March 7, 2010

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Carnet De Voyage

Written by Craig Thompson
Illustrated by Craig Thompson
Top Shelf

Once upon a time, Craig Thompson went on a book tour in Europe to promote Blankets. He decided to keep a sketchbook of his experiences, which Top Shelf then decided to publish.

This is that work, in all its somewhat self-conscious glory. Thompson tours France, Spain, and Morocco over the course of these pages, providing textural commentary slipped between hundreds of sketches and drawings from about three months of his visit.

In the beginning of the book, Thompson, in his typical mode of self-depreciation, tries to warn the reader that this is not a major work, simply something he did for himself that Top Shelf ended up wanting to publish.

He did not need to be so worried. This book is a wonderful and honest travelogue containing Thompson's feelings about what he experienced, good or bad. It's far more honest than any travel book published in text and photo would ever be, and also serves as a look into the life of an independent cartoonist who's reached enough fame to be asked on a tour but not enough to feel confident in himself.

If you are familiar with any of Thompson's other books or short stories, you can see that the doubt which plagues them is genuine and comes from Thompson's heart. Over and over again in this book, we see and read Thompson feeling unsure of himself, whether it is as a person, a citizen of the world, or as an American. (I really appreciated the parts where he talks about trying to give a good impression to make up for the actions of more prominent Americans on the national stage.) He admits to feeling lonely, to wondering why he is here, and to not feeling sure he is visiting the right places. Those are the same thoughts I would have, if I were ever to take such a trip.

I really like how this book takes the graphic medium and uses it to its fullest potential. This is not a book where words are shifted off to the side of the page, or only in balloon or caption form. We see that in places, but overall, the words merge into the pictures, forming a whole that cannot be separated from each other. It's a really neat effect, one that I think shows off the style of Thompson's art quite well.

I also appreciated his focus on the personal level of his journey. We get the drawings of places and things, but they almost always have a human with them. Often, that person is more important than the setting being drawn. Thompson talks extensively and draws frequently the people he meets on his adventure. We see the insides of their homes, the food they (and Thompson) are eating, and what they do for rest and relaxation. This is not your typical travel narrative, and that makes it all the better.*

Along the way, it is hard not to feel a sense of melancholy along with Thompson. He's never sure of himself, blames himself constantly for his failures (as a avatar reminds him) and there is a strong sense of loneliness as he travels alone and watches others journey in pairs. Thus, there are quite a bit of drawings featuring the women he meets, and each has a sense of beauty that is deceptively rendered by Thompson's brush work. His desire not to be alone is touching, and I hope for his sake that he's feeling more secure now than at the time these drawings were made.

I think the best sections are when Thompson is not on the signing tour itself. His weariness and hand pain make the passages where he gives interviews or feels inferior to other artists bring a sense of angst that, while present everywhere in the book, feels a bit harder to relate to.

Over the course of the book, Thompson uses a variety of styles to present his narrative. Part of this is due to the changing supplies at hand, but it also relates to the action. We see broad strokes in the portraits, minute details in portraying food dishes, and impressionistic copies of the outdoors when we move to the alps. Sometimes the narrative on the page has a circular logic, while others are straightforward. You can see some touches of Eisner in his melding of words with pictures, and some images are merely sketches done to illustrate a point.

Visually, this book is stunning and Thompson has nothing to fear about his talents, despite the constant concerns that pervade the narrative. In addition, he notes that with only a few rare exceptions, these drawings came from his eye to the page--no photo-referencing! I can't even begin to image trying to do that myself--I can't even keep a written travel diary when I'm on vacation. When you take that into consideration, the book is even more amazing for its attention to detail and often experimental structure.

Carnet De Voyage is a fine work, both as a display of art and as a travel narrative. I know it added a level of pressure for Thompson, but I am very glad that Top Shelf encouraged him to publish this travel diary. If you like diary comics or Thompson's other books, you definitely should check this book out. You won't be disappointed.

*I don't read a lot of travel narratives, so perhaps I am wrong.