Great Graphic Novels: Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompsom

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) — Mark

“This is not 'the Next Book', but rather a self-indulgent side-project — a simple travel diary drawn while I was traveling through Europe & Morocco from March 5th to May 14th, 2004."

This is how Craig Thompson introduces Carnet de Voyage, his book between Blankets and Habibi and, hands-down, my favorite thing he’s done.

It’s a canny move, saying right up front that it’s not his “Next Book.” Blankets was a genre-busting success. It won comic awards & wound up on dozens of comic & non-comic “Must Read” lists. As a 500+ page coming of age/struggling with religion story, it was the “graphic novel” that non-comic readers loved. His next book, whatever it was, was guaranteed to be sensation, this time burdened with expectations of greatness.

So we’re told on page one not to expect anything. Totally unnecessary. It might not be the “Next Book” but it’s wonderful.

Carnet is a travel diary — a one-day-at-a-time record of the places Thompson went, the people he met & the emotions he was feeling. Mostly he was feeling loneliness, as he’s just out of a relationship, in that phase where you’re still partially in it. Compounding the usual loss of a break-up is his ex-girlfriend’s (unexplained but seemingly serious) illness. So, alone & self-conscious of his loneliness, Thompson spends large parts of his trip achingly desperate to fall-in-love.

And he does, many times. And the one time it’s returned, well, I don’t want to give away the end.

Carnet’s not all mopery though. Interspersed with his loneliness are moments of camaraderie, often in the homes of fellow cartoonists as he travels to comic book conventions & store signings. These parts of the book make me wish I knew more cartoonists because they seem, across-the-board, to be great hosts. Thompson apparently knows every notable comic creator working today and folk like Mike Allred, Paul Pope and Charles Burns all make appearances in Carnet (before he inevitably leaves them).

The travel diary is a genre ideally suited to the graphic novel. Likely one of the reasons Thompson downplays Carnet is because it lacks a straight-ahead, novelistic narrative, like the one that drove Blankets (or that drives something as formally inventive but narratively traditional as Mazzuchelli’s brilliant Asterios Polyp). Most of the comics that make the jump into “graphic novel” status — and into the hands of non-comic readers — follow standard novelistic tropes. A travel diary isn’t burdened by these conventions. Its only through-line is travel, the experiences of new places, new sights & new people. As such, every page can be something new and no two pages need to follow the same rules.

Thompson takes full advantage of this freedom. Carnet features full-page, beautifully-detailed drawings, cartoony caricatures, instructions on how to make cheesy French sandwiches and standard, panel-bound comic book pages. In its visual eclecticism Carnet feels like a sketchbook, until you realize how well the pages "work." While he jumps around in style, each page is laid out to both read in a glance and hold up to longer inspection. A sketchbook would have mistakes, scribbles and marginalia. Carnet is composed and beautiful. It’s a travel diary made by a master cartoonist.

Thompson’s “Next Book” turned out to be Habibi, which is massive & detailed and every bit a successor to Blankets. It’s a treat to dive into such an ambitious story and painstakingly rendered world but that’s not always what, as a reader, I’m in the mood for. Often I just want to piggyback on someone else’s adventure — someone not too different from me, on an adventure I might still have one day. It’s fun to imagine falling in love with beautiful strangers in other countries and inspiring to think that I might come out of it with a book like this.

For me, that’s Carnet de Voyage. Inspiring, escapist, and achievable. Now I just need a girlfriend so that she’ll break up with me.

Carnet de Voyage