The book follows author Craig Thompson through his sometimes traumatic childhood into high school. Each chapter starts off with a brief flashback to his early days, usually involving either sharing the bed with his younger brother Phil or his love of drawing as escapism. The Sunday school is also prominent, depicted full of fairly authoritarian and closed-minded teachers. It fares better than his secular weekday school, which is an endless source of misery for Craig due to bullying and unsympathetic teachers.
Most of these flashbacks act as a guide for their respective chapters, although there are a few that don’t quite matter as much as they should (which will be discussed later). The bulk of the novel revolves around Craig meeting his first love Raina, a girl from a similarly religious family. They bond instantly and eventually Craig spends a very long two weeks at her house. Here he meets her family: the divorcing parents, the two mentally challenged siblings, and the vacuous older sister and her husband and baby.
At a hefty 582 pages, this is one of the longest graphic novels out there (not counting comic compendiums and omnibuses). You’d think that this would be an adequate amount of pages to cover the story, but pacing issues lead to the majority of the book happening during a few months before, during, and after Craig’s two week stay at Raina’s house. A lot of time is spent developing her family’s story, their character traits, and her own character traits. Spoilers follow from this point so please don’t read ahead if you have not yet read the book.
It’s hard to judge the plot of the book considering this is Thompson’s life story and you’re essentially critiquing his choices in life, but the cold way in which he ends things with Raina after he feels their relationship weakening over time is frustrating. So much of the book is invested in building her world and the people in it and none of that gets resolved. We never find out what happens with her parents or siblings or her sister’s baby. We never even find out what happens to her! Craig just says “good bye” in a VERY SERIOUS way and then burns almost all the stuff she gave him. It’s immature and there are plenty of other ways he could have handled it. It’s also unsatisfying because earlier in the book he burned a box of all his art in similar fashion, yet as readers can plainly see…he ended up following his art dream anyway. So you think that somewhere towards the end of the book, he’ll at least see Raina again. No such luck.
It’s realistic and true to his life, but the problem here is that so much of the book acts as a red herring. There doesn’t need to be a treacly sweet conclusion where Craig and Raina end up together as was foretold by destiny. There does need to be some kind of closure and not just a heartbreaking set of wordless panels where a hand paints over one of Craig’s drawings of the couple. Real-life Craig Thompson should have put his detective hat on and made the effort to find out what happened to Raina and her family.
A similarly misleading issue happens with some of the flashbacks. While many of them do figure into the main plot, some are entirely inconsequential and really shouldn’t have been included. Craig’s own brother vanishes for a large portion of the book (one almost assumes he tragically perished the way he’s never shown), but it just turns out that they “don’t talk much anymore”. That’s not something that is ever developed. There’s no point of reference for the schism. So it rings a little hollow when Craig bonds with Phil at the end because there was no period of hostility between the two. The reconciliation doesn’t hit as hard as it should.
The rest of the book is more than fine. The art is fantastic; sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes allegorical, always dynamic and painterly. The way that text is used in unconventional fashion is nothing short of genius. The winter landscape is effectively shown as a safe haven for Craig, and winter itself feels like the warmest thing in this book. The melting snow feels like the end of Craig’s blissful ideals. The book’s other running theme, that of Craig’s religiosity, is handled deftly and resolved neatly. It feels like a complete narrative from start to finish. If only the same had happened with its partner plot line; we could have had two perfectly intertwined stories. Instead we get a novel that hints at being a masterpiece, but doesn’t fully deliver on that promise.
Final Grade: A-