Friday, October 14, 2011

Habibi by Craig Thompson

I was blown away by Habibi, a multi-layered epic about two slave children in the Middle East. Poverty forced Dodola’s parents to sell her into marriage while she was still very young. Later, she was kidnapped into slavery but she escaped with a much younger child, Zam. The two spent six years on their own in the desert before being separated and then spend about the same length of time struggling to find each other again. Their love for each other is complicated: as mother and child; as siblings; and then in a romantic sense also as they get older.

The setting is a dystopian near future, with pollution and water shortages. There is an overall quality of timelessness, however. This is partly because of the stories that Dodola tells, first to amuse Zam and later in a Scheherazade-type role in a sultan's harem. Magic is a part of young Zam's life, as when snakes spell messages for him. He and Dodola are both wonderful characters, storybook ingenues in a corrupt real world. 

Craig Thompson’s Blankets was the first graphic novel to give me a feeling that I’d read a proper novel when I’d finished it. (Most graphic novels have more of a short story feel for me, which isn’t a bad thing, only different.) Anyway, the narrative style in Habibi is much more complex than in Blankets. Retellings of traditional stories are interwoven with present day and with history. Time shifts to the past have the immediate visual clue of switching from white background to black, and the tales told by Dodola have ornate decorative borders to them.

Artwork in Habibi by Craig Thompson
I fretted a bit at the beginning that I was going to have to endure lessons in Arabic script, but that's a tiny fraction of the 665 pages. It was actually a painless introduction to a few Arabic letters and enough that I was able to read the final word, hubb, meaning love. Thompson's black ink art is totally sumptuous. I will only give you a taste of it here with the final double spread.

Nothing comes to mind as a true readalike, only books that have partial similarities. Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines tackles social issues in a complex narrative style and beautiful graphic novel format. You might want to revisit your favourite translation of Tales from 1001 Nights. Robert Crumb's graphic novel version of The Book of Genesis would make a good pairing, since some of Dodola's stories draw on the common origins of Christian and Islamic traditions. Trash by Andy Mulligan could flesh out possible lives for the people who live on the garbage dump. And of course there are Thompson's earlier works, including Good-bye Chunky Rice, Blankets, and Carnet de Voyage.

NOTE added October 29, 2011: If you'd like to read some far more in-depth critiques of this book, check out the Habibi Round Table at the Comics Journal website, where Hayley Campbell wrote: "I actually really like it when writers go off on some tangent in a madly enthusiastic way." Me too!

ANOTHER NOTE added November 19, 2011: Listen and watch Craig Thompson's lecture that was filmed in Minneapolis and posted on the Forbidden Planet website.


avisannschild said...

Craig Thompson was in Montreal (where I live) just recently, touring this book, and I unfortunately missed him! I enjoyed Blankets, but I loved Carnet de Voyage -- it's so personal and unpretentious. I want to read this one now too!

Lindy said...

I'd love to hear what you think of Habibi.