Comics Review: Craig Thompson’s Habibi

I read Habibi during the Toronto Comics Arts Festival over a month ago after hearing about it, and even seeing it in bookstores for even longer. It was this very thick book filled with immensely detailed black and white drawings ranging from thatch-lined to the lushly illustrated.

This does not surprise me. Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets used a very similar style: to the point where one could even see the influence or resonance of Bill Watterson’s cartooning in there as well (according to Nevin Martell in his book Looking For Calvin and Hobbes at least). However, while Blankets focused on Thompson’s autobiographical account of discovering his first love while growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family and society, Habibi is something that … covers quite a few themes.

The story itself is about two runaway child slaves–Dodola and Zam–spanning from slave markets, deserts, palaces, and harems all the way into polluted villages and industrialized cities that threaten the environment. Thompson attempts to link all of these backgrounds and elements together in the form of a love story: sometimes a very brutal, very esoteric and ecological but also spiritual love story.

I will say that Habibi–the title derived from the apparently Arabic word for the masculine “my beloved”–was a very grandiose narrative filled with Arabic and Islamic history, lore, poetry, mystical, and even Christian references: or at least from what I could glean of it given that I am not an expert in many of these subject areas. However, there are some flaws within it as well: at least to my mind. Details such as very long-winded expositions, areas and situations that didn’t seem to match other places in the world Thompson creates, one very over-long internal monologue that would have been too much even in a work of prose, and some trite moments did take away from the book a bit. In fact, I believe that it could have been culled down a lot more in some ways.

Even so, I’d say that my biggest criticism of the book is something that, in the end, is very difficult to define. Every narrative work has a pace or a rhythm to it. This is especially true in a comic or graphic narrative: whichever term you prefer. It was Scott McCloud, I believe, who said that the panel makes up the grammar of comics narrative. I think that Thompson’s piece functions well with all of the above details I mentioned, but it is very important in a comic to align your panels on the page, with each other, and with their own subject matter in such a way that you have a sense of continuity or flow. Essentially, I think that–in part–Habibi is an ornate piece whose rhythm is just a little off.

Yet there is something very special about Thompson’s narrative as well. Firstly, I like how he uses Arabic calligraphy–or at least the seeming of it–to link his words and images together. From my limited understanding in addition to my own aesthetic sense, it is truly inspiring. The calligraphy is blood, water, trash, djinn, and God all at the same time. It surrounds and binds the myths and legends and parables of Solomon, Abraham and the Middle-Eastern folktales that Dodola tells Zam at night. I really enjoyed looking at the calligraphy that represented the concept of God and just how complex and intermeshed it was. It looked like a greater, more powerful, inhuman, beautiful being that interlinks with more than one symbol in a figurative and literal sense.

And I think one reason I loved what Thompson did with this calligraphy–whether with cultural knowledge or no–is how he shows as a special intermediary between words and images. The Arabic calligraphy resembles words as the symbols we understand–whose own numbers influenced and informed our own numbering and scientific systems–while at the same time they are flowing and powerful images seemingly moving from a divine origin. It is no coincidence that many cultures throughout time have considered certain kinds of writing sacred. Comics too, in a sense, are an intermediary between the written and the illustrated and–like this form of calligraphy–it takes a different perception or frame of mind to immerse yourself in its depths.

This leads to the other reason why I liked Thompson’s use of calligraphy because of how he gets it and his subject matter–including the depictions of parallel Biblical and Koran accounts of Abraham and Isaac and Abraham and Ishmael (and how the represent two different but similar cultures)–unified under the overarching narrative of love that he creates: that of a need for unity. If love is a unity of disparate, parallel, and even oppositional stories, views, and people–or even the intense yearning for physical, spiritual, and environmental wholeness–then Habibi is an apt title for this piece.

I confess, I still have mixed feelings about it long after reading it. It is almost like Craig Thompson attempted to create a mystical illuminated text that is a unity of Judeo-Christian and Islamic elements–along with Middle-Eastern esoterica–to say something about our relationship to a world made of divine Words through the interactions of the two protagonists. If so, I can suspend some disbelief. However, even with the proviso that the overly exotic Eastern or Orientalist world he makes is “not quite our world,” I feel like it is something of a cop-out in saying what he wants to … or seems to want to … about our world as it is. I also think that the interaction between the two protagonists is somewhat cliche and I couldn’t always relate to them.

Nevertheless, I’d still give Habibi a three bordering on four out of five. Thompson does some brilliant work and innovation in a graphic and medium sense in the construction of the piece and I always enjoy his art-work. It is certainly something to be looked at more than once and by varying experts. I don’t know how helpful this review was to anyone completely unfamiliar with any of this, but I hope–like the rest–that this one was interesting.

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