Craig Thompson is a masterful comic book artist with the ability to fill pages with life: the amount of detail he includes in some of his drawings is incredible and astounding, as is the sheer scope of the work. You may remember Blankets, a semi-autobiographical book published in 2003 to great acclaim, which weighed in at nearly 600 pages. At the time, it was the longest graphic novel I’d ever read, and is still probably in the top five. The story in Blankets was about growing up: stuck sharing a bed with his brother, falling in love, getting (and then losing) religion.
His newest book, Habibi, is even longer, nearly 700 pages, and it’s mind-boggling just to think of the act of drawing this many pages, let alone crafting a story of this magnitude. And the story is just as huge as the book. Set in an unnamed country in the Middle East, the book centers around Dodola and Zam, two child slaves who escape their bonds and flee into the desert. Dodola is a girl who was married off at a young age, before being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Zam is a small boy whose own mother was also in chains, and Dodola rescues him and raises him herself. The story, told in a series of flash-forwards and flash-backs, is about the two of them as they struggle to survive — as they get separated and reconnect.
That’s only one part of the book, though. Thompson weaves in a lot more: Dodola tells Zam stories about the Prophet Muhammad, about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and about writing in Arabic and the significance of the shapes of the letters and the name of Allah. In these sections, Thompson combines fluid curves and organic brush strokes with very structured patterns, using traditional Islamic tiling. The story of the Prophet, as well as the origins of both Christianity and Islam, are interwoven with Dodola and Zam’s tale. I found myself fascinated with the way that Arabic lettering and numbering intersected: the mathematics and the religion and the writing are all intertwined, and they also play into the shapes of the tessellating patterns.
Habibi is also the story of great divides and juxtapositions: the modern and the ancient, the first world and the third world, paradise and hell. The story seems like at once like an ancient tale and a modern one: I was startled by the first appearance of a truck and motors and plumbing, when the story before had seemed like it was set in a pre-industrial time. But in fact these vast differences do exist side by side, and Thompson uses them to make a point about first and third world issues, about the effects of industrialization on the parts of the world that aren’t yet modernized.
The book is definitely for adult readers: there is a lot of nudity, sexuality, and violence, right from the start. When Dodola and Zam are in the desert, she trades herself for food from passing caravans. As Zam grows from a boy to an adolescent, his relationship to Dodola shifts and changes, and his struggles with his lust for her form a significant portion of the book. Dodola herself is taken into the Sultan’s harem, separated from Zam and forced to play the exotic beauty. Although the book is gorgeously illustrated, I did feel at times that the nudity was simply too much: not all of it was gratuitous, but at least some of it was unnecessary. I thought there was some irony in the story about the evils of lust being told in a book that portrayed Dodola as such a sexualized being.
Habibi is a book that takes an effort to finish — it’s not something you’ll sit down and just breeze through in an hour. There’s a lot of pain and suffering, and a lot of uncomfortable subjects, no matter how beautifully rendered. But I also did think it was worth the effort: there is a lot packed into the book, from what happens to Dodola and Zam to the breadth of subjects that Thompson touches on as he tells their story. Not everyone is a fan of Thompson’s work, and I can understand that, but there’s no denying that Habibi is a work of art.
Thompson attended Wordstock last month but I missed the chance to interview then. That did, however, give me time to read his book later, and perhaps I’ll catch up with him in the future. For more, visit Habibibook.com, which also has images of Thompson’s process in creating some of the images in the book.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of the book for review purposes.