Getting Back To Childhood Roots In Craig Thompson’s Ginseng Roots #1

by Koom Kankesan

I’m enthused to know that Craig Thompson has a new work out soon and that it’s autobiographical. The famed author of Blankets returns to somewhat familiar territory with a serialized story called Ginseng Roots about the ginseng farms that he and his brother Phil and their mom worked on in Wisconsin during the eighties. As Thompson tells us in his first issue, this local industry was the premier source for American ginseng during the eighties and has all but vanished now.

Fans of Blankets will recognize the fourth grade version of Craig as he climbs out of the shared bed with his younger brother Phil. However, this is more controlled and less angsty work than Blankets. Some of the familiar elements are there: strict parents, not fitting in at school, and a devotion to comic books, but this work is more about the farming itself (and its impact on the kids’ lives) than the tortured childhood evident in Blankets. Thompson has said that he wanted to do more of a researched ‘documentary’ this time around.

As I initially flipped (or scrolled to be precise, as I got a digital review copy), I was worried that this divergence from a more dramatic comics ‘story’ would make the comic less engaging. But my fears were unfounded. An expert craftsman, Thompson is in control of the narrative and pacing in a very assured way. He still prefers large panels, often with very soft borders or no borders at all, that flow into each other. Speech bubbles are few in this first issue but when they exist, they are timed perfectly against Thompson’s narration which serves both as a first-person storytelling voice and a third-person informational source. The details about ginseng, its growth and harvest, are almost poetic in their selection and economy and how well they’re told. As with Blankets and Habibi, though not to the same extent, Thompson uses his interest in design and the abstract exotic quality of ginseng’s Asian roots to weave in pictorial designs, patterns, and abstractions.

I found the details about ginseng lore interesting, as I did the agricultural details about the harvesting of the plant. It seems strange to me that American farmers would develop a system of covered rafters or tarps to emulate the Asian jungle canopy and the layers of hay to simulate the leafy floor. This was all in preparation for a harvest that would be sold to Asian buyers who used to visit for a brief time at the end of the harvest. I guess that in the eighties, the primary market was still Asia before herbs like ginseng and echinacea became trendy in North America during the nineties.

As before, Thompson is very skilled in depicting time and place: the blue collar world of the Mid-West and the eighties childhood that he and his brother Phil grew through. Their motivation for helping their mom (who earned three dollars an hour) was that they’d be paid a dollar an hour as kids. Though the work was difficult, the fact that this translated into the purchasing power of a comic per hour for each of them kept the boys going. Marvel comics off the spinner rack at the local pharmacy seems to have been the grail that kept the two kids drawing. Thompson mentions that they also drew their own comics (a detail that was also prominent in Blankets) – his brother has gone on to run his own design company – and Thompson devotes a few pages at the back of this issue to run a comic drawn by the adult Phil about the ginseng farming experience. It’s not bad comics work, is engaging in and of itself, and adds another dimension to the kind of family biographical work Thompson’s subject matter tends towards:

Furthermore, in homage to those Marvel comics the boys enjoyed, Thompson has purposely deviated from the large scale graphic novel work he has previously done, this time going for the serialized floppy. His large works like Blankets and Habibi were broken down into chapters anyway so this is not all that different; however, there is something quieter, something more straightforward about this, compared to his larger scale books. The grand religious overtones are missing. He mentions this shift in format at the end and sets up a letter column so that he can get feedback as he continues to work on the project, asking for letters just like in those Marvel comics letter columns from the eighties. It promises to be an interesting project. Issue #1 should be out in July. Each subsequent issue of the twelve part maxi-series is proposed to come out in two month intervals.

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