Craig Thompson, the author/artist of Blankets and Habibi fame, originally published Carnet de Voyage in 2004. This new edition, published by Drawn & Quarterly, comes with over twenty pages of new content, drawn twelve years after the first edition.
I picked up this title expecting something lighter than Thompson’s usual work, maybe a little like my own travel journals. I expected hijinks, travel snafus, and encounters with the kind of people you can only meet while traveling alone and abroad. Carnet has all of those, but it also has the beautiful, indulgent melancholy that’s Thompson’s trademark.
The book documents Thompson’s adventures traveling through France, Morocco, and Spain. It mixes pleasure and business, wonder with melancholy, alienation and belonging, and I was absolutely unable to put it down. It’s more than just a simple travel diary, since it goes beyond documenting Thompson’s physical experiences—it’s a journal about change, a specific time in a specific man’s life, and the strange tension that hangs between Thompson and his interactions with the new places and people around him.
Thompson renders cityscapes, landscapes, people, animals, and trees (so many trees… and cats) beautifully in black ink. His drawings are stylized, not hyper-realistic, but he manages to catch feelings of specific places. The dark stillness of a Moroccan mountain village, a friend’s toddler helping prepare dinner surrounded by huge milk jugs, and the intricate soaring ironwork of a Barcelona train station, are all beautifully drawn, and make you want to step into the world displayed on the page in front of you. The book is also filled with portraits. Portraits of friends, colleagues, handlers, and random people on the street. Some are quick sketches, some are detailed portraits, but all are intimate without being voyeuristic.
The thing that does feel voyeuristic, however, are the glimpses Thompson shows into his own emotions and his own state of mind while he’s traveling. He states multiple times throughout the work that he’s not sure what he wants Carnet to be, even though he and his publishers always intended on publishing it. At times, the tension between what Thompson wants to draw, versus what he thinks he should draw, versus what he wants to reveal, is palpable. It’s even uncomfortable at times, like when he’s experiencing a deep melancholy while traveling alone in the rain, or longing for an ex-girlfriend he left back in Portland, Oregon.
When that discomfort combines with beautiful drawings, detailed portraits, traveling absurdities, and sketches of private, intimate moments, the result is something beautiful and profound. You won’t come away from Carnet grinning from joy, but you will come away feeling like you just read something that will linger with you forever.
Carnet can also be treated as a historical artifact. The trip Thompson documents took place in the spring of 2004, almost a year after the United States invasion of Iraq. Not only does he struggle with feeling like a country bumpkin compared to his European friends and colleagues, he also struggles with being an American abroad. There are times where he tries to hide or minimize his nationality, and he feels especially uncomfortable when traveling in Morocco. He desperately wants to show Moroccans that he doesn’t believe what the Bush administration is spouting about the Arab world, but he also struggles with guilt and a sense of some sort of responsibility. The tension he feels is heightened when he admits to himself that he’s uncomfortable with the extremely patriarchal Moroccan society. He tries hard to be objective, but he leaves Morocco with a sense of relief. You can tell he’s much more comfortable in France and Spain.
Overall, if your library doesn’t have the original 2004 edition of Carnet, I highly recommend purchasing this edition. There is some sexual content, not smut by any means, but enough to be shelved with the adult graphic novels. The bonus content, which shows how the book was created and reflects on the journey over a decade later, is well worth cost of the new edition, and the original work itself is compelling and evocative. If Thompson’s other works are popular with your patrons, then they’ll be lining up to read Carnet.
Carnet de Voyage
by Craig Thompson
Art by Craig Thompson
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018