Narrative In Art

A Cluster of Interesting Thinking

Craig Thompson

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Craig Thomspon was born in Traverse City, Michigan in 1975. He was raised outside a small town in Wisconsin.  He has done illustrations for Nickelodeon,DC, Dark Horse, Marvel, OWL, and National Geographic Kids. He’s written 3 graphic novels Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Blankets, Carnet De Voyage, and he’s currently finishing up his fourth entitled Habibi. Thompson won the Harvey Award for best new talent in 2000.

Good-Bye Chunky Rice: Chunky Rice was inspired by Thompson’s move to Portland and his cartoon inspirations from his childhood (Dr. Seus, Jim Henson, and Tim Burton). It tells the story of a turtle who wants a change in his life so he decides to leave home and his best friend and find meaning somewhere else. The story narrates and illustrates the issues of abandonment, sorrow, and saying goodbye. Chunky Rice falls into the qualities of narrative story telling that Aristotle was looking for. Thompson presents this drama that is plausible on many levels. Many people have experienced saying good bye to a friend or family member and having that person leave to some far off place for an extended period of time. Also the reader knows that a turtle and mouse can’t talk and have a deep friendship, but the way Thompson presents this relationship within the situation makes it relatable. It goes back to what Aristotle was saying why the audience agrees to be in interested in something fake. This also ties into what Schopenhauer’s example of the wax figure and the significance of youthful impressions. What makes this story a relatable impression is that it deals with sorrow and loss. Every person has experienced this on some level.

Blankets: Blankets is Craig Thompson’s autobiographical graphic novel that delves into his child hood, young adult, hood, being raised in a Christian family, and sleeping next to someone for the first time. It deals with his aspirations of being an artist, his first love, and losing his religion. Blankets hits all of Aristotle’s guidelines for having a successful narrative and presenting issues such as love, saddness, and relationships. Thompson presents drama in his own family. He reflects on an uncle that molested him and his younger brother. He reflects on his parents finding a sketch of a naked woman and how upset they were by it and how as a young man that he no longer believes in the Christian doctrine. All these experiences of growing up and finding your way make Blankets relatable on numerous levels to anyone who reads it.

Storytelling has evolved over the years during mankind’s rise to power. It can be as complex as trigonometry or simple as learning the alphabets. Today’s storytellers are faced with constant challenges and must find new techniques to present similar situations in interesting and dynamic ways. Craig Thompson is a graphic novelist who presents every day life situations through narrative and autobiographies.

Craig Thompson was born in Traverse City, Michigan in 1975. He’s done numerous illustrations for Nickelodeon, DC comics, National Geographic Kids, and Dark Horse comics. He currently has three graphic novels and is working on his fourth. Goodbye Chunky Rice and Blankets are the most popular. Through the use of narrative, Craig Thompson illustrates his emotions, inspirations, and experiences in Good-bye Chunky Rice and Blankets.

Following Aristotle’s guidelines on narrative and stories, Thompson tells the story of a turtle named Chunky who wants to move away and find a new home. Chunky is intent on leaving, but he will also leave his best friend Dandel behind. Chunky embarks on a voyage with a cast of color characters who are all dealing with issues of lost and regret. The story is somewhat similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which deals with people on pilgrimage seeking redemption and sharing stories with their fellow travelers.

Both Thompson and Chaucer show these different characters through an episodic way in their stories. Aristotle disliked these types of stories and felt that “those that are episodic are worst” (Aristotle 33).  Aristotle emphasized “a story in which episodes coming one after another are neither likely nor necessary” (Aristotle 33). This does not take away from the power of narrative in Craig Thompson’s storytelling nor in Chaucer’s. It gives it more depth and personality by showing each character and the problems in their past or the ones they are currently facing.

Grief, loss, and redemption are all familiar issues that most people deal with. Thompson illustrates these feelings through out Chunky Rice in a way that people would have no problem relating to. This ties into what Aristotle’s viewpoint on tragedy and how it needs to be plausible in order for the audience to connect with the story. Thompson also shows key actions that Aristotle felt should be included in a story to make it stronger and entertaining. Reversal, discovery, and suffering are present in Chunky’s quest to find a new home.

Aristotle defined that a discovery worked best when “it happens at the same time as a reversal” (Aristotle 35).  Chunky experiences his own reversal/discovery during his last night with Dandel. Chunky explains to Dandel that he is a “turtle and my home is on my back” (Thompson 87). Chunky comes to realize that he can make his home wherever he wants since he lives out of his shell. He can ultimately call any place home. Chunky looks at Dandel and admits, “probably I’m wrong to leave” (Thompson 88). Chunky feels that his home has been with Dandel this whole time, but he must continue on his own journey to find his own way.

Suffering is present through out Chunky’s voyage and in the other character’s lives as well. Chunky’s roommate, Solomon, is the captain’s brother who books passage for Chunky on the ship.  Solomon has his own tale of sorrow and recalls being forced to drown a sack of puppies by his father. Dandel hopelessy writes letters and puts them in bottles then throws them into the sea, hoping Chunky will find them.  All of these of characters suffer and try to deal with the loss in their pasts.

