by Matthew Peckham
Eisner and Harvey award-winning writer/artist Craig Thompson split with his girlfriend and hit the road earlier this year,
beating a path to Europe and beyond. Matt takes a look at Craig's sequential travelogue, an odyssey of sights and sentiments for the senses.
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In March 2004, after going splitsville with his girlfriend, sequential writer/artist Craig Thompson escaped the U.S. to embark on a punishing European comic tour for the European release of his award-winning graphic novel Blankets, comprised of three months of travel from France to Morocco, Switzerland to Spain. Part and parcel of the journey, Craig kept a carnet (a French word meaning "notebook"), a collection of drawings and annotations documenting his daily experiences. Initially created as "a self-indulgent side project -- a simple travel diary," his publisher urged him to take it public, thus Carnet de Voyage was born into a 7.5" x 5.5" 224 page gathering of quotidian slices, unscripted, in black and white, and offering an intimate glimpse into the mind of this young, creative, melancholy, struggling, maturing, grumping, lonely, sensitive individual (i.e. human being) searching for answers through his art. The result is a moving throng of picaresque sketches and unpretentious introspections that, despite the occasional maudlin outburst, stands as one of the better reads of the year.
I've been to Europe twice, once on a whirlwind three-week dot-connector from Frankfurt to Prague to Vienna to Lucerne to Paris and back to Frankfurt, then again one year later to Eastern Europe and finally Russia for a packed summer teaching gig. One of the first things I noticed walking the back alleys and generally avoiding tourist traps (and other Americans -- often one and the same), is that the "Manhattan" notion of the corner sketch-artist-cum-hawker is magnified abroad by a factor of ten. Stroll through any remotely touristy European locale and you're practically assaulted with elaborate sketches of every major landmark or cityscape done in any number of mediums and styles, pencils, pens, brushes, ad infinitum. My initial impression just glancing casually through Carnet de Voyage, its glimpses of ornate Old World structures and enchanting architectural edifices, was that Craig might have himself fallen into this "corner-realism" trap, succumbing to visual ostentation. I couldn't have been more mistaken. A thorough read of the travelogue reveals Thompson's signature style intact, and transforming from something with trace hints of Andi Watson or Scott Morse, but now emphatically singing off in intriguing new directions.
The first few months of spring 2004 were clearly painful ones for Thompson, who spent most of his time between France and Spain sick, exhausted, suffering from crippling, chronic hand pain, and emotionally devastated about his breakup. At first his goal is to extract meaning from his internal conflicts by meditating on his external experiences through his art.
That's the basis of my challenge in keeping this carnet... to draw as a manner of interacting with the world, extending myself... instead I feel a bit isolated, neurotic, and burdened. Most often I continue carnet out of fear of disappointment in myself if I stop.Thompson's initial days in France are spent meekly torn between self-pity and a kind of irresistible giddiness at the cultural shift, but an extended trip to Morocco (featuring one of the funniest scatological sequences ever) quickly rubs the freshness off and forces him to confront an alien and often unfriendly culture in the context of his own fluctuating sense of artistic and personal self-worth. A bout with travel sickness in Morocco at one point drives him into total retreat:
I stayed in bed all morning, recovering from crappy illness. In the afternoon, the redundancy of the souqs washes over me, which of course is an oxymoron. I've barely nibbled at what there is to see, but somehow it all looks the same. My own loneliness takes precedent.Throughout the loosely cobbled together narrative flow of daily reflection, Thompson drops in his trademark anomalies, weird little doodle-creatures that rescue his avatar's occasionally dark meditations from total morbidity. Assuming none of this was scripted for publication, Thompson is obviously capable of seeing beyond his emotional vicissitudes, able to be self-critical without devolving into shameless self-pity. Life sucks the big enchilada, Thompson seems to say, but faced with the immediacy of poverty and suffering (notably in Morocco), he can recognize and appreciate his considerably better fortune.
Building on his random encounters with various European women, each one detailed with the same slippery sense of graceful line-work that inhabited Blankets, the travelogue morphs into a page-turner: Will Craig and his ex somehow make up? Will he get too sick to continue? Be swindled? Beaten up? Will he meet someone else? Will they hook up? Will he write about it if they do??? This and other questions are answered at varying lengths through the course of the journey, making Carnet de Voyage an odyssey of loss, dislocation, loneliness, peppered with the sort of "little redemptions" that come in momentary flashes or gradual accretions, but that also only last for hours or at best, days. There are no great revelations by the end of the book, no climax with some grand psyche-changing moment of truth, but in the spirit of "wherever you go, there you are," the reward of experiencing Thompson's art in this case come off in the surprisingly complete independent anecdotes.
If Thompson's debut tale, Goodbye, Chunky Rice has been described as "an alternative-comics answer to Saint Exupery's The Little Prince," Carnet de Voyage is Thompson with less cartoon, more Pope (as in Paul Pope). Ungrounded kinetic images thick with detail and raked with edgy lines swirl around and through random focal points, hundreds of people, elaborate mechanisms, and narrative events, punctuated by sudden stunning full-page panoramic vistas, bustling marketplaces, and Byzantine structures. Against it all, Thompson draws himself as a wiry abstraction, a cartoonish figure with curlicued hair and jutting triangle nose, suggesting that the Craig Thompson we're seeing in these pages is perhaps little more than an unknowable or deliberately distanced caricature, as Hillevi (a Swedish girl Thompson meets near the end) suggests:
You have so many layers, that you can peel away a few, and everyone's so shocked or impressed that you're baring your soul, while to you it's nothing, because you know you've twenty more layers to go... but we're the ones that are most scared and need the most love.Some may accuse Thompson of self-indulgence, of once more dragging his readers along on an emotional roller-coaster ride with hordes of pretty pictures, and while that approach is far too dismissive, this is Thompson's third release focused almost obsessively on the muddy side of love, with occasional slide into moony sentiment. Readers will likely sympathize with Thompson's brutally honest quest for meaning, for purposeful communication, and to end his aloneness, but here's hoping his next major release (purportedly an original Arabian folktale) takes us in a new creative direction. In the meantime, this is quite a bit more than a snack (Thompson describes it as a "little snack - à la airline pretzels while you're waiting for "the new book"), and well worth the $15US price of admission.
In closing, consider the following conclusion from another American abroad, Mark Twain's enormously popular and literately infamous travelogue The Innocents Abroad, a record of Twain's journey by steamship to Europe and the Holy Land:
The excursion is ended, and has passed to its place among the things that were. But its varied scenes and its manifold incidents will linger pleasantly in our memories for many a year to come. Always on the wing, as we were, and merely pausing a moment to catch fitful glimpses of the wonders of half a world, we would not hope to receive or retain vivid impressions of all it was our fortune to see. Yet our holiday flight has not been in vain -- for above the confusion of vague recollections, certain of its best prized pictures lift themselves and will continue perfect in tint and outline after their surroundings shall have faded away.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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