Open Dialogues with Difficult Literature

My first impression upon picking up my copy of Craig Thompson’s latest work, Habibi, was one of both excitement and trepidation.

My previous experience with Thompson was his multi-award winning graphic novel, Blankets. Like so many other readers, his narrative brought me back to days long past recalling the pains of adolescence and young love.  The feelings of the past continued to haunt me following that first reading of his semi-autobiographic tale.  In like fashion, I was thoroughly excited to experience the work of a graphic storyteller for a second time who possessed a real skill for crafting a captivating narrative replete with artfully rendered pictures that drove the narrative.  However, I was also somewhat intimidated at the sheer size of it—from what I saw, as well as the scope of the novel from what I read from various previews. Habibi’s ambitions were far greater than communicating a localized bildungsroman that documented Thompson’s adolescence; instead, it would take the form of an epic romance that blended the real world with fairy tales and brought the often conflicting cultures of the West and East together.  I knew Thompson spent years researching and painstakingly working on creating this novel, and the bar for my expectations was set high.

On my first reading of Habibi, I really enjoyed this book and I felt like I had a decent grasp of what Thompson was aiming to accomplish.  There were elements of Scheherazade and 1,001 Nights intermingled with some social commentary on the plight of women, people of color, and persons of varying gender and sexual orientation.  Thompson’s portrayal of Dodola’s objectification by many of the men she encounters in her male-dominated society underscores the admiration he has for her ability to persevere.  Aside from Zam, Thompson portrays few—if any—other men who are her equal.  Even then, Zam appears to draw more strength from Dodola than she does from him.  Additionally, one cannot help but feel sympathy for Thompson’s other leading character, Zam, as he becomes a eunuch only to see the ramifications of his decision later in the novel—something the reader suspects from simply glancing at the back cover of the novel.  We also see Thompson seeking to bring other marginalized people into the story.  Although the transgender persons from the city streets are initially portrayed in such a way to deserve the scorn Zam and the rest of the city dwellers heap upon these social pariahs, Thompson brings us into their world where the reader does find some means to empathize with these individuals.  Certainly, the social agenda he is aiming to address throughout Habibi is an ambitious one, and as many who have already read this novel will attest I am only covering a few of the major issues.  Most important of all, perhaps, is the way religion serves a key point of discussion for Thompson.  He brings forth the beauty of Islam, most notably through its rich and complex use of calligraphy as art.  Even the most ardent of Thompson’s critics cannot help but appreciate the attention to detail where the carefully designed layouts often eschew traditionally lined-panels in favor of couching much of the narrative amongst a framework panels influenced by Islamic artistry.  The years spent studying this art form cannot be lost on any reader as he or she flips through these carefully crafted pages.

On the other hand, there are some aspects about the novel that began to emerge as I began processing what I read—aspects that were somewhat problematic and ones where I felt he wasn’t as successful.  Thompson does appear to place Dodola in a role similar to Scheherazade, in a bid to highlight the atrocities she faces and attempts to avoid; yet, there are many instances where his continued portrayal of her naked and highly sexualized body are reminiscent of late-Victorian and French paintings of that period which provided titillating representations of Oriental women.  Seeing her from this lens could potentially limit any sort of empathy readers might have for the male characters who, upon viewing this mystical beauty, cannot help but act on their carnal desires to possess her—or at the least, temporarily possess her body.  This can lead to a very limiting view of heterosexual men and their potential (or lack thereof) to control themselves.  It is also worth noting that as the skin color of the men in this book grows lighter and the wealth of the men grows greater, there is a noticeable shift in the morality of that masculine character.  Notice that the palace eunuchs—best exemplified through Zam—have a far greater sense of brotherhood than the rest of the men who are caught up in intrigues, power plays, and general bacchanalia with the Sultan of Wanatolia.  Although Thompson does wave his hand at charges of Orientalism—instead, likening it to nothing more than a genre akin to Cowboys and Indians—in addition to imbalanced gender representation, and other related issues—I’m not so sure they can be so easily dismissed.  However, I still find his work to be well worth academic and popular consideration, unlike some critics who might relegate him to the field of harlequin novels.

One of the major charges leveled against Habibi is that of his use of Orientalism–something Thompson has openly embraced.  He stated in an interview that his use of stereotypical portrayals was meant in a sort of farcical, satirical vein recognizing what he portrayed was no more factual than the cowboy and Indian serials from a generation or so ago.  Works that make use of stereotypes as a means of subverting them can be effective tools of communicating the problematic nature of stereotyping.  The problem I found (as did other critics) is that Thompson flirts with both farce and reality in this work, but he isn’t clear in consistently marking where these boundaries lie.  Is he adopting a stereotype with the irredeemable sultan?  Is Thompson being honest and real with the reader in his representations of Dodola and Zam?  What do we make of characters like the eunuchs (in the palace and those outside the palace) or any representation of maleness outside of Zam?  Habibi does not provide answers to all of these questions—whether on the pages or in between the lines of the text.  It is in this lack of clarity that problems lie.  Taking into account Thompson’s own professed desire to present Islam in a meaningful way as a result of the notable rise in anti-Muslim backlash since 9/11, I find this ambiguity a little troublesome.

