Back in 2004, Craig Thompson was coming into his own as a serious graphic novelist. His intimate “Blankets” — an autobiographical tale of first love, brotherly failure and lost faith — had won a number of awards, and his success was helping to move the graphic memoir into the American mainstream. He was also, though, slightly adrift: His girlfriend had just left him, and he wanted to get out of Portland, Ore., which was full of memories of her.
Thompson’s French publisher organized a book tour, and when other publishers in other countries piled on, the trip turned into an odyssey. To stay productive and to connect to a tradition popular with other artists, Thompson committed to recording a travel diary — or “Carnet de Voyage” — as he went, sketching every day. The result is a swiftly compiled record of his travels in Europe and Morocco (where he researched his long-gestating graphic novel “Habibi”). The sketchbook-cum-travelogue is quite a dreamy object — it doesn’t use many separated panels, and drawing often fills the page, black crosshatched edges feathering and dissolving into the ragged white surround. Like others of its type, the book encourages the eye and mind to wander. This is travel in its exploded view. Close-ups of French friends jostle alongside wide-screen landscapes; little notes and arrows carry us along Thompson’s stream-of-consciousness; there’s a page on how to wind a turban, complete with steps.
Thompson’s other work can be overwrought; “Habibi,” for instance, is a claustrophobic experience, with self-consciously exquisite decoration and Orientalist fantasy crowding the pages, like vines grown too big in the hothouse. “Carnet de Voyage,” though, was made at such incredible speed — it was already at the publisher while he was still touring — that it corrects for some of that laboriousness. Thompson’s drawings are still lush and considered, flowing across the pages from his Pentel brush-pen, but the book is looser, sweeter, more suggestive than his other pieces. Yet it’s not all sweet. He often hates the trip: He’s torn about his exchanges with people in Morocco, especially when they demand money from him or he’s made to realize that they consider his portraiture intrusive. It’s clear that his subjects believe that allowing him to draw them entitles them to something — and this leaves Thompson deeply uncomfortable.
The reissued diary now includes a postscript (and postgraph) of the rest of the trip, including updates from a 2016 return visit for his “Space Dumplins” tour and a few sketches of his hosts and friends from before the “Carnet” journey. Even 12 years later, Thompson’s last thought is of the woman who left him, the searching taproot of his 2004 despair. Though, one assumes, he has long moved on, the book closes with five “Melissa” drawings, a quintet of sleeping nude portraits that are simultaneously romantic and — as we’ve been trained to see by reading the book — invasive.
Because of the way the “Carnet” functions, because it was made quickly enough to seem relatively candid, we now know how much of Thompson’s mind is taken up with searching out and drawing women. His drawing and his libido are tied up together, and it explains the expressive, caressing quality of his line. Less delightful is the way that, in a book full of wit and carefully observed detail, the women he desires all look the same. The women who are his friends look different; some of them I feel I’d recognize in the street. But sex confuses Thompson’s eye — and he sees the same curve of hip, the same bowed lip in girl after girl after girl. Explore as far as he might, that’s a blindness he does not escape.