Thompson’s portrayal of suffering within the different characters falls into what Aristotle was looking for when creating a story that has plausible situations and allows the audience to connect with the characters. Good-bye Chunky Rice may not follow the set standards of Aristotle’s ideas about narrative, but it embraces the core values that Aristotle looks for in a story. These types of situation are constant through out Thompson’s work and especially in his autobiography, Blankets.

Blankets focuses on Thompson’s childhood, mid-teens, and early adulthood. It deals with faith, family, love, and loss, which are the main themes in most of Thompson’s other work. Blankets is told through separate parts and at different points in Thompson’s life. Again, Thompson is breaking Aristotle’s rule on episodic storytelling, but it allows Thompson to present a more relatable scenario between his characters and the reader. Most importantly, Blankets mostly with drama. Arthur Schopenhauer regarded drama as being “the most perfect reflection of human existence” (Schopenhauer 164).

Aristotle believed that tragedy was one of the most important factors in storytelling. Tragedy could only be plausible if it happened within your own family. Thompson illustrates this perfectly by presenting a number of tragic moments in Blankets. Thompson remembers the scenario of witnessing his little brother being molested by an uncle and not knowing what do in order to help. Thompson included the scenario where his parents his sketched of naked woman and how they disapproved of him drawing and wanting to be an artist.

Thompson illustrates this sense of tragedy through out his whole life in Blankets. He follows Aristotle’s guidelines more closely in Blankets than any other of his graphic novels. Thompson presents the most dramatic and tragic episodes of his life in this particular graphic novel. Even though he presents these different stages of his life in episodes, it doesn’t take away from the story. All of his experiences as a youth fall into Schopenhauer’s explanation about impressions.

Schopenhauer describes the reason why the impressions we experience during our youth leave such a mark are because “is that we then first become acquainted with the genus,…so that every individual thing stands as a representative of its genus” (Schopenhauer 160). Thompson clearly presents how impressionable he was as a child and mid-teens by showing the naivety of being child and believing that there are monsters under the bed. He also shows it through the loss of a first love and how that pain can reach so deep and leave a mark for the rest of a person’s life.

Craig Thompson follows Aristotle’s theories on story telling loosely but he hits the major parts when he focuses on each character in his graphic novels. This specific style in which Thompson uses narrative does not hinder or simplify any of the issues that are present within each character. Thompson’s form of storytelling is more character driven than actually trying to create a story following certain dynamics. Both Good-bye Chunky Rice and Blankets could be considered autobiographies. Thompson based his move to Portland, leaving home, and loosing friendships for Good-bye Chunky Rice.

He focuses more on presenting plausible scenarios instead of trying to craft a standard story about loss and friendship. This type of strategy can be related to Schopenhauer’s differation between a wax figure and an actual sculpture. While the wax figure is a clear representation of whatever it is modeled after, the sculpture is more abstract but has the ability to let an audience know what it is trying to represent. Even though a turtle and mouse cannot talk or have intimate relationship, it doesn’t mean that situation they are put in wouldn’t be relatable to the reader.

Thompson allows the reader to be fully immersed into his world, but does not intrude on the reader or try to persuade them into agreeing with his own experiences. His stores are all about drama and dealing with loss. The beauty is suffering in Thompson’s stories. Suffering is such a natural part of life it would be difficult to deny its existence. This allows his audience to have a better connection with his stories and makes them far more interesting than a standard story dealing with everyday issues. The fact that Good-bye Chunky Rice is set in this fantasy world with talking animals and over the top characters adds more to Thompson’s narrative style. This doesn’t take away from the story or the depth of the characters.

The only criticism that Aristotle would have about Thompson’s work would be the length of Blankets. Aristotle felt that there should be a limit to the length of the story and it shouldn’t take unnecessary time for good or bad things to happen if it was a tragedy. Thompson uses this flaw to his advantage to show stronger transitions between the characters.  His characters are always going through changes and that makes for better and more interesting storytelling.

Thompson lets his characters drive the story. An author, he doesn’t interfere or try to guide the reader to like or dislike certain characters. This goes hand in hand with what Wayne C. Booth was critiquing about narratives and the author dictating every action for the reader. Thompson allows his characters to explain what they are planning to do or what they will do in each of their situations. The audience can see that Chunky plans to leave, find a new home, and not return to Dandle. The audience can see that Thompson will become the artist he wants to be and live the life he wants in Blankets.

Thompson rarely puts his own voice to dictate to the reader in his stories except with Blankets. Since Blankets is autobiographical, Thompson uses his illustrated experiences and relatable motifs to tell his story and give a better understanding of what he went through growing up. There are certain points in Blankets and Good-bye Chunky Rice that Thompson lets the action tell the story. The dream sequences in Blankets show his fears and later on in life, his sexual fantasies. In Good-bye Chunky Rice, Thompson shows Dandel constantly writing letters to Chunky and throwing them into the sea, at the same time, Chunky is shown in the middle of the ocean during a storm and he loses a picture of him and Dandel.

