Journeys with Craig Thompson: Looking Back at CARNET DE VOYAGE

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Craig Thompson’s 2004 graphic journal CARNET DE VOYAGE is back in a special expanded re-release from Drawn and Quarterly. The Midwestern creator’s work has earned him several Harvey, Eisner, and Ignatz Awards, and for good reason. This latest re-release once again conjures Thompson’s ability to sweep readers along on voyages with him.

His breakthrough work, the autobiographical BLANKETS, tells the story of life in rural Wisconsin. In contrast, HABIBI takes readers to a fictional Islamic city where they follow the heartbreaking story of child slaves, Zam and Dodola. Bridging the gap, CARNET DE VOYAGE is Thompson’s account of his melancholic travels abroad as he searches for his place in the world. Always emphasizing a deep desire to connect with others, Thompson’s work captures the loneliness and love of journeys through young adulthood.

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The comic chronicles Thompson’s promotional tour for his work BLANKETS and his experiences in France, Morocco, Switzerland, Germany, Amsterdam, and England. The CARNET DE VOYAGE re-release includes an epilogue of sorts to explain the whirlwind three-month production. The short comic is packed with details from the busy streets of Marrakech to gnarled trees in Lyon and small cats just about everywhere. Moreover, the book documents Thompson’s self-discovery as well as the creative process that goes into his work.

CARNET DE VOYAGE
Image courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly.

CARNET DE VOYAGE: The Art of Travel Writing

Thompson’s CARNET DE VOYAGE (French for “travelogue”) beautifully draws on the long history of travel writing. Pausanias, a Greek philosopher, produced some of the earliest examples of travel writing with his surveys of the Mediterranean dating to 143-176 CE. Travel writing often has colonial tones but can inform on geographical as well as political history of a region. Unlike Pausanias, Thompson’s work doesn’t take time to explore place history, or much in the way of politics. Indeed, partially thanks to the illustrations, Thompson puts his own spin on the genre, providing a close-up look at daily life abroad.

Ornate sketches of buildings blend with beautiful portraits throughout this book. In the mix are humorous caricatures of Thompson as he struggles through book signings, illness, and homesickness. Despite Thompson’s many anxieties about being too introverted, the comic feels fully immersive. Rather than a recitation of facts, CARNET DE VOYAGE lets readers see the world through a tourist’s eyes, fully capturing the many overwhelming details. Thompson assumes a degree of familiarity with his readers, foregoing any personal backstory with the assumption that you, like him, are here for the journey at hand.

Indeed, CARNET DE VOYAGE’s strength comes in the balance — between images and text, and between Thompson’s internal and external worlds. Occasionally, Thompson is wrapped up in self-pity, feeling anxiety and loss as he travels alone. However, this only strengthens the travel journal. Thompson comes to realize that he is able to make connections with others through art as he learns to live as himself.

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Lost in Translation?

Thompson’s experience with languages links CARNET DE VOYAGE to the destinations on his trip. Beginning in France, many of his drawings feature annotations in French. Likewise, as he moves from city to city, he includes small shifts in language to reference his location. While some text may prove inaccessible to all readers, impressionistic artwork in black-and-white pen translates tends not to lose much meaning.

In true comics fashion, Thompson blends words and language together. The words become both tools for delivering meaning and texture to support his illustrations, a regular feature of Thompson’s comics. HABIBI uses Arabic texts combined with Islamic-inspired art as borders and motifs to communicate emotion as well as meaning. Although HABIBI and CARNET DE VOYAGE involve radically different creative processes, the two comics share a clear love of language as an art. Storytelling through image and text informs Thompson’s experiences. He is unafraid of honesty, wanting to explore the full realm of emotions and experiences in art and life.

Another feature of Thompson’s work is a desire to express the inexpressible. His comics verge on melancholic, especially when Thompson realizes how alone he is on his world voyage.  Indeed, in CARNET DE VOYAGE, his overwhelming love of the world is met with grief, as he desperately works to soak up wisdom from friends and strangers alike. However, despite the sometimes vast differences between Thompson and the people he meets, Thompson’s artwork and keen eye for picturing humanity, helps bridge the gaps. It seems that he has given more pages of his sketchbook away to strangers than went into the final CARNET. Thus, the images on the page transcend cultural differences even while they root the comic in specific cultural contexts.

CARNET DE VOYAGE
Image courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly.

Drawing the Body: The Corporeal Self

The focus on images gives Thompson’s work a corporeal aspect. In turn, the focus on the body changes the dynamic of the piece. Thompson’s body in CARNET DE VOYAGE plays an active role on the page and through the cities he explores. His focus on his arthritic hands is particularly interesting. In her book Graphic Women, Hillary Chute emphasizes the significance of handwriting in comics making and reading, specifically describing comics as “both intimate and site specific.” While Thompson’s work in BLANKETS and HABIBI are obsessively ornate, CARNET DE VOYAGE is messy. For example, half-way through his trip, Thompson loses his artists pens and is forced to buy writing utensils in Morocco. While the comics are gorgeous, there is a distinct disorder to some pages. Just as Thompson feels lost and overwhelmed, his handwriting and illustrations embody some of the anxiety and excitement of the trip abroad.

Many aspects of CARNET DE VOYAGE can be read metaphorically. One example is Thompson’s constant struggle with hand pain. Although his hands are truly in pain, Thompson is also emotionally hurting. He struggles to connect with other people, and he struggles to be happy on his own. The creation of the CARNET is sometimes more of a burden than a pleasure. Strangely, the hand — which manifests both in messier artwork and in devilish illustrations of claw-like appendages— becomes a metaphor for the sometimes painful creative process.

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Why Do We Travel?

Thompson is not a particularly happy traveler. Although he takes risks and looks for connections, he often experiences homesickness and physical pain. His other comics share this heartbreaking and bittersweet affect. Indeed, CARNET DE VOYAGE is just as much about love as his other comics. But in CARNET DE VOYAGE, Thompson is dealing with both a loss of love for himself, as well as a painful love for the world, despite its many flaws and hardships.

Like HABIBI and BLANKETS, CARNET DE VOYAGE does not sugarcoat experiences. Although Thompson longs for a world of romance and growth, some of his experiences are challenging. CARNET DE VOYAGE demonstrates that the idea of love and the realities are not always the same. But Thompson’s stories are not without romance. He meets an array of characters as well as spectacular places and histories. CARNET DE VOYAGE witnesses a personal journey and a physical one, but manages to avoid cliché. Instead, Thompson’s sincerity shines through and he sweetly goes on loving the world even when frozen with anxiety and sadness. In these moments, Thompson and his work are the most human and poignant.

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