Published Oct 01, 2004Why would anyone read a comic diary? After all, comics are an escape, and without a superhero and a villain, without explosions and elaborate fights in secret lairs, what's the point?
The answer depends on your taste for graphic novels, of course, but for writer and illustrator Craig Thompson who came to prominence with his first, mostly autobiographical work, Blankets (see sidebar) it seems the unexamined life is indeed not worth living. Thompson spent three months this spring travelling through Europe promoting Blankets. During the trip, he decided to put together a sketchbook of his travels that included impressionistic stories and sketches of the people and places he encountered, despite a gruelling schedule that included sketching for fans at signings. The beautiful, touching and surprisingly engaging Carnet de Voyage is the result.
"I was looking for something to keep me emotionally stabilised and grounded while travelling," Thompson explains. "It was a long trip, and my last one three years ago was pretty discombobulating; I knew this one could potentially be worse because I had the tour and some emotional trauma going on at home. I thought, to make this more stabilised, I'd keep a cartoon diary, sort of what James Kolchaka does. I also wanted to be really actively engaging with my environment, and thought this would be the way to do that."
The emotional turmoil of which he speaks was a break-up between Thompson and his long-time girlfriend. They had planned to make the three-month trip together, and after the split, Thompson wasn't sure if he should even go ahead with it. After some deliberation, Thompson decided to go, more to clear his head than to promote his book and by doing that managed to produce a chronicle of such emotional depth it's hard to imagine the pain that went along with its creation.
"I pretty much wrote off the trip in my head after the break-up, because we had this dream of the trip together, so once she was eliminated from it, I thought, What's the point? I'm not going to go.' But then, because of the emotional state of things over the course of the next few months, I realised I had to go. I had to get away. It became an escape, a way to get distance, and be with myself.
"There were times where working on the book distracted me from engaging with the people around me, and other times where I felt it enriched my experience. A lot of the time, the book was my support system and my travel companion amidst all the chaos."
At first glance, 224 pages of someone's travel diary might seem like a lot. But documenting travels through pen and paper in a cartoon style suits Thompson; his artistic style and fluid storytelling is a wonderful forum for his adventures. But despite its occasionally painful, personal revelations, there's a sense that something is missing from the pages of Carnet.
"The autobiographical, personal element of Carnet was much more raw than with Blankets, because Carnet was happening in real time and there are certain things about my ex-girlfriend that I wasn't sure if I should put in or if I wanted people to see," Thompson reveals. "There was at least one incident where one other cartoonist, who I'd represented in the book, asked that I take some of what I'd drawn out, or not print it at least. Now that I think about it, there were a couple of instances where people said, No, don't print what happened!' It was all happening in real time, so I didn't have any time to process any of this and that made it more vulnerable."
Agreeing wholeheartedly that the edits were good ones, Thompson concedes that sometimes others know best what should and shouldn't be said. After all, he is providing an almost real-time window into not only his creative mind but also the healing process of a broken heart. In the end, Carnet de Voyage is so much more than a simple sketchbook it's a window into one man's struggle to deal with emotional turmoil far from home.
Children of a Lesser God
When Craig Thompson decided to write Blankets a story he intended to base in part on his childhood he figured that his life would provide only the loosest of structure. By changing various details, he could avoid hurting or offending anyone close to him. But the end result won him worldwide acclaim, comparisons to truth-telling graphic novel bigwigs like Art Spiegelman, and plenty of heartache from those close to home.
"Initially I didn't want to do the book as an autobiography; I was trying to change details. I eliminated my sister from the family since she wasn't an active part of the storyline and I thought it would be better to not have her there than to have her relinquished to the background."
The book did eventually become Thompson's autobiography, but not everyone was pleased with his interpretations. His parents in particular were upset not about his revelations about family business, but about God. "Their big frustration with the book is what they think it says about Christianity and my falling from faith," Thompson says. "They actually think of the book as being a sort of evil presence in the world, whereas Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a good force in the world."
The other family Thompson describes is that of his ex-girlfriend Raina. "I heard that Raina's family was upset, which disturbs me much more. I haven't had that confirmed from Raina herself, so I don't know if that's true. If it is, and there's a good chance that it is, it makes me feel awful. That wasn't my intent, to hurt other people. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't change things more but once you start changing one thing, you can just change it all and why bother making it at all. I wanted it to be this vulnerable material, and I think that comes across in the book."