Habibi by Craig Thompson
This review is late. Whilst I picked up Habibi within a week of its UK release I’ve been a little busy making my own comics, celebrating my birthday and trying to avoid the poverty line. This is not an apology on my part for my lack of consistency rather it’s a warning that what you’re about to read has likely been said hundreds of times already. Namely that Habibi is an outstanding achievement in the world of comics. I should point out here that this is a pretty long review and is bordering on a crappy critical review that wouldn’t get a C a G.C.S.E. however Habibi is around 650 pages long so a short review would be a tad lacking.
A lot of people expected this to be so, Thompson’s previous work has received critical acclaim and he has been working on this book for years now. Honestly I wasn’t expecting much though. I’d read blanket and thought it was pretty enough but it had the distinct whiney autobiographical feel to it that most whiney autobiographical comics have. I understand that technically its good but I just have very little interest in it, a bit like the Beatles. I’d picked up Habibi because it was on special offer in my local comic book store in fancy hardback and looked like it would take me some time to read. Turns out that was true. Now to the book.
Habibi follows the story of a young girl named Dodola and her ward Zam set in mystical and timeless Arabic land. To go into the intricacies of the plot would take time I don’t care wasting but needless to say there separation, trails and reunion. But what I do what to talk about is how Thompson handles themes. On the most basic level each character represents separate themes of femininity and masculinity as well as love and sexuality. But these are merely themes of the characters motives; the real mastery is in the use of stories as a motif through the book. Dodola learns the stories of Quran that become recounted throughout the book and as pararrells to the events that befall the characters. This combined with Thompson technique of showing re-using panels out of sequence creates a fantastic effect.
In addition to the story telling aspect is that of Islamic magic squares (9x9 square were each line adds up to 15 after the numbers 1-9 are placed in them) which are used as a kind of framing device for the story. Here’s the fun part, in the explanation of the magic squares and the characters (as in letters, not protagonists’) they contain Thompson really begins to push what one can do with comics. The characters become symbols which become part of the story which in turn interact with the Dodola and Zam who then reference back to the fables they have learned and the magic square. The book becomes almost meta-textual. But no the the hammy way comics usually try to be “meta”. By referencing the creators or lampooning some comic traditions. This book becomes a living entity, its complexity growing page by page. Broken into nine parts, each representing a panel in the magic squares I hear rumours that Thompson has left a riddle in the book. If you are able to solve the riddle there is a second way to read the book. Now this may just be apocrypha surrounding a book so complex that does indeed concern itself with riddles but it’s got me excited all the same.
Thompson looks at some difficult themes in this book. It’s now my understanding that after reading this and Blankets Thompson has some weird sexual issues going on. Still that aside Thompson goes back to something he has wrote about before. Religion. It’s very tricky to write about religion without coming across as preaching or just a humanities lecture, but Thompson pulls it off fantastically. A lot of it might have to do with the mystical setting of the book that allows the fantastic stories taken from the Quran to be both symbolic and at the same time true. Furthermore Thompson explores Islam is a respectful and enlightened way. He really does show what a colourful and beautiful religion it really is. This is opposed to Blankets in my eyes, where although he did explore Christianity, it felt laboured and weighed me down, that said, that is kind of how the protagonist of the book felt as well. My hope is that no one will be offended unnecessarily by this exploration are its genuinely kind and sincere. But that’s enough of my wasted Theology degree coming through.
The Art. Oh my days the art. Firstly Thompson has mastered the cartoon characterisation. His characters are identifiable, expressive and individual. His use of Arabic patterns and religious iconography is astounding. When he needs to his panels are crammed with characters, and thats the important thing. This market places and harems are filled with characters not extras as the case might be. In other parts of the book he uses lots of white space and it’s all done to create just the right mood for those scenes. It can’t be stressed enough at how good Thompson is at directing his art work. His Quranic scenes are lose and filled with mysticism and symbolic that he lets the reader explore, he occasionally creates scenes where we learn alongside the characters and the images are much freer flowing and thought like and at one point he cuts to prose, but it’s an arranged prose that still exists in panels. It’s worth owning this book for the art alone. It’s beautiful.
Go buy this book, it’s pretty, its complex and it really show that comics can be as legitimate an art form as anything else. Now I’m going to and see if I can solve that magic square.