Comics Time: Habibi

Habibi
Craig Thompson, writer/artist
Pantheon, September 2011
672 pages, hardcover
$35
Buy it from Amazon.com

Fifteen observations about Craig Thompson’s Habibi:

1. This is not a book about Islam. It’s not about any varieties of Islam — contemporary, ancient, fundamentalist, militant, or otherwise. It’s a book infused with Islamic art, culture, thought, and religious beliefs, certainly, but it’s not about Islam. This is another way of saying it’s not about 9/11, al Qaeda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, any specific Muslim countries, Muslims in America, uniquely Muslim varieties of misogyny, the Arab Spring, or any other contemporary news-story topic. I first talked to Thompson about his plans for Habibi in the summer of 2003, and in that context and over the course of many of the years to follow it was tough to think about the book without thinking of it one or more of these ways, but no, that’s not what it’s about.

2. This is a book that uses Islam to do other things. On a visual level, it gives Thompson a set of design elements, from calligraphy to ornamentation to architecture to dress to geometrical art, from which he can build a coherent visual world for his vaguely fantastical/post-apocalyptic/dystopian story. Not coincidentally these elements dovetail with his preexisting preoccupations as an artist, from swooping fabrics to obsessive-compulsive design filigrees to religious iconography.

3. It follows that the book is consciously, knowingly Orientalist, as you’d expect and hope of a book that’s using actual Islamic art as bricks in a fantasy world-building project. It’s got an Arabian Nights vibe. Thompson’s invoked Edward Said on this score and everything. To the extent that potentially problematic caricatures of Arab and African race are involved, and they are, they are at least consciously evoked.

4. Islam also provides Thompson with a back door into talking about religion and God — even recognizably Christian elements thereof, thanks to the presence in Islam of Jesus, Solomon, Abraham et al — without needing to rely on the brand of American evangelical Christianity in which he was immersed growing up and which he’s already explored in Blankets. At times the commonality between the issues he discusses in the two books is quite striking. For example, there’s a plotline here about how the bifurcation of Islam and Judaism/Christianity can be traced back to which son you believe Abraham was supposed to sacrifice, Isaac or Ishmael, that’s basically just Blankets‘ bit on scriptural malleability (“The Kingdom of God is within or around you”) blown up to world-historical scale. The impact of religious belief on the development of adolescent sexuality is a centerpiece of both books as well.

5. This is a book about sex. Even if there’s nothing in it that would earn the book anything more than an ‘R’ rating, it works through some violently ambiguous and conflicted feelings about sex in relatively explicit fashion. It took my wife reminding me that Craig first described the book as starring “a eunuch and a prostitute” to help me crystallize that, but there it is. And it makes sense, given the play-it-to-the-balcony tone of Thompson’s previous book, Blankets, and its autobiographical protagonist’s all-or-nothing approach to falling in love and making art, that this book would coalesce around those two poles as well. It is very frankly about the liberating and destructive power of both desire and the denial of desire. (To hearken back to the Arabian Nights element, here’s a tell: Instead of delighting the king with her stories for night after night under penalty of death, the central female character must delight him with sex.)

6. This is a book about many other issues that overlap with or orbit around sex in the popular imagination. They’re not sex, but they’re talked about in the same breath more often than not. They include rape, molestation, prostitution, pregnancy and childbirth, gender, misogyny, a panoply of queer identities, self-injury, puberty, motherhood, male-female friendships, sex and race, sex and organized religion, sex and spirituality, sacrifying sex/orientation/gender, masculinity and femininity…

7. The emotional and physical stakes for the characters are much higher than they are in any of Thompson’s previous works. This is established within the first few pages, in which a child is raped. A bloody sheet is held up to the child and the audience, the blood of her vagina on the blank white fabric equated with the letter-writing in Chunky Rice; the footprints on snow and drawings on paper of Blankets; the act of Creation itself — “From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink.” Violence and abuse are the lifeblood of the story.

8. Thompson’s art is much, much denser here than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s still lush and lovely on a surface level, his line still swoops and curves in a fashion he’s explicitly compared to handwriting, but there are more panels on the page, more black in the panels, few of the vast fields of white Blankets was known for, and few of its splash pages too. Decorative patterns of intricate detail are copied from Islamic texts by hand, and drawn repeatedly until they cover almost all the available space on a given page, also by hand. It’s a much tougher book for your eyes to breeze through.

9. Maybe the best way to symbolize that is in the new panorama Thompson has added to his repertoire. He’s said, and promotional art for the book has made use of the fact, that Good-Bye, Chunky Rice had the ocean, Blankets had the snow, and Habibi has the desert. That’s true, but Habibi heavily features vistas of another sprawling, enveloping sea: a man-made sea of garbage. It’s as dense and detailed and chaotic as the water, snow, and sand are unified and simplified.

10. The book is designed. Designed in the Watchmen symmetrical-issue sense. Each of its nine chapters corresponds to a box in the Islamic religious/mathematical talisman known as a magic square — a sort of spiritual sudoku — and its corresponding letter of the alphabet. Each corresponds to a specific topic, and a specific prophet of Islam used to illuminate that topic. But unlike Alan Moore, Thompson doesn’t foreground his machinations. This stuff is present, but in its way it’s beside the point. I didn’t even notice.

