Over the course of this semester, one of the recurring discussions in the graphic memoirs class has been about the ways that these texts approach memory and the past. I’ve written about this already with Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This where I discuss Radtke’s movement back and forth between specific scenes in the text. In this post, I want to look at this same topic in relation Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Near the end of the text, Thompson brings this discussion to the forefront through his use of Plato’s cave allegory, and it is this allegory and Thompson’s engagement with it that I want to focus on today.

Thompson introduces in section VIII “Vanishing Cave.” Here, Craig returns home after spending a couple of weeks Raina and her family. The sequence with Craig’s teacher discussing the allegory doesn’t appear till about forty pages into the chapter, but it serves a central role in “Vanishing Cave” and in the text as a whole.

Craig awakens at six o’clock in his own bed, and he says to himself, “I’d better get to the guest room.” At Raina’s he would sleep next to Raina, and at six he would get up and go back to his own room, the guest room. In the haze of the early morning, Craig still imagines himself at Raina’s, in a different reality. This moment of foggy awakening leads to Craig’s depiction of his teacher lecturing on the allegory of the cave.

At its core, the cave allegory calls upon us to question reality. Three individuals are chained in a cave, and all they see are the shadows cast by light shining on the things behind them. The shadows are their reality. One individual get freed and goes outside, coming to realize that the shadows were not reality, they were just representations of the light being cast on the objects. The individual returns to the cave and tries to convince the others that what they see is not real, but they do not listen and continue to believe in their own reality.

Within this sequence, Craig plays both one of the captives and also the supplier of material for the fire. So, in this way, he conflates what is reality. In the first panel, we see Craig bound in the stocks as the narration reads, “And since childhood we have been prisoners.” The next panel shows us that the narrator is one of Craig’s teachers giving a lecture. We see Craig and other students listening as the teacher describes the cave: “Bound at their neck and feet, facing a wall, unable to turn their heads.”

Next, we see the cave. The captives on the left in the stocks, a wall, then the fire casting the shadows of the objects that walk behind the prisoners. On the next page, we get six panels showing Craig throwing his drawings into the barrel outside his house, causing the flame to go higher. In this manner, Craig becomes linked to the fire in the cave that illuminates the shadows. Thus, he plays both the role of captive and deceiver (if we want to use that word).

The rest of the teacher’s lecture gets joined together with Craig’s interactions with others at school and his phone calls with Raina. One panel shows Craig on his bed, phone to his ear, as he talks to Raina. The panel does not have the same shading and contrast and the other panels in the sequence; it is merely black and white with no real shadowing. The teacher states, “What an even greater shock it would be to bring the prisoner out of the cave and into the sunlight. The initial effect would be blinding.” Craig has come out his cave with Raina, a cave where his relationship looked different than the outside world.

Now that he has come home, reality sets in that they may not be able to have what he thought they had. The life, the essence, has gone out of Craig. This removal of shadows and contrast occurs at other times in the book as well, most notably when Craig and his mother leave the restaurant where Raina and her father drop him off. One panel shows Raina, in detail, standing in front of a darkened background, a ray of light amidst the darkness, and three panels show the parking lot, as the cars back out, devoid of contrast. Following these, we see a page, again devoid of contrast, with Craig’s car falling off of the earth into an abyss of clouds. Reality sets it, the real sets in.

As Craig and Raina drift apart, the snow starts to melt and the ground starts reappearing. When they completely separate, Craig burns everything she has given him, except the blanket. He burns these items in the barrel, the barrel that serves to illuminate the wall in the cave allegory. Immediately after this scene, Craig depicts a sequence of him and brother Phil walking in the countryside when Craig came home for Phil’s graduation.

They talk about faith and how their parents would react to Craig’s lack of faith and belief. As they talk, Phil asks Craig if he remembers the cave they came across as kids. This leads them to search for the cave and to reminisce about it. When they first found it, it was big enough they could walk into it. The next time, they had to crawl through the entrance. The third time, it was just a hole, and the last time, they couldn’t find it because, as they say in unison, “It was gone.”

They talk about the reasons why the cave may have shrunk and disappeared, and Craig ruminates, “But that memory is so dream-like–too beautiful and cryptic to be true. I long since cataloged it as a creation of my subconscious.” In this panel, the background changes. We see the salamander, and we see Raina, and we see the surreal shapes that Craig uses throughout the text. In this moment, Craig questions not just the cave that he and Phil discovered but he also questions the reality of his relationship with Raina.

In the next panel, Phil reassures his brother, “No. It actually existed. I was there.” This comforts Craig because someone else can authenticate his experience, and as they walk back home we see a tree, two large branches extending on either side, as Craig asks his brother, “How else could I know it was real, and not merely a dream?” This tree, along with Craig’s question, leads us to the adjoining panel of the picture that Craig painted in Raina’s room, a painting that depicts the two of them sitting in the same tree from the previous panel. It was real, and Raina can authenticate it, but the ways that she remembers it and the way that Craig remembers it are probably different. Thus, what is the “real”?

The chapter ends with four pages of someone painting over the Craig’s work. We see white streaks covering up the image until all that remains are small marks on the white page, small marks that let us know something exists or existed but is gone. The white surrounding the marks is for us (Craig) to fill in with his remembrance, his shadows that the light illuminated. Does that make his experience any less “real” than what actually happened? Are the shadows “real”? That is is the question.

Blankets is a book constructed from Craig’s memories and experiences. He has provided us with the shadows, with the text. He has illuminated the wall and filled in the white space. He had shown us his reality, his reading of the experience. In this way, he really calls upon us to question what do we mean by reality?

What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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