By Anna Groover
Professor Jesse Molesworth
Threads of religious imagery, inner turmoil, and the reconciliation of childhood beliefs with adult actions consistently run throughout the rich visual tapestry of Blankets, a graphic memoir by Craig Thompson. Part bildungsroman, part documentation of Thompson’s loss of faith, and part self-reflection, Blankets tells the story of Craig’s upbringing in rural Wisconsin and his first love and heartbreak with Raina, a girl he meets at church camp. Thompson’s vibrant artistic style and his extensive scriptural knowledge make for a fascinating synthesis of the oft-separated realms of the secular and the religious. This fusion allows Thompson to manipulate religious images in a unique way, thus toying with the meaning and significance of them. One such image—a portrait of Jesus that frequently crops up throughout the work—functions in a way remarkably similar to Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism. When viewed through the lens of Foucauldian governmentality, parallels between the function of the panopticon and the portrait of Christ emerge within the narrative of Blankets.
Jeremy Bentham pioneered the idea of the panopticon as the ideal prison. His design calls for a circular prison structure with a watchtower in the middle of the circle. Imprisoned in cells within the circular structure, the inmates can neither communicate with each other nor discern if anyone stands watching them from the guard tower, as a system of blinds allows for perception of the tower outline but nothing more. As Michel Foucault writes in his essay “Discipline and Punishment, Panopticism,” “Hence the major effect of the panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent invisibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201) Since the prisoner cannot perceive whether anyone stands in the guard tower watching over him, a constant state of vigilance instills itself in him. If he can never reach certainty as to the presence or absence of a guard, he must always conduct himself as though a guard stands in the tower.
While Foucault believed the panopticon would function effectively as a prison, he also thought the design lent itself well as a metaphor for a larger social theory about the facilitation of power and living under that control. Regardless of the institution facilitating this type of power, the subject learns to govern his actions, behaviors, and thoughts without the physical presence of a governing figure. Foucault notes the effectiveness of this:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance (202).
The wielder of this power can manifest itself in many ways: governments, schools, jobs, parents, and even religious institutions. Foucault writes, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used” (205). Thus, the panopticon can appear in unexpected situations and circumstances. There need only be the possibility of the presence of a governing figure at all times, in all places.
In Blankets, the narrator, Craig, begins to develop an internalized panopticon at an early age. His extremely religious parents and all-encompassing church community dominate his childhood to the extent that, as a teenager, he burns all of his artwork because he begins to view art as “the most secular and selfish of worldly pursuits” (Thompson 58). But perhaps the most unshakable memory of Craig’s time at Sunday school is the catalyst for his self-policing behaviors later in the memoir. The Sunday school teacher—an elderly lady depicted as imposing, larger-than-life, and altogether frightening—presents Craig and his fellow third graders with a choice that can result in two vastly different outcomes ).
If the children ask Jesus into their hearts, when they die they’ll go to Heaven, a “perfect world where there is no pain and everyone gets along” (49). If they fail to do this, however, they will spend “an eternity in Hell,” which is the “the worst place you could ever imagine—where you are on fire being burned and in constant pain” (61). The traumatic nature of the situation for the children is conveyed through Thompson’s depiction of their teacher: they cower below her while she looms over them; her face darkens with ominous shadows; and her eyes are obscured behind impenetrable, bug-like glasses (61).
In the narrative, she serves as a harbinger of potential doom, but more importantly, a shaper of behavior, an instiller of Jesus as a decider of salvation and a moral watchdog within Craig.
This all comes to a head when Craig visits his girlfriend Raina and her family for a few weeks, as they live quite far away from each other. During the first night Craig spends at Raina’s home, he sits in her room, reading the Bible while she finishes up some chores. After a while, Craig realizes that there’s a portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall, directly across from Raina’s bed. (Image 3)
The next panel is just the portrait—Jesus, clothed in a white tunic with light streaming down from above, illuminating his long hair, beard, upward gazing face—completely removed from the narrative, as if Craig had placed the entire portrait face down on a Xerox machine and scanned it into the comic book (201; Image 4). It is detached in style from the surrounding panels, as it’s one of the few times during the memoir that a panel is not drawn from either Craig’s or a third-person observer’s perspective. Additionally, the artistic style breaks from the rest of the memoir, as Jesus is rendered in a much more realistic fashion than other people within the narrative; Thompson illustrates himself in a particularly comic-like and unrealistic fashion, but his depiction of Jesus includes shadows and highlights, detailed bone structure in his face, and extensive shading. This serves as an indicator that the portrait of Christ has importance—and other functions—within the work.
