A love story that transcends time and place.
Part adventure epic, part exploration of Middle Eastern folklore, Habibi is a work of tremendous scope and jaw-dropping ambition. Set in a shifting desert landscape, Craig Thompson's narrative revolves around a pair of escaped slaves who struggle to create a haven for themselves amid a world of misery. Dodola, a young girl, nurtures a younger boy, Zam, with fairy tales and other stories, cementing a shared bond that becomes more complicated as she grows into a beautiful young woman. At over 600 pages, there's plenty of room in Habibi to tell a sweeping story about lost souls who find, are separated from, and find each other again; however, it's Thompson's constant interspersing of religious iconography, parables, and passages from the Quran that provide the book with significant depth. At one point, Zam's sexual awakening is depicted as the Tree of Knowledge flourishing for the first time, while episodes of his and Dodola's early years together are framed by the tale of man in the garden of Paradise. Thompson's use of mythological stories to illustrate his characters' lives implies the timelessness of human struggle but, ultimately, the religious elements are also part of a larger theme, which is that stories of all kinds have the power to instill hope and guidance, and have done so since the dawn of time. After the successes of Good-bye, Chunky Rice and Blankets, Habibi looks to be Thompson's next great book.
Critical Questions for Craig Thompson (from our 11/2011 newsletter)
CM: After two semi-autobiographical novels, you wrote and illustrated Habibi, which was not autobiographical at all. Did that change your creative process, and do you now have a preference for one or the other?
CT: After Blankets, I was sick of drawing myself. Sick of drawing these mundane Midwestern landscapes. I wanted to draw something outside of myself, something bigger, and considered two directions: 1) a fantasy epic, like Lord of the Rings, or, 2) a nonfiction piece of social/political relevance, à la the comics journalism of Joe Sacco. Habibi ended up meeting in the middle. It's a fairytale borrowing from the Orientalist conventions of the One Thousand and One Nights, but also drawing from contemporary topics of sex, religion, and water crisis.
The length, in my opinion, is a byproduct of the comics form. It takes pages of comics to convey the same information captured in a paragraph of prose. So a comic book with novelistic intentions inevitably ends up mammoth. My style tends to be manga-esque: fast-paced and breathable, so that also requires a longer page count. Pages can be like water level—you need enough depth for the reader to be fully immersed—to drown in even!
Similarly, this applies to the detailed drawing style in Habibi. Layers and layers of ornament are heaped on the comics page—this is an homage to the tradition of engraved book illustrations and to Symbolism, and most of all, to the Arabic and Islamic artistic traditions of calligraphy, pattern, and geometric design.
You've said that Habibi was a response to how Islam has been portrayed in the media since 9/11. In the years since you first conceived of the book, do you feel that this country's attitude toward Middle Eastern culture and religion has changed much?
There was a "post 9/11"-energy that informed Habibi. Islam was being vilified by the media, and I sought to humanize Islam, to both focus on its beauties and to understand it. As I met and conversed with more Muslims, it was obvious that they were no different from the devout Christian communities I grew up in. They shared the same values and lifestyles and the same stories. In both faiths, there's casual/"default" believers and fundamentalist extremists, and most fall in the soft middle. If anything, the anti-Islamic sentiment that arose in the States felt like self-loathing, against our own brand of religious fundamentalism. Perhaps more important, my research opened me to the inspiration of Arabic calligraphy and geometric design and ornamentation and architecture—all these artistic directions that evolved so incredibly because of the supposed prohibition of representational arts. There's been some change, but not completely.
A word that could be used to describe Habibi is "lyrical," and that actually applies to all of your books. Is poetry a major influence for you?
Poetry, yes, and even more so, music. There's a description of Arabic calligraphy being like "music for the eyes," and that was an idea that, as a cartoonist, really resonated because I think comic book creators are trying to create a sort of visual music. [Comics are] based so much on rhythm and beats and pacing. Chris Ware talks about comics being sheet music in the sense that the drawings are symbols that the reader must unlock to access the rhythm and beat and movement. And cartoons have more in common with cursive handwriting—a visual shorthand—than static images. Drawings are transformed into flowing words.
Your first book, Good-bye, Chunky Rice, received great critical acclaim, while Blankets went on to win numerous awards. As you were laying the groundwork for Habibi, did you feel that there was pressure on you to top your previous two books?
In many ways, yes.
In interviews, you've talked about your artistic process, which involves thumbnailing the entire book prior to starting the final art. However, you said that with Habibi, it took longer than expected, to the point where you began the final art before knowing how the book ended. Was that a positive in some ways?
The construction of the book was punctuated by chunks of writer's block. The first was in January 2005 when the sketchbook draft stalled out. It was solved by the new structure of the magic squares, which resulted in a completed thumbnail of the draft of the book in fall 2005. But I was unsatisfied by that draft, and spent an entire year revising it, struggling especially with the ending. Finally, in fall of 2006, I resolved to just start drawing the final pages, with the hope that the ending would reveal itself as I worked. Three years later, I reached the final act of the book and still didn't know how it ended. So I took six or seven months off from drawing to just write and wrestle with numerous variations on those three final chapters. All said, I spent four solid years drawing 660 pages of Habibi. It was a wrenching experience.
A common theme in your work seems to be characters separated by time and distance, and the longing they feel for each other. Can you talk about where that comes from?
With Chunky Rice, I wished to create a comic book about two characters separating with the emotional resonance of a song. This desire continued with Blankets despite the longer page count. I hoped the reader could connect with the book the way a teenager connects with a rock song—on an instinctual and emotional level. And great rock songs are love stories—beautiful or tragic. Habibi is more cerebral. Not a love story in a romantic sense, but an exploration of the traumas that can shape our sexuality, the distances between people, and the opportunity for healing—or further injury—found in relationships.
The critical response to Habibi has been extremely positive, with one reviewer calling it a work of literature. Are you comfortable with hearing critics say that your work is not only "good," but "important"?
It is pretty humbling to hear.
Along with your many awards from the comics industry, you received a Grammy nomination for designing the artwork of Menomena's 2007 album Friend and Foe. How did that job come about?
I'm good buddies with Justin Harris from Menomena. I even have a bit part in one of their videos.