Blankets by Craig Thompson, reading at CounterMedia, 927 SW Oak St., 226-8141, Friday August 1, 6:30 pm
It's apparent from meeting Craig Thompson that he's a good artist; his characterization of himself in his new autobiographical graphic novel Blankets is spot-on. And it's obvious from speaking with him that he puts a lot of thought into his work; he spent four years making Blankets, the first of which was spent just writing. The result is a sprawling 582 pages (supposedly the longest non-serialized graphic novel ever published in the U.S.) that is a documentation of intimacy in multiple forms.

"I wanted to tell a long, breathable story about an emotional experience and I wanted that experience to be what it's like to sleep next to someone for the first time," Thompson says. "However, the choice to make it autobiographical was not an immediate one. When I was setting out to tell the kind of story that I wanted to tell I reluctantly relied on [autobiography]."

Thompson grew up in a rural Wisconsin town, raised by fundamentalist Christian parents. Their faith, and his own, play an important part in Blankets' story, as does the relationship between Thompson and his brother. The bulk of the story, though, is devoted to a high school relationship with Raina, a young woman facing her own issues of faith and intimacy. The story is about being close to a living, breathing thing, finding yourself attached to it, and feeling the pain when you're separated, whether it be brother, lover, or a faith in God. These weighty topics unfold with such earnestness the book never becomes bogged down by sap or sentiment.

It's been four years since Thompson's last book, Goodbye, Chunky Rice, a critically lauded work that set the stage for Blankets to receive enormous amounts of advance attention. In addition to a small write up in Spin, and another one coming up in Entertainment Weekly, a lengthy review on Time.com called it "a great American novel." But all the national press the book is getting doesn't interest Thompson as much as the notion that many people are saying this is a comic that will appeal to a wide audience. "The exciting part is that people have been saying this is the comic that non-comics readers will read," he says, in a testament to his own understanding of the aesthetics of comics. By intermingling full-page images with standard grids, Thompson continues, "the art can breath" and he's able to avoid what he sees as a problem with many comics: "They're hard to read."

Blankets' wide appeal is due not only to the artwork, but the way in which all aspects of the book--style, structure, tone--are blended together. Unlike some cartoonists, Thompson both writes and illustrates his books, which helps him to avoid the "schizophrenic feel" that some comics have when made by multiple individuals. Blankets strikes a perfect equilibrium between illustration and narration that is often missing from comics.

"At the same time I was working on Blankets I really got into French comics," says Thompson. "So I was reading books and looking at comics that I couldn't read and that was really nourishing. Probably more nourishing than reading comics that I could read that were poorly written."

Thompson's careful preparation paid off. Never does Blankets' story lag in its nearly 600 pages. In fact, despite the length of the book, it's virtually impossible not to read it all in one sitting. Such is the flow of the story, that even an attempt to read just the first chapter, will drop you somewhere hundreds of pages later, unable and unwilling to go back. Blankets is a rare achievement, a work of art that redefines the parameters of its designated medium. No other graphic novel of this kind has been published, though you can bet many more will be in the wake of its success. It could be the start of a nice trend: the intimate epic. Or perhaps not, for Thompson and his new masterpiece are nothing if not reminders of times hard to come by in these days of cell phones and mass emails; when people took their time to write something great, and others took the time to read it. M. WILLIAM HELFRICH