Sep 16, 2010

Comics Comparisons: Blankets or Good-Bye Chunky Rice

So you're looking for a good indie comic, and you hear this name bandied around: Craig Thompson. Doing a quick Google search, you find out he's known for two books: Good-Bye Chunky Rice, a book about a turtle who says goodbye to his mouse friend/girlfriend and goes off to sea, or Blankets, an autobiographical tale that is as much the story of Craig's relationship with his brother as it is about his first love.

You go on Amazon and Wikipedia and look at the specs. 

Good-Bye Chunky Rice: $12.95. 192 pages. Winner of the 2004 Harvey Awards for Best New Talent.

Blankets: $29.95. 592 pages. Winner of the 2004 Harvey Awards for Best Artist, Best Graphic Album of Original Work, and Best Cartoonist. Winner of the 2004 Eisner Awards for Best Graphic Album and Best Writer/Artist. Winner of the 2004 Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Artist and Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection. It even has a little musical album by indie rock band Tracker.

Seems like an easy choice, right? After all, with that many awards, and the fact that it's more than three times the size of Chunky Rice and less than three times its cost, Blankets seems to be the safer bet. Also, it has people in it, not turtles and mice. So Blankets must be the more mature book, right? And for you formalists out there, 592 pages must show more Comics Techniques and Tricks than 192, right? And of course, if you go online, you'll find many, many more people recommending Blankets than Chunky Rice, so it's a safe bet that Blankets is the better book, right?

Not so fast, folks. Chunky Rice is better. Let the Cube tell you why, after the jump.
It must be said that I read both Craig Thompson books essentially back to back, in the summer of 2003. Looking for comics that played with the medium formally, I checked the Internet and came across glowing recommendations of Good-Bye Chunky Rice. I read it and absolutely loved it. Not only was it full of Comics Techniques and Tricks (one of which you can see here), it was also legitimately touching, heartbreaking, and compelling.

Wanting to find more work from this artist Craig Thompson, I was elated to find out that Blankets had just come out right after I'd read Chunky Rice. So I bought it right away, and I read it, and I also loved it. But the truth is that I've always loved Chunky Rice more. After rereading both works, I must admit that I have fallen out of love with Blankets, while Chunky Rice still maintains a prestigious spot on my bookshelf, and I still recommend it to everyone who wants to read a new comic book.

Obviously, Blankets is more personal and important to one person, and that person is Craig Thompson. The story of his relationship with his first girlfriend, Raina, as well as the relationship with his brother and his relationship with his religion, is presented in Blankets in a very vividly introspective way.  It's all drawn from memory, and Thompson frequently switches styles between realistic (or as realistic as he gets, anyway) and expressionistic, depending on if he's drawing from the memory of an event or the memory of a feeling. And let me be completely honest - he's great at it.

Craig meets Raina. Craig can draw.

Young Craig imagines some bullies as demons.

And as a young man of 20 on the cusp of 21, Blankets felt very important to me, in the way that some movies that you watch when you're younger felt important to you back then, or, in my case, even a stage play (Rent, I'm looking at you) was important to you. It's that kind of story where it perfectly captures what you're going through, or were going through, or wish to be going through (as odd as it may be to want to go through heartbreak and a crisis of faith) at the time, and you can tell that for Craig, creating Blankets was a cathartic experience, a way for him to get over what he was going through at the time. Now that I am past that particular stage of my life (I am currently engaged and have made my peace with God and what counts for peace with the church), I can look at the book on a more objective level, and the truth is, I think that, as much as I got past that stage of life, I am also now past Blankets.

For one thing, Blankets reads exactly what you might feel it reads as: self-indulgent and intrusive. Now, sure, one can say that every fictional work is really self-indulgent for the author's neuroses, but I really don't need to read about the one time Craig played with himself (this blog is safe for kids, natch!) in high school, and some of his prose feels more cheesy than effective -- or perhaps it's the combination of his prose and his art that makes it feel cheesy.

I'm sorry, I know it's meant to be artistic, but it just
reads as too overly sentimental to me.

In contrast, if there's any cheesiness in Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Craig addresses it right off the bat in the first few pages. Chunky and Dandel are cute. They're like funny animals (except they're not funny). And it's the same principle that's at play with things like Maus, or even most manga - as outlined by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, the more generic the figure, the fewer features it has, the more easily you can identify with it.

It's been seven years, and those first few pages of Chunky Rice still get to me whenever I read them. If you can't relate to this, I must question if you've ever said goodbye to anyone you love, ever, in your life. In this sense, Chunky Rice is universal - if you've said goodbye to a loved one, ever, you can identify with Chunky, Dandel, or any of the other characters in the book. The emotion in Chunky Rice is therefore universal, and it applies to any time you say goodbye and farewell. In contrast, Blankets, because it is so specific, is heavily reliant on that time, that place in your life in which you can relate to the narrative, and to me, that dates it, because you eventually get past that time and place.

Stylistically speaking, Chunky Rice also uses more innovative panel layouts, as evidenced by that example above. By using polyptychs (that's multiple panels with one continuous background, with a figure moving through it), Craig creates a really unified flow throughout the book by repeating this technique and using variations of it all throughout.