This event represents Chunky’s loss of Dandel and the fact that he isn’t going to return to his former life and home. Thompson does more showing than telling when it comes to his stories. The graphic novel is already visually telling the reader a story and Thompson presents clear examples of the complex emotions that most people wouldn’t expect to find in a story about a talking turtle that’s trying to find his own way in the world.

The strongest quality that Thompson posses are that his stories are highly appealing because of his universal experiences that people can relate to. Brian Boyd stated “storytellers earn least audience resistance and most admiration the highest status if they tell stories that appeal to values shared by the audience” (Boyd 197). Thompson presents these values or experiences and uses his creativity to portray them in an entertaining way that’s easy to understand.

Good-bye Chunky Rice­ is loosely based on Thompson’s move to Portland and his childhood inspirations like Tim Burton, Dr. Seus, and Jim Henson. These inspirations can be easily seen in the eccentric characters about the ship Chunky sets sail on. Chunky himself is a green turtle that vaguely resemble Kermit the frog. This has high appeal because these characters are something that most people can relate to from their own childhood. Good-by Chunky Rice presents all the difficulties when leaving home and moving on to new settings early on in a person’s life.

Blankets covers a variety of issues that Thompson experienced and he illustrates that clearly through out the whole story. Religion was a major part of Thompson’s childhood and he shows how much it weighed on his shoulders when dealing with his parents finding his drawings of a nude woman and having his first sexual experience with a girl. As he reached adulthood, Thompson no longer allows religion to guide his conscious as much as it did when he was a child. At the end of Blankets Thompson has become his own person and reflects on how his experiences have shaped him into the person he has become.

Thompson’s style of narrative is simple and straight to the point. He takes simple characters and places them in complex situations that most people have experienced during their lives. Thompson has an innocent outlook on life that is somewhat naïve and childish, but it relatable and is easily portrayed in his characters. His graphic novels have a hint of nostalgia that date back to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Thompson can convey a deeper understanding in whatever theme is present in the character’s life.

Thompson is able to take an average day in the life outlook and turn it into something more introspective. He can take abstract concepts like loneliness, love, and grief and present them in a way that anyone can understand them. That’s a skill that most storytellers can’t do or have difficulties presenting it in a way that’s easy to understand. Most storytellers get lost in creating a complex story and lose sight of how simplicity is sometimes the better route to follow. Thompson chooses and picks what strategies to use for narrative. He samples all the key ideas that Aristotle, Boyd, Schopenhauer, and Booth felt that would make a strong, entertaining, and coherent story.

Thompson shows the beauty of life through all the difficult and hurtful situations that people experience especially during a person’s childhood. These types of experiences shape our lives and determine what type of person we will become. The issues that hurt the most make for better storytelling and its helps develop the character through out the story. Thompson does an excellent job at narrating these experiences and showing how much an impression it leaves on his characters and how they continue to deal with it through out their lives.

Thompson can be considered a great storyteller. His illustrations match the emotional impact that is felt within his stories. His characters are relatable and his subject matter is universal. Blankets is such an honest and innocent story that is relatable on many levels. Good-bye Chunky Rice is a pure representation of what is like to leave something that has so much importance in life and trying to find your own importance in your own life. Both of these graphic novels are clear representations of Thompson’s life and his own thoughts on love, loss, and grief.

Thompson is a rare storyteller who can present any situation and make it relatable to anyone who reads his graphic novels. Regardless if Thompson doesn’t follow the guidelines of Aristotle, he still presents an entertaining story that is easy to follow and holds the reader’s interest until the end. Good-bye Chunky Rice has a universal appeal and a creative way of telling the story about finding a new home. While the characters in The Canterbury Tales were seeking redemption by way of pilgrimage, the characters in Good-bye Chunky Rice were running away from their past or searching for a new beginning to restart their lives. This presents an interesting contrast between the two stories and Thompson’s take on his character’s past give it a more sense of realism.

Everybody has regrets or painful pasts and at one point everyone tries to resolve their issues by starting fresh somewhere else and move on with their lives. Craig Thompson is leader in this new genre of storytelling. By taking everyday situations he is able to reach his audience easily and give a clear sense about what issues are presented in his stories. His use of narrative is clear and concise and his illustrations style is visually pleasing. Thompson is able to show and tell many of the emotions that people experience and present them in a way that everyone can understand, relate to, and enjoy.

Works Cited

Thompson, Craig. Good-bye, Chunky Rice. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2002. Print.

Aristotle, Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. Poetics. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2006. Print.

Schopenhauer, Arthur, and R. J. Hollingdale. Essays and Aphorisms,. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1970. Print.

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2009. Print.


Written by narrativeinart

January 16, 2011 at 6:15 pm

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