In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims that if you survived childhood, you have more than enough material to write a book. I’m inclined to agree, but memoirs are tricky—which is why many authors don’t bother. I can’t say I blame them. How does one take all those memories—the confusion, insecurity, lust, joy, shame, love—and distill the emotional hodge-podge into something coherent? The task is more than daunting. Why not just box up the past, label it with a Sharpie, and bury it forever in some dark corner of the attic?
In his Harvey Award-winning graphic novel, Blankets, Craig Thompson reminds us that memoirs can provide all the illumination of an archaeological dig. Only when you’ve begun sifting through the dirt, exhuming the bone fragments, can you hope to understand the you who emerged on the other side. Thompson renders his own childhood in vivid black-and-white illustrations. Each frame spills over with clear-eyed wonder and wistful musings on everything from the struggle to hang onto religious faith to the emotional roller-coaster ride of first love.
His masterful illustrations will break your heart, but Thompson’s genius lies in the impressionistic manner in which he realizes them. Midway through the book he recalls an early childhood episode during which he and his brother, while sharing a bed one night, get into a full-fledged pissing match (literally). His mom barges into the room to find out the cause of the ruckus and, furious and confused, hauls the boys into the shower.
Accompanying a frame in which the two brothers stand isolated in pitch darkness with a shower of water raining down like a spotlight high above, Thompson writes, “Either way, one’s first shower is a rite of passage—an initiation into adulthood. Only in this context, it was moreso (sic) a baptism—a vain attempt to cleanse away our shame. I scrubbed and scrubbed, but still I could feel the sin on my body.” Blankets is an unmitigated triumph, but if the idea of crying while reading a comic book doesn’t appeal to you, I’d recommend you leave this one alone.