11. In much the same way that light, electricity, and information functioned as the stuff of life in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, fluid is the stuff of life here. Water is crucial to the various societal strata’s survival within the drought-stricken world of the story. Blood is crucial to nearly all of the book’s depictions of both sex and violence, the fuel of human physicality. Ink is crucial to the characters’ understanding of the nature of God and the world via holy texts and art, and to the author’s understanding of what the hell he’s been doing for the past eight years. There’s less semen or vaginal secretion than you’d think, but otherwise it’s a book about fluids, and fluidity. The greatest sin is staunching the flow, which is done in various ways — a metaphor that extends from environmentalism to art to, of course, spirituality and sexuality.

12. The relative lack of emphasis on sexual fluids is a leading indicator of where the book ultimately pulls an important punch. There’s a revelation, an exposure, toward the end of the book that we readers do not get to see. Since the book confronted virtually everything else it tackled so head-on, since it was so in-your-face about violence and sexuality, you really feel this revelation’s visual absence. Which is maybe appropriate, given what’s being revealed, I dunno. But it left me wondering “Why didn’t he show that?”, in a way that suggests it’s a misstep.

13. The book contains two of the toughest depictions of mental illness I’ve come across in comics. One in particular involved postpartum depression and was deeply sad to me. The other comes hot on the heels of the book’s single most unpleasant depiction of the cruel fate of children in this world. Actually, nearly everything involving children is rough stuff here. There’s not a lot of time for innocence.

14. The book contains two pretty rollicking action sequences. If you’ve read as many lousy action comics as I have, it ought to be a pretty great pleasure for you to watch an artist with Thompson’s attention to environment, layout, movement, and pacing choreograph chase scenes and fight scenes. It definitely was for me. And these sequences had the secondary function of release valve for the dense and emotionally oppressive material they helped break up.

15. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Habibi is a book of sequences. Maybe this is reinforced by Thompson’s non-linear storytelling, with his male and female leads’ stories shifting backward and forward in time independent of one another, a technique that emphasizes discreet sequences over the overall flow of the larger narrative. But the bathtub sequence (very successful), the dam sequence (this is perhaps the book’s climax, and I’m not sure it’s successful), the garbage man sequence, the childbirth sequence, the eunuchs sequence, the conflicting stories of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice — these are what stick out to me, embedded in the bigger picture. They’re what will draw me back into the book, moving backward and forward through the work of a cartoonist working out his personal obsessions on the grandest canvas imaginable.

16 Responses to Comics Time: Habibi

  1. Nadim says:

    “It follows that the book is consciously, knowingly Orientalist, as you’d expect and hope of a book that’s using actual Islamic art as bricks in a fantasy world-building project. It’s got an Arabian Nights vibe. Thompson’s invoked Edward Said on this score and everything. To the extent that potentially problematic caricatures of Arab and African race are involved, and they are, they are at least consciously evoked.”

    So I haven’t got a chance to read Habibi yet, but I find this claim particularly dubious. I talked to Craig about this project at the 2010 Stumptown Festival (when he was pretty near completion) and he seemed taken off guard when I asked him about the sort of cultural appropriation he was engaging with by writing the book. In our follow up conversation I brought up the work of Said and he didn’t know the reference. While I think the rest of your review is probably spot-on, you are doing too much work here at giving him a pass for Orientalism. When you say something has “an Arabian Nights vibe,” that just raises a red flag for me. In short, I’m in the camp of consciously-evoked racism still carrying the charge of racism (even if it comes from a place of post-9/11 guilt).

  2. The Said/Arabian Nights/Orientalism references come straight from the horse’s mouth, from the panel I did with Craig at SPX, so that was the lens I was viewing the book with when thinking about that aspect of the material. Perhaps I misinterpreted what he was saying, and he was identifying this characteristic as a bug and not a feature.

  3. EH says:

    Or perhaps he engaged in some post-facto research to cover in between 2010 and 2011? I am also extremely interested to see this book but partly because it raises my hackles on those matters….

  4. EH says:

    Ok– it seemed to me that you were asserting that he made the book consciously thinking about Said/Orientalism, whereas the narrative presented by Nadim suggests that he actually was not at all aware of it while in production of the book (by 2010, despite his drawn-out process, the book must have been almost done) and only researched it afterwards to try and justify (or more charitably, explain) decisions he had already made. But I will reserve further judgement until reading the book myself.

    • That is what I was asserting in the review, yeah, because that’s how it sounded to me in the panel. But once Nadim told his story, the point I was trying to make in my comment responding to it was that maybe what I interpreted as Craig saying he’d done the book with Said’s ideas on Orientalism in mind was ACTUALLY Craig saying that he recognized those ideas in the work he’d already done, after coming across those ideas late in the process.

      I’d definitely read it before judging. A lack of cultural sensitivity is not a charge I’d ever leave at his feet, I don’t think.

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  8. DanielT says:

    I can’t tell you how tickled I am to read a Habibi review that references Final Crisis.

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