Have you ever talked to an artist about how they see the world around them? It’s hard to describe, but the art they create is something they HAVE to do, not just an option. We all have ways of perceiving the world around us, but the difficulty of expressing ourselves is magnified exponentially without the right “tools” at our disposal share them. Cartoonist Craig Thompson expresses his views in a haphazard fashion as he’s jotting down every thought and emotion he has while traveling through France, Spain, the Alps, and Morocco. His travels weren’t purely for luxury though; he was doing research at the time for what would become his graphic novels Habibi and Blankets.
Originally published in 2004, the narrative Craig expresses in this refreshed edition of Carnet de Voyage is difficult to follow since he expresses everything through his observations and drawings. He notes that no pictures were used for the making of his travel diary, but instead just absorbing what the people had to offer him in each country. One moment he’s talking about his frustrations in Morocco of being accosted by scam artists trying to make a quick buck, the next he’s switching over to new friends who invite him into their home. Each page has a tang his emotions from showing empathy to those less fortunate to him to the fiery frustrations of culture shock.
You could probably open Carnet in the middle get along just fine with the way Craig slaps words onto the page. One minute I’m reading about how he prefers to draw cats in one country and on another page he’s lamenting about the hardships of traveling. He’ll skip to yet a third thought about how upset his stomach feels and the difficulties of trying to sleep. It’s like trying to pin down a hummingbird hyped up on caffeine – you admire the beauty of it in the moment, but when you try to study it all you see is a brilliant whirl of colors flashing by inches from your face.
His work exposes him to a whirlwind of experiences that had me equal parts frustrated to laughing at the situations he got himself into. One situation Craig constantly gets himself into is stopping to draw in public while he’s exploring the city. I lost track of the amount of times he got netted into drawing portraits and handing them out to people or had children asking him to pay to draw them in the first place. It’s hard not to smile when he gets to the part of random tourists asking him his “going rate”, maybe he has another career path available if he ever decides to stop doing graphic novels.
Craig is overstimulated by his surroundings, speculating about what popular places he’ll see during his tour and the strange experiences he’s had after. His description of going on an hours-long drive into the freezing desert to ride a camel didn’t always comport to his native creature comforts. He laments on the conditions preventing him from sleeping, yet reflects on how amazing he felt riding on the back of his camel and how its poop would roll down when they went over a hill. He makes weird observations and comparisons like this throughout his travel diary that had me worry (a little bit) about his sanity.
Not every moment throughout Craig’s travels is filled with discomfort – he makes new friends and meets old ones along the way. He finds an oasis of comfort and familiarity at the Hotel Riad Al Madina in Essaouira, a popular spot as legendary singer Leonard Cohen stayed there once. It’s a wealth of luxury he treated himself to and details his accounts of meeting other interesting tourists there of all ages and backgrounds. He has a knack for befriending everyone he meets, including a kind elderly couple who are charmed by his drawings to two Spanish women who provide an intriguing friendship every time he runs into them.
Craig’s experiences are overwhelming, which he perfectly expresses in the chaotic style of his medium. His pictures can be distracting at times when reading through the dense text squeezed in between the margins (in a good way) and I’d have to double back to understand the message he’s trying to convey. Other times small snippets of thought will trickle through like how calm he felt drawing a kitten curled up in the sunlight or the simple of joy of drawing a little boy’s portrait.
You come to understand his frustrations of dealing with culture shock and coming to terms with the people who live there. For Craig, it’s a glimpse into how other people live their lives outside of his little corner of the world where he’s thrown out of his comfort zone time and again. Carnet isn’t a graphic novel everyone can enjoy; it requires a certain mindset to actively read and sort through the author’s rambling thoughts to catch onto the nuances and emotions between experiences. I wager it’ll take most people at least a second read-through to catch what they missed, and perhaps a third just to make sure everything sticks.
Carnet de Voyage is a chaotic travelogue, but to have it any other way would take away from the travels cartoonist Craig Thompson had during his adventures across Europe. You’re thrown into a world of another person’s perceptions and forced to either take them at face value or turn to the next page, wondering if you really did just see goat heads laid out on a table. Drawn & Quarterly has done a fantastic job reissuing one of Thompson’s lesser-seen classics, one that fans are bound to love adding to their collections.