Monday, February 5, 2018

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Hardcover, 672 pgs, Pub Sept 20th 2011 by Pantheon, ISBN13: 9780375424144, Lit Awards: Harvey Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-Original, Best Artist (for Craig Thompson), Best Cartoonist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), IGN Award for Best Original Graphic Novel (2011)

In an interview Craig Thompson told his audience that artists must become vulnerable if their work is to mean anything. This dark and agonized work has a great deal of nakedness in it, both literally and figuratively, and a lot of staring directly at human experience and trying to make sense of it. It also looks with a colder, more dispassionate and assessing eye at the overlap in the religious teachings of Christianity and Islam.

This is Thompson’s fourth published work, and one glance inside gives some idea why it took six years to complete. The graphic work is fantastically detailed and patterned, which over more than six hundred pages becomes claustrophobic and oppressive with patterns repeated again and again in different combinations. This is partly due to the size of the pattern, which seems to become more and more compressed as the story progresses, and the more-black-than-white palette.

The patterns are beautiful, and may represent mathematical principles that sustain the progress upon which the world is built, but by the end I got the distinct impression Thompson was asking us to question even that progress: is it good? Who is it good for and how can it be modified to suit a different world with better outcomes? One is not accustomed to such weighty questions in the work of graphic artists.

Thompson is unique in many ways, but certainly the source of his questioning may come from his fundamentalist Christian upbringing in rural Wisconsin, an upbringing he explores in his second graphic novel and the first large-scale project of his career, Blankets. Thompson freely admits he still believes in God, but he is less sure now how best to worship him.

That his father was a plumber Thompson credits with the understanding that water is precious. This book is plumbed through with references to the primacy and importance of water in our world, our lives. This aspect of the book was another piece that elevated the story-telling to something essential.

Some discussion among reviewers condemns the sex, violence, and numerous representations of the naked human form depicted in this work as gratuitous. I will argue that is not the case. There is no question that the storyteller in this case is frightened by and ashamed of his powerful sexual feelings, but his arousal is well within the bounds of normal male sexuality and should, in fact, educate readers about the conflicted emotional trauma that can accompany the physical manifestations of desire.

In the years Thompson worked on this book, he learned to appreciate and to write some Arabic script, but never learned to speak. His translators and friends in the endeavor to understand Islam—its culture, science, and art—reviewed the story he created to check for realism and racism. In the end, any understanding readers take away about the religion or culture of the region belong to Thompson alone, but I suspect he feels confident in his depiction.

Simply sketched, the story is as follows: a light-skinned girl and a dark-skinned boy find themselves orphaned in the desert. They make a life and grow up together for a period of years before they are violently separated. They spend a long period of time hoping to find one another again and then one day, they do. The story has an impetus and emotion even without the later personality-defining moments of coercion and despair depicted with the same pitiless camera-eye that captured their earlier life.

If I say that there are many complications and observations along the way, it will give you scant warning for the deluge that is to come. This work is huge, covering enormous ground, picking up and putting down again many topics worthy of examination and discussion. It is overwhelming, as it undoubtedly was to write. I have never determined how an editor deals with slimming the opus of an auteur. The only thing I can think of is that cut pages or threads could be sold separately once the work has been published to acclaim.

Thompson’s willingness to look closely at who we are evinces in me admiration and gratitude, not censure. I look eagerly forward to what he decides to do next, whether it be drawing, writing, or something else of his choice. He is extraordinary in every way.

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