The compelling aspect of this scene is not so much the portrait itself, but the mental links that develop within Craig between his current situation and a childhood memory, one in which he is seated by himself on the edge of his parents’ bed, with the same portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall above him (Images 5-7).
His parents enter and begin admonishing him for drawing a picture of a naked woman, an incident of which they were notified by Craig’s bus driver, who found the drawing in the bus trash can. They express disappointment in him for the drawing—Craig’s mother mentions the sin of “impurity”—then bring in the big guns, so to speak: Craig’s mother invokes the idea of Jesus as being disappointed in Craig, too (206). She asks Craig, “How do you think Jesus feels?” (207).
At this, Craig completely breaks down into sobbing. As can be ascertained from Craig’s Sunday school teacher’s lesson and this experience, the adults in Craig’s life work to meld Jesus into a concrete, palpable figure of authority and power, a figure who reacts either positively or negative to Craig’s actions, a figure without whose good favor he would be in trouble—in other words, something akin to that of the guard tower in the panopticon.
This is manifested quite vividly in the next panel (Image 8), where Jesus is twice depicted as crying, a look of pained sorrow upon his face. This breaks from the four previous appearances of the portrait. In all of them he is portrayed as gazing serenely toward heaven. Here, Jesus is not restrained by the frame of the portrait or its typical size, either: the panel takes up a third of the page and he is larger than life, especially juxtaposed against Craig’s tiny, more cartoon-like body in the next panel (208).
That Craig abstracts the image of a Jesus upset, even pained by his own actions, from the bounds of a two-dimensional portrait is significant: it means that the portrait is not just a portrait but much more than that; it’s his perceived current state of his faith, morality, and salvation materialized and made tangible, both in his real life and for us on the pages of the memoir.
Foucault believed that the panopticon as an internalized self-governing tool could be used to “raise the level of public morality,” and that is certainly a function of Craig’s relationship with the portrait (202). Thanks to his drawing incident at an early age, he learns to associate the presence of religious devotion and purity with the absence of sexual thoughts or impulses. To put it more colloquially, he cannot be a “good Christian” if he commits sexual acts. After Raina propositions him to spend the night in her bedroom instead of the guest bedroom as per usual, he undergoes mental and moral turmoil as he changes into his pajamas (Image 9).
He flips through a veritable card catalog of Scripture related to sex in his head, including “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (Thompson, 304). Flames rise around him as he reflects on his actions, hinting at the guilt he feels for the impurity he perceives in his thoughts. It makes sense, then, that the final panels of the flashback to his parents’ bedroom feature him, still a small child, clinging to the portrait on the wall, a look of sheer horror on his face as he realizes that the physical portrait has changed: Jesus, saddened by Craig’s sin of drawing a naked woman, has turned his back upon him (208). In the present, back in Raina’s room, he yearns “to touch her” but holds back as that same image—that of Jesus in the portrait turning his back on Craig—fills his mind, reminding him of his morality and commitment to sexual self-denial (221; Image 10).
Later, after Craig gives into his desires and nearly has sex with Raina, the portrait begins to take on yet another quality. Craig has ostensibly succumbed to the very thing from which he tried so hard to abstain, but the portrait—which makes another appearance in the sequence of panels that come after Craig has tucked Raina into her blankets with an air of “reverence”—responds in a fashion different than in previous scenes (430; Images 11-12).
The room fills with white rays of light, all emanating from the portrait—in which the figure of Jesus still has his back and face turned away from Craig—as a table below the portrait holds several lighted candles. The lighted candles evoke a degree of holiness; after all, churches and other sacred spaces are often replete with them. Craig has heretofore associated sexuality with a lack of holiness, but the presence of the candles suggests that that association might be crumbling. then the perspective in the next few panels shifts yet again to that of renderings of just the portrait—the same perspective as when we first were clued in to the importance of this portrait. Over the course of three panels, the Jesus in the portrait slowly turns toward Craig (and, ostensibly, the reader), his expression undergoing a change as he does so: first, one of contemplation and self-reflection; then, one of direct eye contact and a slightly upturned lip; and finally, pure joy—and perhaps approval—as he smiles a full, yet close-lipped smile, his eyes clear and light radiating from his figure (431). The final three panels of the page feature the candles on the table below the portrait extinguishing as Craig is doused in the darkness of Raina’s room (431).