This kind of unity isn't really present in Blankets, where Craig pretty much jumps from one clever technique to another clever technique, where, most of the time, the technique doesn't really resonate with the ongoing narrative. The polyptychs (and other techniques) used in Chunky Rice work because they emphasize the ephemeral nature of memory, how some moments stick as still moments and how some other moments are remembered as actions. Note the panel sequence where Dandel is pouring the water into the sand. The surrounding panels - Chunky waiting for Dandel, and Dandel saying "I can't. This is where I belong." - are as big as the two-panel sequence in which Dandel pours the water, signifying that those two moments took as long - or have more importance - than the sequence in between.

Craig has a moment in Blankets.
This technique doesn't reappear for another 400 pages.

Indy Magazine has a nice catalogue of the techniques Craig uses in Blankets, coming to the same conclusion I did: with the exception of a few, most of the clever techniques just come across as clever. They don't really come off as important or necessary.

But what really puts it over the top for me is just simply how intrusive Blankets feels. Look, plain and simply, I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say Craig doesn't end up with Raina - I think I covered that at the part where I said the book is about his first girlfriend - and I don't know if Craig got Raina's permission to use her likeness and her family's likenesses for the book.

Laura, Raina's mentally challenged sister.
I don't think she has the call to sign over her likeness rights.

I have a friend who met Craig at a con a few years ago, and she heard Craig say that he'd heard that Raina has read the book, but has not gotten in touch with him about it. Honestly, I don't think I'd get in touch with anyone who wrote a really personal piece and revealed facts about my life - it does feel like an intrusion of privacy.

What's more, as I was reading Blankets again, I can't help but think of what Craig's then-current girlfriend (I could be wrong about whether or not he had one, but I could swear reading at the time that he did) thought about the whole thing, since it was pretty obvious that working on it was a way to get over Raina.

Don't get me wrong, folks. Blankets is a beautifully done comic book, and in the sense that it can be enjoyed no matter which generation we're in, then yes, it is a timeless comic, and Time even named it as one of the top ten most important graphic novels of all time (granted, I take issue with their list). But in the sense of it aging with you, I don't think it ages as well as Good-bye Chunky Rice, not even in any way. Blankets relies on specific personal experiences, or the empathy for Craig's personal experiences, to work fully. Good-bye Chunky Rice is about goodbyes, at its most general and heartbreaking form, and you can read it today, tomorrow, or at any time in your life. While I think that Blankets is definitely more ambitious, it is Chunky Rice that is more mature, more developed, more innovative, more heartbreaking, and more tearjerking. Moreover, it is Chunky Rice that achieves a timelessness that most comics - including Blankets - can't ever hope to achieve.


pj said...

Although Blankets made me cry, I agree that Goodbye Chunky Rice is better. :) I agree with you completely that it has the sort of universality that Blankets doesn't.
I also feel like Chunky Rice was more deserving of the awards and recognition.
My reason is a bit more simple though--at certain points in Blanket, I found myself projecting my personal issues against fundamentalist Christians instead of being immersed in the art and the story. On the other hand, the plot, characters and art of Chunky Rice just completely riveted me, and I found myself letting go of my own opinions and broadening my view of the world--which for me is what good art (whatever form) is all about :D

Duy Tano said...

Well said, PJ. I agree with all that - Because Chunky Rice is more universal, it's more easy to identify with and really put your own meaning into, whereas with Blankets, you end up putting the meaning into this guy's life that you may not be supposed to do. I feel like the funny animals hurt Chunky Rice when it came to the recognition category. The critics go for ambition.

Kat said...

I completely agree! Although I love Blankets too, Chunky Rice had always been my personal favorite. I always just thought it was the Disney in me that connected so well to the anthropomorphic animals, but you explained it much better and more articulately here, that it's the universality of the story and how simpler characters are easier to project yourself into and identify with (which also explains how people feel such a connection to simple Disney characters like Dumbo and Wall-E).

I also love the subplots in Chunky Rice. While Blankets is really direct with it's subject matter, I loved the layers and metaphors that Chunky Rice builds with the Siamese twins and the captain and his painful past contrasted with his gentleness with his love for his bird. I just thought it was so well put together to show all these different kinds of love. Aww now I really want to read it again...

Duy Tano said...

Don't you have a signed hardcover of it? You're misremembering -- the captain was gruff, but his brother was the gentle one with the bird. No better excuse now to read it again!

Kat said...

Who was it that was left under a box during hide and seek and was peer pressured into killing a baby animal? It has been years since the last time I read it, I will definitely need to break it out again. I'll probably cry even more this time around. :p

And yes, I do have a hard copy signed by Craig Thompson! I was so happy, he even drew a little picture of chunky rice and dandel sharing a sleeping bag. Am I the one you're referring to who asked Craig if he was still in touch with Raina? :p

Duy Tano said...

That was Solomon, the captain's brother.

And yes, you are the friend I refer to. But the way you told me the story, someone else asked Craig if Raina had gotten in touch with him post-Blankets release, and Craig said he heard that she'd read it, but no.

Kat said...

Ahh okay that sounds about right. I couldnt remember the encounter exactly, but when I read your blog I was thinking wow, did I really have the balls to ask him about Raina? I'm already shy just asking for an autograph. Hahaha

Th. said...


Hmm. I guess I'll have to reread Chunky Rice. I don't remember anything about it other than thinking it was a wash.

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