Habibi (graphic novel)
|Publication date||September 20, 2011|
Habibi is a graphic novel by Craig Thompson published by Pantheon in September 2011. The 672-page book is set in a fictional Islamic fairy tale landscape, and depicts the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves, who are torn apart and undergo many transformations as they grow into new names and new bodies, which prove to be obstacles to their love when they later reunite. The book's website describes its concept thus as a love story and a parable about humanity's relationship to the natural world that explores such themes as the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam.
The book has received mixed reviews. While it has been lauded by publications such as Time, Elle, Salon, NPR and reviewers in general for the beauty of its visual design and the rendition of its epic setting, it has also been criticized for its treatment of sexuality, and its depiction of Arabs and Arab culture.
Thompson began working on Habibi at the end of 2004. Although the book is informed by his previous work, Blankets, which autobiographically explored Thompson's Christian upbringing and beliefs, Thompson conceived Habibi as part of his desire to better understand and humanize Islam, and focus on the beauty of Arabic and Islamic cultures, in contrast to their vilification.
In the course of producing the story, Thompson was inspired by Arabic calligraphy, interpreting that form of writing as cursive shorthand for an idea, which Thompson says, is the origin of cartooning. Each of the book's nine chapters is given a distinctive visual style, and an Arab North African talisman is employed as a framing device. The book also quotes explicitly from 19th-century Orientalist paintings, particularly those of Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Habibi takes place in the present day, albeit in a fictional "Orientalist landscape", which Thompson conceived in order to create a sprawling fairy tale that would allow him to depict a clash of the old world and the new, while allowing him to avoid depicting guns or warfare. While it is located in an Islamic country and features such elements as Arabic writing, Thompson is reluctant to say that it takes place in the Middle East, preferring to emphasize that it is a mythical landscape, and that the characters vaguely Muslim as a result of the context in which they grew up. Thompson explains that he borrowed elements from different geographies, and infused them with the elements that he wanted. The book intersperses stories drawn from the Koran with the main narrative that follows Dodola, a young girl who, despite being intelligent and literate, is prized for her beauty, and the younger Zam, a boy whose guilt-ridden relationship with his surrogate mother leads to destructive choices.
Habibi has received mixed reviews. The book's treatment of sexuality as something forbidden or shameful, as well as the sexual violence endured by the characters, was frequently cited as a negative by critics.
Douglas Wolk of Time magazine called the book "as grand and sustained a performance as any cartoonist has published... and that every mark on the page can be a prayer". Lisa Shea of Elle magazine wrote, "Thompson is the Charles Dickens of the genre... [and] Habibi is a masterpiece that surely is one of a kind" Neel Mukherjee of Financial Times observed that the book was "executed with enormous empathy and something that in earlier times would have been called divine inspiration." Laura Miller of Salon stated, "a big, rousing, unabashedly tear-jerking Dumas novel, with fascinatingly intricate designs and fabulous tales on almost every page." Inbali Iserles of The Independent predicted that "The book is destined to become an instant classic, confirming the author's position among not only the most masterful of graphic novelists but our finest contemporary writers, regardless of medium." Glen Weldon of NPR commented, "Of all the books I've read this year, the mysterious, marvelous Habibi is the one I most look forward to meeting again." Jacob Lambert of The Millions called the book "The Greatest Story Ever Drawn." John Hogan of the Graphic Novel Reporter commented, "I don’t usually look at books in-depth here in the introduction to the newsletter, but I have to make an exception in the case of Habibi", and proceeds to call Habibi "easily the best graphic novel of the year, and probably the decade...This is a work that truly changes the game and sets a new standard for all the graphic novels that follow it."
Michel Faber of The Guardian praised Habibi as "an orgy of art for its own sake", and calling Thompson an "obsessive sketcher" whose artwork he categorized with that of Joe Sacco and Will Eisner. Although Faber lauded the book's visuals and its message, he found both its length wearisome and its treatment of sex to be problematic, in particular the repeatedly sexual cruelty visited upon Dodola, which Faber felt caused the story to fold in on itself.
Natalie du P.C. Panno, writing for The Harvard Crimson, called Habibi "exquisite", seeing Thompson's use of Arabic calligraphy and geometric designs as a third dimension that, when added to the familiar graphic novel languages of image and text, broadened the possibilities for expression, perhaps moreso for readers who do not know what it means, and must be guided in its interpretation. du P.C. Panno also praised the sensitivity with which Thompson executed his portrayal of Orientalist tropes, particular by the end of the book.