The extinguishing of the candles perhaps signifies the extinguishing of Craig’s previous associations with the portrait, specifically his sense that the portrait is a religious watchdog, cataloging and judging him for his actions. Notably, the Jesus in the portrait returns to his original position—that of facing toward heaven—and the portrait loses its prominence among the myriad of posters on Raina’s wall, blending back into the wall, a degree of its sacredness seemingly dissipated in Craig’s mind. After all, if it loses its authority and power over Craig, it might just belong with the other relics of secular life on Raina’s wall.
Over the course of the memoir, the portrait operates in several ways, shifting in function as the narrative progresses. When Thompson first introduces it, it functions as a panopticon; if Craig is a prisoner, the portrait serves as the guard tower. Like the physical outline of the guard tower from within a prison cell in the panopticon, the portrait is a concrete reminder of much more abstract ideas and senses: there is the possibility that someone, or some divine being, observes from beyond Craig’s field of vision and perception, their eyes and attention focused on his actions and behaviors. Or not. Either way, though, the effect is the same. Craig feels a paranoia, a suspicion that he is the subject of surveillance. And he comports himself accordingly, abstaining from sexual desires and thoughts for the most part out of fear of eliciting a negative reaction from the portrait like the one that occurs after his drawing incident. That is, until he gives into his desire for Raina—but then, the Jesus in the portrait reacts positively to Craig’s sexual exploits, which seems incongruous with its “behavior,” so to speak, up to that point.
One of the overarching themes in this work is Craig’s questioning of and eventual loss of faith in the Christian tradition he strongly adhered to as a child and adolescent. On one level, this involves his realization that the holy and sacred do not exist solely within the bounds of religious doctrine and institutions; he frequently invokes religious language when describing Raina, often dedicating a full page to an illustration of her, accompanied by phrases like “She is perfect, a temple with hair spilling over her temples” (311; Image 13).
On a deeper level, though, he develops an acute doubt in the authenticity of the Bible; near the end of the memoir, he notes a disheartening finding: “In a concordance, I discovered that passages had been added to Ecclesiastes to leaven the pessimistic tone” (546). He brings up that specific textual discrepancy and additional ones with his pastor, who suggests that he “recognize” the textual additions and changes “as a growth process of the Bible” (549). After this, Craig’s faith dissipates; as he says, “I had been taught the words of the Bible came straight from the mouth of God. If indeed they were subtly modified by generations of scribes and watered down by translations, then—for me—their truth was cancelled out” (549). Perhaps, then, the changing nature of the portrait is indicative of Craig’s changing definition of faith and what it means to live as a spiritual person.
I want to suggest, then, that the scene in which the portrait of Jesus seems to sanction Craig’s sexual activity, as well as his subsequent loss of faith, all serve as a collapsing of the panopticon Craig has internalized. The panopticon only functions if the subject believes in the possibility of someone in the guard tower (or, in Craig’s case, the possibility of a divine being existing beyond the bounds of the portrait), tracking whether the subject behaves well. But what if, in the metaphorical sense of the panopticon, the subject takes matters into his own hands, altering the definition of what it means to behave? Craig does exactly this, largely because upon meeting Raina, his idea of what deserves to be revered as sacred and holy begins morphing into an appreciation for the beauty that lies in the quotidian, in the mundanity of human life. As he learns from his time with Raina, there is a sacredness to human connection and desire—something that contradicts his religious upbringing. As he says to his brother Phil after returning home as an adult, “I still believe in God; the teachings of Jesus even, but the rest of Christianity…its Bible, its dogma—only sets up boundaries between people and cultures. It denies the beauty of being human, and it ignores all these gaps that need to be filled in by the individual” (533). For Craig, the portrait doesn’t represent Jesus himself but instead the dogma imposed on him as a child: the fear his Sunday school teacher elicits in him and the shame his parents impose on him for his drawings. Perhaps his experience with Raina functions to detach the figure of Jesus as someone to admire for his teachings from the religious institutions previously tacked onto his interpretation of the portrait. It makes sense, then, that Jesus smiles upon him and fades into the multitude of posters on Raina’s wall after Craig nearly consummates his relationship with her. For if Craig refuses to continue believing that sexuality is sinful, the guard tower has crumbled, freeing him to live as he so chooses.
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punishment, Panopticism.” Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, edited by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1977, 195-228.
Thompson, Craig. Blankets. Top Shelf Productions, 2003.