In 2000, I moved from Scotland to France, where I was to spend the next year. I got a copy of Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, a graphic novel by writer/artist Craig Thompson, and read it while I was there. I ended the book in a little puddle of un-manly tears. Comics aren't often thought of as being a medium which can bring out such strong reactions in a person - I don't imagine many people have ever been brought to boiling rage by Fantastic Four, or have had the urge to get up and dance brought on by an instalment of Sinister Dexter. Some rare comics manage to engage those mental media centres and start up an unexpected emotional engine (mainly, it has to be said, indie comics, although that's not always the case - Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man #12 was another, but you don't want to hear more than one True Tale of Sequential Sobbing). Good-Bye, Chunky Rice is one of those.
The story's not exactly plot-driven. Chunky Rice is a little turtle who likes to get on down to his favourite motown records, and who lives a carefree endless summer of a life in a little town down by the seaside. His best friend is a big-eyed mouse by the name of Dandel, and together they build sandcastle towns and go camping. One day, though, for reasons unstated, Chunky Rice realises that he has to leave home. He never says why - it's just that his quiet hometown isn't the right place for him to be any more. He implores Dandel to come with him, but Dandel knows that she has to stay where she is; it's no more right for her to leave than it would be for Chunky Rice to stay. Equally, Dandel knows that there's no use fighting it, and encourages Chunky Rice to forge his own path out in the world.
Once out in the wide world, Chunky Rice meets a strange group of people, including a ship's captain who misses his late wife and a couple of women who are conjoined at the head. Back at the town, Dandel spends her days writing letters to Chunky Rice and throwing them into the sea in bottles, and the reader gets to know a simple man who is trying to atone for a past misdeed which robbed him of his closest friend by proving his friendship's worth to a bird he's named Merle. Each of the cast is yearning for a close companion and a best friend, even the conjoined twins (who you would think wouldn't be able to be alone if they wanted to). Chunky Rice's ship sails on, through ever more dangerous storms and high seas, but the only thing that can hurt anyone in this book is the heartfelt ache of loneliness.
Thomson's art is reminiscent of classic underground cartoonists but with a twist of children's illustration mixed in, like a cross between Mike Kazaleh and Julie Doucet working on a Doctor Seuss story. Its use of strong black areas and heavy shading surrounding everything helps to subconsciously reinforce the feeling the characters have of being separated from the ones they love, and the strange designs of the characters makes the reader warm to their strange lives rather than being weirded out by them. Even the simplicity of Thompson's figures (particularly Chunky Rice) helps to open them up to the reader and makes us feel empathy towards them. Of course, that's helped by the beautifully sad script which Thompson uses to yank brutally at the heartstrings - nobody could fail to be touched by the sight of Dandel throwing another bottled message into the sea, saying "And yes! This one says 'I miss you' too! When will I think of something else to say?".
Good-Bye, Chunky Rice was Thompson's first graphic novel, and although his follow-up (the cow-stunningly thick Blankets) is more well-known, it's an antsier and less sympathetic read than Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, and altogether more self-indulgent with it. Good-Bye, Chunky Rice is a work which will hit home with anyone who's ever lost a friend, who's ever had to leave home, who's missing a beloved pet, who's been bereaved... pretty much everyone. It's sad without schmaltz, and poignant without pretension. It's something very special. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got something in my eye...