“Winter’s greatest treasure was Christmas break,” Craig Thompson writes early in Blankets, the acclaimed artist’s 2003 semi-autobiographical graphic novel. His on-page proxy is just a boy here, making snow angels with younger brother Phil in the shadow of a Bible-inspired angel statue, which hovers just above a traditional manger scene. This juxtaposition is both sweet and heartbreaking, an encapsulation of the story’s central themes of youth, innocence, and how they’re often eclipsed by the shadow of intense evangelicalism. Thompson has called Blankets “the vehicle with which I came out to my parents about not being a Christian,” but for the casual reader it’s so much more than that. Across 572 pages, we watch Craig fall in love, struggle with sexual shame, and make peace with an upbringing (and, yes, faith) that complicated so much of it. And through it all, the smother of a Midwestern winter seems to morph and shift along with our character. For Craig, Christmas break isn’t a just an escape, but an annual ritual of discovery.
Such discoveries aren’t always so emotional, though. One of Blankets’ greatest strengths is in how it captures the weird games and traditions that are born out of necessity for those who come of age in snowbound surroundings. In places like northern Wisconsin, where Craig and Phil live, winter is something the young, naive, and not-yet-licensed-to-drive look forward to every year. The sheer amount of snowfall so fundamentally alters the landscape, building crusty bridges over chasms or sheets of ice that scrim a river, that it creates an entirely new terrain to explore.
A memorable scene in Blankets concerns those deep stretches of snow wherein the top layer has melted onto the still-solid bottom layer, forming a “crispy coating” that exists somewhere between ice and snow. In the story, Craig recalls how he and Phil would gingerly step across to see who could make it the furthest before crashing through. It’s specific enough to feel special while so simple as to trigger a well of nostalgia for the reader, serving to show just how talented Thompson is at finding universality in the most personal of memories. There’s a similar sense of nostalgia that sprouts from the way the brothers can only find warmth in the night by sharing the same blanket, or the moment when a first kiss unfolds within the crux of overlapping snow angels. Here, ice and snow aren’t an annoyance, but rather a malleable kind of magic. It would be a cliché to say winter is itself a character in Blankets, but there’s no doubt the season plays an integral role that extends beyond being a mere backdrop.
For one, Blankets certainly looks wintry, with page after page of shadowy black-and-white inking that evokes the skeletal branches of a withering, leafless elm. Thompson’s deceptively simple style, however, actually complements the complexities of his themes. His illustrations are able to simultaneously capture both the majesty and bleakness of a Midwestern winter, the way an open expanse of white and gray is at once lovely and impossibly sad. As children, the breadth of all that unblown snow was simply the canvas for creating snowmen and snow angels. As adults, it’s something else entirely, all that possibility morphing into something resembling emptiness. As Blankets shows us, the same can be said for God, for family, for love.
The story’s nucleus, through which so much of these themes of faith, family, and art emerge, is the whirlwind romance Craig finds with Raina, a smart, rebellious teen he meets at church camp. In a long-distance affair, the duo deepens their relationship with letters and mix tapes before spending winter break together at Raina’s house in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Here, Craig and Raina fritter away the days as the intensity of their initial connection dissolves into something more confusing, a seesaw that bounces between boredom and passion. It’s a frustrating emotional balance, a state of limbo made all the more painful by the way these pages show just how such patterns ultimately come to represent so many of life’s touchstones. There’s the discovery, the overindulge, the drift, the desperation to reconnect, and, ultimately, the disenchantment. What you’re left with is a dream, one that haunts you.
“Sometimes, upon waking, the residual dream can be more appealing than reality,” Thompson writes near the end of Blankets. “You wait with the promise of the next dream.” Craig is referring to the longing he feels for his first love, but it’s a sentiment that can be applied to any number of our firsts, be it that first moment we felt God or the time Christmas felt like Christmas. To wait for another moment of magic to come along, however, is to neglect the impact of the first, to allow it to exist as an open wound rather than a scar. “The act of waking,” Thompson writes, “is dependent on remembering.” And it’s in remembering, Thompson argues, and in the honoring of those memories that we can overcome disenchantment.
Christmas break, holiday break, winter break, that break inevitably evolves as we age, with the holidays themselves taking on that same level of disenchantment we feel with love, faith, family, and whatever else. They begin as “winter’s greatest treasure,” but inevitably grow into what Thompson calls a “mnemonic device,” or rather a stretch of days that, with its emphasis on family, home, and innocence, offer us a way to remember. And remembering is painful; at the end of Blankets, we witness Craig’s struggle with the keepsake blanket Raina left him years before. It’s that difficult confrontation that helps him replace the nostalgic longing that breeds disenchantment with the reality that at least it happened. Craig finds contentment in not just that simple, cathartic fact, but in the endless stretches of snow that represent everything that’s yet to be explored.