Charles Hatfield of The Comics Journal conducted a round table discussion of the book featuring himself, Hayley Campbell, Chris Mautner, Tom Hart, Katie Haegele, and Joe McCulloch. Most of the panelists applauded Thompson's visual storytelling, calling it "gorgeous", "mind-altering", "lavish", and singling out elements such as Thompson's use of false light, and the "poignant" image of the wooden ship in the desert. More than one panelist compared Thompson's artwork positively to that of Will Eisner, in particular the fisherman from the story's final act. Also praised were the use of Arabic calligraphy and numerology, the intertwining of Biblical and Koranic vignettes as subplots with the main story, the scripting of Dodola's challenge to "turn water into gold", and the parallels between motifs such as chapter numbers and their content, and between the river and blood. Hatfield thought that the book's range of themes, from environmentalism to anti-Islamophobia, to thinly-veiled allegories about water rights, racism, pollution, slavery and rape made the book "way too big for elegance". By contrast, Mautner in particular thought Habibi was a smoother read than Blankets, which he felt featured too many subplots. Hart and McCullough agreed that Thompson's tendency to delineate every little detail which such obviousness left little to the reader's imagination or interpretation. The most recurrent complaint was with the book's bleak outlook on life and humanity, and the sexual cruelties inflicted upon the characters, which some of the reviewers thought was excessive, in particular Hatfield and Haegele, who felt that Thompson was condemning such atrocities while simultaneously luxuriating in them. Haegele did not care for the depiction of black characters in the book, finding them comparable to racial caricatures, and calling them "inappropriate" and "disgusting", and pointed to the "cornball" humor in these scenes in particular, and throughout the book in general. Both Hart and Haegele also pointed to Hyacinth's use of black American vernacular as implausible. Campbell partially disagreed, saying that much of the humor was carefully used to defuse scenes of tension, singling out the flatulent palace dwarf and the fisherman, which others mentioned they enjoyed as well.
Robyn Creswell of The New York Times called the book "a work of fantasy about being ashamed of one’s fantasies", an anxiety that she attributed to American comics produced by white males in general, pointing to elements in Habibi that recall the work of R. Crumb in particular. Echoing some of the Comics Journal roundtable's complaints, Creswell took fault with the book's depictions of racism and sexism, and its apparent exotification of the Muslim world without differentiating between fact and fantasy, saying, "It’s often hard to tell whether Thompson is making fun of Orientalism or indulging in it...Thompson the illustrator is...apparently unable to think of Dodola without disrobing her...it is a conventional sort of virtuosity, in the service of a conventional exoticism."
Nadim Damluji of The Hooded Utilitarian called the book "an imperfect attempt to humanize Arabs for an American audience", taking issue with Thompson's ignorance of the Arabic language, his depiction of Arab culture as "cultural appropriation", and the revelation in the later chapters of a modern, Westernized city in proximity to a primitive harem palace typified by sexual slavery. Though Damluji expressed awe of Thompson's technical skill, and found his artwork "stunning" and his ideas derived from his research "fascinating", he observed that Dodola and Zam arrive are given depth by contrasting them against "a cast of extremely dehumanized Arabs", and summarized the work thus: "Habibi is a success on many levels, but it also contains elements that are strikingly problematic...The artistic playground [Thompson] chose of barbaric Arabs devoid of history but not savagery is a well-trod environment in Western literature....The problem in making something knowingly racist is that the final product can still be read as racist."
- du P.C. Panno, Natalie. "'Habibi' Gracefully Subverts Orientalist Tropes". The Harvard Crimson. September 20, 2011
- Matheson, Whitney. "Preview: Craig Thompson's new graphic novel, 'Habibi'". USA Today. August 19, 2011
- Heater, Brian. "Interview: Craig Thompson Pt. 1 (of 2)". The Daily Crosshatch. May 7, 2007
- Kois, Dan. "Arab Fling". New York Magazine. August 21, 2011
- Kross, Karen L. Bookslut "An Interview with Craig Thompson". Book Slut. February 2004
- Creswell, Robyn. "The Graphic Novel as Orientalist Mash-Up". The New York Times. October 14, 2011
- Armstrong, Meakin. "Fundamentals". Guernica. September 2011
- Wolk, Douglas. "The Line of Beauty: Habibi a graphic novel worthy of Scheherazade". Time magazine. October 3, 2011
- Shea, Lisa. "A Magic Carpet Ride". Elle. September 19, 2011
- Mukherjee, Neel. "Habibi". The Financial Times. September 23, 2011
- Miller, Laura. "The Best New Graphic Novels". Salon. September 26, 2011
- Iserles, Inbali. "Habibi, By Craig Thompson: An enchanting epic of love and survival emerges from the desert sands". The Independent. September 25, 2011
- Weldon, Glen. "Mysterious 'Habibi' Cuts To The Core Of Humanity". NPR. September 18, 2011
- Lambert, Jacob. "The Greatest Story Ever Drawn". The Millions. September 22, 2011
- Hogan, John. "Game Changers". Graphic Novel Reporter. August 25, 2011
- Faber, Michel. "Habibi by Craig Thompson – review". The Guardian. September 16, 2011
- Hatfield, Charles. "A Habibi Roundtable". The Comics Journal. October 27, 2011
- Damluji, Nadim. "Can the Subaltern Draw?: The Spectre of Orientalism in Craig Thompson’s Habibi". The Hooded Utilitarian. October 4, 2011.
- "From Habibi, a graphic novel". Guernica. September 2011