This is Part Two of a four-part series. The introduction is here.
As Carnet de Voyage begins on March 6, 2004, Craig Thompson is 28 and heading for Paris. Blankets has been published in the U.S. the previous year, to major acclaim, and his European publishers want him to do a promotional tour for a couple of months, signing books for fans, meeting other comics artists, attending some big continental comics fests. Most, if not all, paid for by the publishers and convention organizers. Sweet! To be young, gifted, single and comped on a European vacation. He even has a side trip scheduled for Morocco. The Carnet is his sketchbook diary of that trip, and we might expect it to be a celebration, maybe even a bacchanal!
Except that maybe we’ve read Blankets, and we’re pretty sure that Craig is not going to be able to give himself over to that sort of thing. And in fact, Craig is unhappy for a lot of Carnet. He counts the ways: he’s homesick, he misses his ex-girlfriend profoundly, she’s quite ill, he’s lonely, everything reminds him of her, he’s lonely, his hand hurts from so much drawing. Did we mention he’s lonely? His internal struggles spill out into the frames and pages of his notebook, enveloping them in fog of gloom. Morocco, near the beginning of the trip, is especially difficult, primarily because he doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t understand the culture very well and plunges into the worst melancholy of the trip.
By the time he returns to Europe, things start to lighten up. Some. Everything is more familiar. He eats great food. The pages feature more drawings of attractive women. He has conversations with interesting people, including his comic artist heroes. He sees relatively happy families in action. But his drawing hand REALLY hurts, enough to seek treatment, and despite the numbers of slender, attractive European women around him, he misses his ex. The commercial part of the comics biz is difficult for him — the speaking, signing of books, conventions. And then he leaves, though by the end he’s getting to like it. Barcelona? Hard to argue.
Why is this relatively familiar story so engaging?
Several reasons come to mind — he’s a likable character himself, he understands that a certain amount of his unhappiness is self-inflicted, we empathize with him as a character coming to grips with himself. And Carnet is beautiful — Thompson is an excellent artist. His lines are deft, he can reveal complex scenes, architecture, foliage and portraits with economy. He understands the power of suggestion. The drawings feel fresh, quickly sketched (they are), and when he employs comic book conventions, which he does frequently, they add to the sense of delight — the labels, the dialog bubbles, his “cartoony” depiction of himself. Throughout there’s the sense of “hand-made” and “care.”
Which means it “reads” as true. At the beginning of the notebook Thompson writes, “The stories, characters, and incidents in this publication are based on the personal experiences of the author, but should not necessarily be considered the truth with a capital “T”.” I take this seriously — Thompson is scrupulous about matters such as these. On his website recently, he explained in detail his drawing “program” for Carnet to someone who had asked whether or not it was a “true” sketchbook (the answer: basically, yes). But I’m not sure what he means by his parsing of truth (or Truth). That there is fictional material in Carnet? I don’t think so. That he “dramatizes” some of the incidents, even some of his interior states of mind? This seems possible, I suppose, though I’d guess not. That he doesn’t trust his memory completely? Sure. Are all the quotes verbatim? That’s really hard to do: I bet not. In some deep sense does he allow the possibility that his sense of things might be incomplete or incorrect? Absolutely. Does he omit some of the Truth? Of course, for all kinds of reasons, I suspect, from ego preservation (though there are ample ego-destruction bits) to banality to avoidance of repetition to… any number of reasons (see Borges’ map that is the size and detail of the empire that is to be mapped).
Does Carnet tell us what Morocco is like? Of course not. It’s what Thompson found, singularly, in his state of mind. It’s a valuable description, though. We don’t doubt its truthfulness in the larger sense. Should you avoid Marrakesh because of what Thompson writes and draws? No, but you might try to avoid the central square, the medina, for much of your time there, and maybe you should take along a companion so you don’t feel lonely. The byplay between the internal (how Thompson is feeling, what he is thinking) and the external (what he is seeing) gives Carnet a lot of its tension. And in that tension, that friction, we get the heat of “truth” if not “Truth”.
Back to the nomenclature problem, which Thompson addresses almost directly in Carnet. In Toulouse, he is introduced to Blutch one of his favorite cartoonists. “We went out for beer and discussed comics — and about how “autobio comics” can mess with your real life. With his current work Blutch says, ‘There is nothing real, but everything is exact. … Just the juice of reality.’” Which is “fiction” in my book. But “autobio comics” — that’s a good category to remember. And it includes lots of other popular but non-Marvel, non-DC, comics guys, from Lynda Barry and Harvey Pekar and on to the present (not that Barry and Pekar aren’t part of the present!), artists who base their work on real events and characters from their past. We can debate whether we think any specific incident is literally true, but we assume that they were lived that way, at least approximately, because the artist/writer is testifying that they were — if we decide the he or she is trustworthy.
Thompson is. And so is the next graphic journalist we’ll consider, Guy Delisle.