However, don’t get me wrong:  I’m not asking for an author to spoon-feed me.  I’m really “okay” with having to work out the answers for myself.  In this instance, however, I know Thompson is painfully aware of the problems with representation Muslims and Middle-Eastern peoples face today in the post 9/11 era.  In that regard, I would expect a little more shown in playing with the boundaries of fact and fiction, farce and honest representation.  Nadim Damluji interviewed Thompson recently about Habibi and addressed a number of these issues.  If you have the time, I recommend giving it a read [1] as it not only provides some insights from Thompson himself, but some levelheaded observations by Damluji as well.

In this interview, Thompson states that despite an inclination to be viewed as a serious writer or artist, he is “still at my core just a cartoonist.  Cartoonists want to make these exaggerated caricatured playful ridiculous irreverent drawings in some ways.”  In some regards, this feels just a bit disingenuous.  For the amount of time and research Thompson put into creating Habibi—let alone the time to learn and weave the beautiful calligraphic elements into the novel—this comes across as a “rhetorical backdoor” by which he can escape in the face of criticism allowing him to create a serious work while remaining protected by the status of being a “mere” cartoonist” having fun.  I’m not sure it works this way.

Regardless, Thompson’s work is still worthy of serious consideration by comics scholars and literary critics—not despite the flaws but because of them.  Perhaps, I am accepting of this work because of its ambitious attempt to create a sort of contact zone between different genders (male, female, transgender), cultures (Western and Middle Eastern), sexual orientations (hetero and homosexual relations) all within the confines of a graphic novel.  Habibi admirably illustrates a step in the growing pains of comics as literature, even if it does open itself to criticism by postcolonialists, feminists, Queer theorists, and other schools of literary criticism.  And I believe these sorts of works will open doors to future comics and graphic novels that will move the medium in even more directions.

Even with its faults, Thompson’s work positions itself to engage academics in a discussion of what comics could continue to do in literature.  It is for this reason that comics fans, literature students, and scholars should familiarize themselves with this work and not relegate it to some genre unworthy of our time or attention.  In an article entitled “Dick Lit: Habibi and Paying For It,”[2] Kristy Valenti labels these two books with the pejorative title of “Dick Lit”[3] because they are presented in “ black and white on the inside, and coded warm brown on the outside” while each writer “organize[s] their (and their characters’) identity around love and sex.  Both present themselves as sensitive males…[but each] wants others to see him as cool-headed and reasonable.”  While I have no issue with the definition of a masculine genre of literature nor do I object to her criticisms, I do find it offensive to term this field of literature as “Dick Lit.”

In fairness, the term predates Vaenty’s article, but it is the acceptance and use of the term with which I take argument.  It is particularly interesting that such a chauvinistic term would be used to represent Habibi when Valenty opens her criticism of the work by criticizing Thompson’s phallocentric view and oft-times erotic representations of others.  The points she raises are certainly worth consideration.  Her notions about the possibility of Thompson working out forms of guilt alongside the anxiety of separating sex and art are truly thought provoking issues.  Valenty also points to other critiques of Thompson to back up her comparison to Brown—which are also well-thought out critiques—yet, neither of these reviews once makes mention of the derogatory label “Dick Lit.”  Perhaps that was the point—to use a polarizing term to launch a review of Habibi.  If that is the case, however, I wonder if that doesn’t somewhat serve to validate Thompson’s remark about Orientalism being another genre akin to cowboys and Indians?     I’m not sure that’s something I’m comfortable accepting in either case.

Habibi is a difficult work with many scenes that are challenging and horrific to encounter—both for the characters as well as the readers.  Thompson is able to succeed in balancing some of the tension between apathy and sympathy, horror and exultation; other times, the answers aren’t so clear.  However, I argue that we should take a note from Nadim Damluji and engage Habibi and its creator in a dialogue without the need for language that creates and reinforces stereotypes—even if we do have the same concerns about the text—rather than indiscriminately dismiss it as mere “Dick Lit.”

[1] http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/11/a-conversation-about-habibis-orientalism-with-craig-thompson/

[2] http://pulllist.comixology.com/articles/490/Dick-Lit-i-Habibi-i-and-i-Paying-For-It-i-

[3] It should be noted Valenty did not coin this term, which often refers to literature predominantly aimed at younger men.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Forrest Helvie:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism

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The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil



  1. David Balan says:

    I read the review you linked, and the author of that review isn’t talking about the books – she’s talking about the authors.

