Friday, 13 June 2014

Deep Sequencing: Swaddling Everyday Moments in Blankets

Or how everyday events are elevated in clever ways in Blankets,
by Craig Thompson; Top Shelf Productions

Blankets is an autobiographical comic about its author Craig Thompson. It tells the story of its author falling in love as a teenager, his struggles with fundamentalist christianity, and his rough, abusive childhood. It's a very, very well crafted comic that weds a really beautiful and fascinating artistic approach to a really personal and bravely told story. It's also a comic that I have some reservations about how myopic and self-centred it is: the story is ABOUT CRAIG and really fails to reckon with the fairly shitty way he interacts with a lot of characters and some of the gross attitudes he displays. Blankets is a comic that is spectacular and flawed, in a way that is, I think, deeply entrenched in the nature of its autobiography.

The one thing I am unambiguously in love with about Blankets, though, is how wonderfully the artwork captures the giant scope of remembered emotion. 

To explain what I mean by this, I'm going to get Sciencey and wishy-washy for a bit. But, for people who want to make with the comics, TLDR: Old memories mutate and become exaggerated emotionally. I think.

Alright, so here goes. Memory is an imperfect machine. When forming memories we mash sensory inputs against the conceptual/emotional framework of our mental processing and create an interpretation of events which we then store in our brain as a memory. What this means is that the original copy of our experiences is shaped by a ton of brain conjecture and elements of other existing memories. So these original memories operate as painted representations of events instead of literal records of what happened. Which means that no memory is perfect, they all begin distorted by emotions and shaped by perception. And this is a feature that only gets worse. Every time we remember memories we change them a little and add new associations with other recollections and new emotions to the mix (the Science of this seems to be that the physical cellular machinery involved in memory goes from a static storage state, to a plastic readable state and that there is a certain amount of data slippage). It's.... like how files stored on a computer warp, and degrade a bit with every copy or read... but in your brain. Now, this is just me waving my hands around, but, it seems to me a major feature of this memory alteration is that memories become exaggerated: that the key features (the weightlessness of falling out of a tree) are expanded with each remembrance (that falling sensation becomes more important and central to the moment than the desperate grab for the branch of the bone breaking impact of the ground) and the whole memory is contaminated with extra emotions (a fundamental dread and sense of being overwhelmed that usually triggers that memory) and you are left with a much different memory (a fall that lasts so much longer, thats so much more filled with dread than the actual second or two of hang time ever was). It becomes a caricature of the original memory that is simplified and exaggerated to be a certain representation of a thing more than the event it originally was. If that makes sense. 

My point here, is that my earliest memories of puppy love and childhood misadventure are clouded by huge emotions and a... certain looseness with the actual reality of what happened. I feel these memories more than I remember them,

Blankets, does a really, really good job capturing just this effect in comics form to create emotionally evocative panels that resonate with my own personal sense of nostalgia.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Blankets in the rest of this post.

This panel of Craig and his brother's abusive father is a great example of this.The way he looms, gigantic over the tiny frightened boys, his words giant and bolded in a panel weighted by fury, absolutely captures the emotion of powerlessness you have as a child in the face of a frightening, adult authority figure. It's the feeling of being tiny, facing impossible odds made literal in comics form. 

I can guarantee that this event, as it actually happened did not look like this: Craig and his brother did not shrink in face of their angry father and their father did not really Hulk out. Instead this drawing, instead of being a literal representation is the EMOTIONAL representation of the moment. And because it nails it so perfectly, I am left feeling the smallness of when my own furious parents scolded me as a child.

Here is another emotion evoking, magic panel. On this page the various christian teens at the fundamentalist camp Craig is sent to all join in song while Craig does not. Craig doesn't sing because he doesn't buy into the community spirit of the camp and because he just doesn't like to sing. And to be the person on the outside, particularly in a community activity like song, is a fantastically shitty feeling. This panel absolutely catches this feeling by depicting Craig apparently collasping in anguish, unnoticed as the song joins everyone else together and elevates them. Again, while it's not literally what happened, it perfectly catches the emotion of the moment. As a dude who hates singing, I cringe just looking at it.

This panel shows Craig and Raina, his love interest, in a quiet intimate moment. The two have found a hidden refuge under a game machine in the camps bustling arcade. Sheltered from the crowds and noise of the camp Raina curls up to nap and Craig protectively watches over her. (Sleep being this fuzzy-virginal pure version of intimacy between the two.) This panel is great because it depicts the world falling away, leaving this perfect little moment of privacy, comfort, and togetherness that perfectly captures that feeling of staying up all night with a crush gabbing on the sidewalk or cuddled up on the couch with your spouse. It's pretty great.

This page here is a really interesting example of the evocative artwork in Blankets. While many of the best examples (including the other ones I picked) work their magic by bending the bounds of reality to emphasize certain aspects of the composition, this page focuses on certain senses to beautifully call up memories. This page takes place just after Craig and Raina enjoy a makeout session that comes as close to sex as any interaction they have. The pair, still somewhat undressed, fall asleep in each other's arms. This panel focuses on the sensations of breathing and heart sounds, which are such intimate, private noises that work together to take me back to when sleeping in the same bed as a romantic partner was wonderful and new (and not pleasantly comfortable and a ritualized form of blanket possession combat). It's a wonderfully composed panel, and just such an astute use of non-visual information to be nostalgia inducing.

And this is what I love about Blankets: for all of its problems, Blankets is one of the best comics I've read for evoking memory associated emotional responses and generating nostalgia. It's a comic I recommend, you will enjoy the artwork, and there is a lot to learn and appreciate from it.

So I Read Blankets

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