The title of Craig Thompson’s most recent travel book, Carnet de Voyage, translated roughly from the French into English as “travel document,” suggests to the reader that he or she is entering into a travelogue that will have France as its setting. The cover of Carnet de Voyage certainly alludes to France, with its drawing of a narrow cobblestone street, row houses, and small cars with their long license plates. Carnet de Voyage is a travelogue set in France, but it is also much more. Thompson, a writer and cartoonist, has created a hybridized text that is part travelogue, part comic book, and part artist’s sketchbook and diary. Carnet de Voyage transcends all three genres by bringing together the best elements of each, and, in the process, taking the reader not only to France, but to other countries and, perhaps most interestingly, into the territory of the author’s own mind. Although many of the observations that Thompson makes are somewhat obvious and worn to a seasoned traveler, even one whose travels are limited mostly to an armchair, what keeps Carnet de Voyage interesting to the end is Thompson’s authenticity in representing his own experience, both through word and through images of travel.
Carnet de Voyage began as Thompson’s diary of his travel experiences on a European book tour. Throughout the book, Thompson makes occasional references to being a “simple Wisconsin country bumpkin” (p. 22), and this fact alone might have made the international book tour a special experience for the cartoonist, who currently lives in Oregon. What makes the tour particularly meaningful to him, however, and what seems to underlie his compelling need to document the experience, is the fact that as a formerly struggling artist, the book tour is a sign that he has arrived, not only to destinations that are exotic to him, but also to a professional stature of which he had only dreamed. The book tour is Thompson’s “big debut” (p. 119), and the level of care and detail reflected in both his writing and drawing confirm how much Thompson wants to capture and preserve the moment and, moreover, share it with others.
By going along with Thompson for the ride, the reader sees that the book tour is filled with unexpected moments, both surprisingly good and terribly challenging, most of the latter occurring in Morocco. The ways in which Thompson describes how he responds to both types of experiences are not particularly surprising. In Morocco, for instance, the overly earnest and not so worldly wise Thompson is shocked when a man with whom he is becoming friends expresses his beliefs about the rightful place of women in the home and society. “Women have no value,” says Driss, with whom Thompson has been enjoying Bollywood and Bob Marley videos (p. 94). Thompson responds by asking the man “You really believe that?” The reader almost groans with Thompson’s lack of cultural awareness and naivete. What grabs and holds the reader’s attention and admiration, however, are Thompson’s exquisitely rendered drawings, which are so precise and so natural, so simple yet so complete, that it seems vaguely insulting to refer to them as cartoons. Although dialogue is presented in thought and speech bubbles, few of the features of places or of people are exaggerated by Thompson in his drawings. For the most part, Thompson reflects places and people as they are, not as he wishes them to be.
It is this quality that makes Carnet de Voyage so readable. The reader is able to be transported exactly to the places where Thompson is having his travel adventures because the drawings of those places and the people that inhabit them are so lifelike. This is true whether Thompson is drawing in France or in Morocco; he clearly has a well-developed eye to observe his surroundings, as well as the technical skill that is needed to depict them artistically. The drawings of his friends’ children, on page 8, are exquisite; they are neither comics nor caricatures, but observant, detailed, and technically skilled drawings, as are the drawings of women and an artistically rendered bird on pages 25 and 26 and the street scenes of Marrakech on page 36 and a Moroccan palace on page 45. Some of the drawings, especially those that are full page and which are not accompanied by text, are so evocative that they recall the Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel, whose scenes of everyday life were so full of image and of action that a thousand stories suggested themselves in a single painting. The drawing of the Moroccan street scene on page 95 is particularly reminiscent of this type of artwork. While vendors and buyers jostle on the street, negotiating carts, horses, and baskets, a man on the left margin reclines against a wall, his cap, glasses, posture, and position of his hands suggesting something vaguely sinister or criminal. On the far right, a man enjoys a tea while having his shoes polished. And above all the hub-bub on the street, a woman on a rooftop is hanging clothes out to dry, showing just how many layers there are to cities, and to life itself.
If Thompson could have understood this fact on a profound level, he might have learned more from his trip, and the reader might, in turn, have learned more from him. It is when Thompson does not “speak” his experience that he conveys it most effectively and most movingly. Thompson began his journey with his mind’s eye blurred by romantic visions of what he expected to see abroad, and he is both frustrated and disappointed—and, I think, genuinely surprised—when these visions are not fulfilled. One wonders whether he really learns about himself and about life even in direct exchanges with people who are a bit wiser than he is, such as with Blutch, the cartoonist whose life is “mundane…with his son in bed and the phone constantly ringing and water leaking in the kitchen” (p. 148). His artistic eye, however, is not at all clouded. The reader can return again and again to the delicious drawings that Thompson offers in Carnet de Voyage to review some of the lessons that he learned. Hopefully, Thompson can do the same. His book, while lacking in narrative excellence, does have significant merit and is worth visiting again and again.
Thompson, C. (2004). Carnet de voyage. Portland, OR: Top Shelf Productions.