    Is it likely that both Brown and Thompson have personal issues with sex and love that they’re working out or expressing through their writing? Certainly. But at the end of the day, who gives a shit? We’re here to critique and talk about the work, not it’s author. It must be taken for what it is – and in this way, I’m actually confused what people like Valenty’s critiques actually are.

    As for the Orientalism, I think that putting that label on it, whether accurate or no, only serves to obfuscate the issue that Thompson’s supporting cast just wasn’t well written. There are a lot of structural problems with the book that are intimately tied into how shallow the secondary/tertiary characters are.

    • David,

      Are you referring to the Valenty review? I did see it as a review / critique of both books, but there is certainly a significant critique of the author as well. And I’m not so much of a New Critic that the author is dead and in no way influences in forms ways we can interpret the novel. I think the interview with Thompson about the creative process that went into Habibi is truly fascinating stuff, and it really gives me food for thought as I reread this book. If Valenty is looking at these books as representing tangible forms of the creators’ attempts to work out their sexual concerns, I’d say it’s a legitimate form of critique…. providing there is a body of past work to support these suggestions (and not definitive claims).

      But I don’t think identifying this book as an Orientalist text–or at least identifying Orientalist traits in it– blocks out the sometimes two-dimensional portrayals of the supporting cast as you right point out. I’d suggest that this failure to depict well-rounded characters happens BECAUSE of the Orientalist tendencies, which seek to have characters fulfill a specific aim / desire and leave little to no room for growth and nuance. After all, that’s the problem with many such books because they fail to paint truly 3-dimensional representations of the characters. I don’t want to assume too much here, David, but I think that at the end of the day, we’re both concerned about the same thing in this regard: undeveloped, flat characters that really hinder the text.

      • David Balan says:

        We’re definitely concerned about the same thing, to start with – those flat characters. I suppose the reason that labeling it as “Orientalism” bothers isn’t because I don’t think it’s a factor, it’s because I think it’s something of a buzz-word, that calls up all sorts of nasty connotations, as if the white man is doing injustice to the rest of the world once again.

        There are just as many flat, two-dimensional characters in media that don’t take place in a fantastical Arabian setting – I think saying “Orientalism! He clearly hasn’t done his research” or even Thompson himself claiming, “I wanted to play with Orientalism as a genre” are statements which aren’t helpful. The first one kind of incites a instant reaction of “Ugh!” which is useless to the thoughtful critic, in my mind, and the second is just a cop-out for not creating well-designed characters.

        Is Orientalism happening in Habibi? Sure. I just don’t think focusing on it as the sole problem actually helps anything.

        Maybe that’s the writer in me – when I critique a work these days, it’s generally for the purpose of pointing out what could have been better, and how it could BE better. I don’t think “Be less Orientalist” is a helpful statement in terms of thinking about how the work could be more powerful. But that’s just the way I look at criticism – as a practitioner – I doubt it’s the way everyone does.

        As for the author and the text, while I find the ideas in the interviews fascinating, I’m not sure how Thompson’s sexual hang-ups factor into our reading of the book. So Thompson writes to explore his own feelings about sexuality and spirituality – so what? Valenty seems to make the case that this is somehow bad, that nobody cares about his thoughts on sexuality. I don’t see where that’s coming from.

      • David, I agree that merely labeling a work is a fairly pointless exercise, and it is easy to fall into a mindset of “finger pointing” without offering any sort of constructive criticism. However, I think what each of us is attempting here is identifying a problem–whatever one wants to call it–and then point out what went wrong (and perhaps how it might have been better). This is what critics should do in part.

        Identifying this work as Orientalist is simply a critic’s attempt to synthesize the parts into a particular shorthand to help readers “categorize” the work. I think it’s common to want to know how to “read” something. I think it’s equally important to recognize that there are Orientalist strains in this book just as much as there are some equally progressive ideas attempting to make their way to the surface. Like all things, it’s not black and white. Care is needed when critiquing a work–even if added care would have been helpful on the part of the writer.

        Honestly, this is what motivated my writing this review. I perceived a real lack of care in labeling this book as “Dick Lit” in a similar way to how one might view this book *only* from an Orientalist lens. It’s one thing to suggest there are elements of “X” in a text–which is the approach I attempted to make–but it’s something else to simply label something with little possibility for other views.

      • David Balan says:

        Yeah, I’m definitely with you. Most of my negative reactions were to the review you linked, by the way, as it seemed to avoid all thought about the book, and simply labeled it an Orientalist Sex Binge by Thompson, without any real attempt to engage with it whatsoever.

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