Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: Habibi By Craig Thompson

As part of our recent trip to this year’s Small Press Expo in Maryland, I had an opportunity to pick up an advanced copy of Craig Thompson’s eight years in the making new book, Habibi.  Thompson has had something of a meteoric rise to fame, with an acclaimed first book Goodbye, Chunky Rice, and his next book Blankets becoming a nationwide phenomenon and Eisner Award winner.  Blankets was a rare comic, a 500+ page original graphic novel memoir that went on to sell thousands of copies and inadvertently become a gateway comic for countless new readers.  Thompson followed Blankets with Carnet De Voyage, a much shorter work that was more travel journal than distinct narrative.  It has been known that Thompson’s newest book Habibi was being worked on for the better part of a decade.  Fans and critics alike have been curious about what kind of book Habibi will be, and whether or not it could live up to the subsequent hype created by the success of Blankets.  Once we got back from Maryland I took it upon myself to read Habibi and post some thoughts about it here on the Heroes blog in hopes of giving you all some idea about what you might expect from this massive book.

The first and most obvious aspect of Habibi is that it represents Thompson’s continued interest in creating long form graphic novels as opposed to serializing longer stories in the same way that creators like Adrian Tomine or Chris Ware typically might.  Thompson admits that there are positives and negatives to this publishing ideology, but the fact that he now has two 500+ page original graphic novels in his catalog is indeed an impressive feat, especially when you remember he’s only in his mid thirties.  These hefty works demand a great investment from readers, but if you see that a creator has put so much time and energy into a work, the book seems to offer a substantial potential for gravity, depth, and hopefully a high degree of entertainment.

While large comics do signify the creator’s dedication to story and craft, they don’t necessarily mean they are always good, entertaining comics.  How does Habibi stand on its own merit?  Habibi is quite an accomplishment because, if anything, it clearly shows how much Thompson wanted to grow and progress in his art after Blankets.  It might’ve been tempting to churn out a follow up to that story and tell another autobiographical story, but Thompson went to an entirely different well for Habibi.  It’s a Middle Eastern story that owes as much to Islamic history, poetry, art, and symbology as Blankets did to Thompson’s own Christian upbringing. Thompson isn’t Muslim, and didn’t necessarily grow up with an understanding or appreciation for cultures outside of his own, but his attention to detail is beyond meticulous.  Every pattern and example of calligraphy, though based on existing examples of Islamic art and history, was painstakingly reproduced by Thompson’s brush.  The fine adornments, chapter fronts, and panel frames weren’t cut and pasted from a computer, but drawn by hand.  To me this exemplifies that Thompson not only wanted to push himself as a cartoonist, but wanted to be very respectful to the traditions and forms that inspired this book.

Beyond Thompson’s clear motivation to make Habibi an accurate and appropriate Middle Eastern tale, it’s worth noting that there are several entertaining chase scenes and action sequences in the book.  I’ve heard from some who didn’t like Blankets that they thought it was too emotional, and not necessarily a story that demanded a visual interpretation.  Habibi reminds us that Thompson is acutely aware that comics are a visual medium, and that he understands and enjoys crafting pages filled not just with fine adornment, but with fluid movement.  The characters of Zam and Dodola are often in life-threatening situations, and that sense of danger is clearly evident, especially in the way Thompson depicts their faces and body language.  While Blankets was very much about individuals growing up in a strict fundamentalist environment, Habibi deals with characters maturing and changing amid a place of relegated status where their lives are often threatened.  For that reason the stakes seem dramatically higher in Habibi, and thus considerably more heavy in their global sense of relevance.

Somehow amid all the danger, Thompson maintains the thread of Habibi’s love story.  Blankets also had a love story, but while its focus was on young people still discovering their identities, Habibi’s love story exists between two very scarred individuals who allow themselves to know love in spite of their tremendous personal struggles.  While we see the characters age from young children to adulthood and witness their individual tragedies, we see them come to terms with their respective scars and still accept love in spite of their pasts.  The characters truly seem to need each other in order to fully realize their own true selves, and that necessity doesn’t come across as contrived or forced.  This feels like a story that could have already or may yet happen.

Habibi gives us plenty of evidence that Thompson has matured in his storytelling and his cartooning.  There is perhaps no better example of that than by simply noting that Habibi is a comic of layers, where symbolism and parallels exist amid the characters and scenes, but are also made more resonant by their reflection of Middle Eastern numerology, spirituality, and philosophy.  Blankets was in part about Thompson’s struggle to accept his fundamentalist upbringing and find his own voice amid that belief system.  Habibi is set in an equally fundamentalist culture, but here faith and the hope it brings act as a buoy for the characters.  Faith is something that the characters have even when everything else is against them.  The characters’ understanding and use of their faith is exemplified by the numerous inclusions of Islamic symbology, and while they give us a better sense of the characters’ identities, they are also a smart method Thompson uses to incorporate themes and symbology he wanted to illustrate in this story.

As with any creator who has a huge commercial and critical success, all their subsequent works will inevitably be measured against that previous work.  It wasn’t hard for me to read Habibi as its own story, but it is hard for me to talk about it now that I’ve read it without noting that this was made by the same guy who created Blankets.  While the stories have some similarities between them, Habibi stands out as a much denser, detailed, adult story reflective of an older, wiser cartoonist at work.  There certainly are some darker, more mature elements to Habibi, but they aren’t included gratuitously.  Thompson carefully researched Middle Eastern history, art, literature, and spirituality, and with Habibi adds his own mark to those centuries old stories.  Regardless of how you react to Habibi, I doubt anyone who reads this book can experience it without at least respecting the continually refining craftsmanship of Craig Thompson as a writer, cartoonist, and storyteller.

Originally published on the Heroes Aren't Hard to Find Blog