Carnet de Voyage

By Craig Thompson
224 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

People who have read my reviews for a while now will have figured out that I love well-told travel stories and journals. When I heard that Craig Thompson was releasing a journal of his recent trip through Europe and North Africa, well, I was ecstatic. I adored Blankets and I was trying not to get my hopes up too high—this would certainly be a different beast than his other books—but I was really expecting Carnet de Voyage to transport me to another world. And thankfully, that’s exactly what it did.

Thompson’s journey is one that brings him to new places both physically and mentally. It’s a real journey, one where he tries to learn something about himself even as he’s plunged into a number of countries where he is an alien, struggling to communicate through both language and emotional barriers. Because Carnet de Voyage was created on the fly as Thompson travelled for several months, this isn’t a story with a focused, distinct narrative, but that’s part of its charm. Thompson chronicles his travels as they occur, trying to find common threads in his experiences even as life continues to twist and surprise him. There’s a real lack of pretension here; Thompson isn’t afraid to show his self-doubt, both about his attempt to create something out of his journal as well as his travels in general. What could have come across as something very self-important instead comes across as, well, real.
Carnet de Voyage is a mix between spot illustrations with text, and actual sequential art, depending on what Thompson’s trying to accomplish. Often Carnet de Voyage is Thompson merely trying to show the rest of the world what he’s seeing, adding in narration to help fully explain his experiences. When his entries warrant it, though, he resorts sometimes to a single image that progresses across the page, other times using actual comic panel progression to get his ideas across. The different storytelling techniques used each help set the mood required, from dreamy introspection as Thompson floats in a river, to tongue-in-cheek humor as Thompson can’t discover what he really wants out of Marrakesh.
What was an unfortunate accident is ultimately a blessing for the reader, when partway through Thompson’s trip he loses his brush and draws 30 pages of Carnet de Voyage using a ballpoint pen. The difference between the two implements that Thompson uses changes his approach to how he draws in his journal. With the brush, Thompson uses lush, thick strokes that flow across the page, a real darkness that pulls the reader in. It was very different to see the pages using just a pen, with a thin line etching a figure bit by bit. It’s a very careful, deliberate style that while is clearly Thompson, is something that most of his readers might not be used to seeing. It’s a very intimate, closer look into Thompson’s skill, and while on some level it was almost a relief when Thompson arrives in France and is able to buy more art supplies, I found myself missing Thompson’s usage of the rougher, less polished ballpoint. It was neat to see him taking a different tactic on the page, and it paid off wonderfully.

After the more weighty books of Good-bye, Chunky Rice and Blankets, Thompson’s little sidestep in the form of Carnet de Voyage is light and refreshing, but no less enjoyable. It may not be, as Thompson says, “the Next Book” but that doesn’t mean you should sell Carnet de Voyage short. It’s a rare glimpse into Thompson’s head and how he sees himself once he’s been transported to new surroundings. I, for one, enjoyed the trip immensely.

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