own and display on my shelf, and the quality and attention to detail of these editions in particular make them a real pleasure to read.
I was lucky enough to meet Craig last year at a signing for the release of ‘Habibi’ and having lugged my collection across London I was over the moon to have them all signed. (Including a personal illustration inside my copy of Blanket’s.) Even with a long and expectant que that snaked downstairs, Craig was incredibly friendly and chatty and having answered my questions about his upcoming projects he went on to tell me about his tourist plans in London. A thoroughly top bloke all around! Who says you should never meet you idols? (See below for a cheesy photo of me looking very chuffed.)
For fans of: Joe Sacco, Daniel Clowes, alternative comics and anyone who enjoys good ol’ coming of age stories combined with visual feasts.
More info: Check out Craig’s regularly updated blog at: www.craigthompsonbooks.com for interesting insights into his working process and great one-off illustrations.
All featured artwork in this post by Craig Thompson.