What Works and What Doesn’t

Since alternative comics creator Craig Thompson released critically acclaimed Blankets in 2003, little work has been seen from the artist until the recent Pantheon publication of Habibi this past September. With six years in making, Habibi certainly showcases the growing maturity of Thompson as both a writer and artist. While Blankets is artistically a bit naïve and thematically self-oriented as a memoir, Habibi presents a creator with a much improved understanding of the human figure and a far less self-oriented, possibly pretentious work. Although it has its flaws, Thompson’s Habibi deserves attention as a refreshing change in both form and content from the typical repertoire of today’s stories both in and out of comics.

What Works

In essence, Habibi is a dramatic romance about two child slaves who grow into adults in a volatile, fantastic Middle Eastern landscape, where sultans and harems exist alongside modern industry and great dam constructions. The story develops as the two protagonists, Dodola and Zam, face their own individual and collective challenges while in conflict with their environment. What becomes increasingly interesting is the way these challenges and experiences of the protagonists juxtapose with actual characters and challenges from the stories of the Qur’an and the Bible’s Old Testament.

For instance, after Dodola and Zam escape the all-consuming sultan’s palace, they are swept away into an extreme state of destitution until they are literally pulled out of a sea of refuse by a fisherman named Noah. Not only does the nature of being a fisherman have Christ-like associations, the name “Noah” also connects the character with the Biblical Noah who saves his followers from the great flood. While the protagonists and other destitute individuals are helped by the fisherman named Noah, so does Thompson recount the story of Noah’s ark within the same page sequence – thereby reinforcing the symbolic connection between the two.

This pattern of connecting the telling of story events with the telling of Biblical and Qur’anic events repeats throughout the entire book. Although there is arguably a lack of subtlety in this method, it is necessary for a western audience who is unfamiliar with many of these beautifully charged and poetic Qur’anic stories. When have we last heard about the prophet who rode the Buraq or the ring controlling the power of jinn worn by King Solomon? Not only are these worthwhile stories to tell, they are also told in a readily accessible manner where anyone without knowledge of the Qur’an can easily enjoy them. At this time when the Middle East is extremely politically active and people’s knowledge of the Islamic faith is so limited, Habibi provides a distinctly needed take on the Qur’anic stories for an audience who’s missing out.

Interestingly enough, by choosing the format of a comic, Thompson is already going against a belief of the Islamic faith that he even recognizing in book’s dialogue…

Based on the number of faces drawn in Habibi, Thompson is going to be chastised by quite the crowd. Thompson even expresses this very notion within one of the most interesting format choices in the book – to cut out the images from a 9-panel grid and leave only the text for us to enjoy. More importantly, Thompson saves this technique for scene where Zam debates with himself on whether to commit suicide or not, one of the highest points of tension in the entire book! By saving the technique and only using it for this scene, the text becomes an extraordinary powerful device to show us the potency of Zam’s decision.

Moreover, this technique clues the western reader in on the potency of words through the viewpoint of a Muslim. Since the Islamic faith forbids the creation of images, one of the highest forms of art to the Muslim is calligraphy. Thompson nods this notion behind Islamic art by literally conforming images into the positions of words. Dodola and a blanket form the “Haa” character which never connects to the “Waaw” character, symbolizing how Dodola is failing to connect with Zam (physically and emotionally since Zam is literally a eunuch). Zam follows a snake that takes the form of certain letters of the “Buduh,” a sacred series of letters, until he miraculously finds a great collection of water in the desert.

And finally, I think it also serves to mention that Habibi is effectively a dramatic romance story which is so rarely seen today. Where we once had classic romances like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind, we are now left with mostly shallow romantic comedies you’ll find in your average Archie comic book or extraordinarily female-oriented romances like The Notebook.  Where have all the dramatic romances gone?

Although Habibi certainly keeps with the times through themes such as sexual identity and female oppression, it is still a dramatic romance at heart where both protagonists are involved in fair degree of action and adventure. We see stories of this genre so rarely these days that is certainly makes for a very refreshing tale.

What Didn’t Work

For all the compliments I have given, there are certainly some issues with Habibi that prevent it from greatness. One of the main issues I’d like to discuss is flashbacks.

For a 672-page book, Habibi is actually paced fairly well and couldn’t certainly be enjoyed over a weekend. However, there are a few key spots that are rudely interrupted from while others are extended too long – making for an overall mediocre book in terms of pacing. The main reason this problem occurs is because of the choice to tell a majority of the story through time skips and flashbacks. While this is interesting at times when events correlate with one another, such as Dodola’s pregnancy period coinciding with Zam growing up from a baby to a child, it is not used appropriately when scenes cut out at the highest moment of tension.

When Dodola must turn a clay jug into gold in order to earn her freedom, the story cuts back to Zam’s struggles right after we see her switch the jugs. Although this makes for an excellent cliff hanger, it would pay for the reaction of the sultan to be show promptly after in the following chapter. To be fair, most of the transitions in the book work fairly well and are not as jarring. However, the decision to switch between scenes, and also include Biblical and Qur’anic stories in the mix, leads to some scenes being dragged on a bit more than they needed to and other cut off to soon.

Another large problem with Habibi is its lack of an interesting force of antagonism. Through a majority of the book, the main force of antagonism against the two protagonists is the society of a whole that they live in. Having a society as a force of antagonism is not an inherently bad choice. However, the society the writer chooses must not be wholly bad or good. Just as a protagonist must be multi-dimensional, so must the antagonist. Within Habibi, the antagonists are all unfortunately shallow and one-dimensional, making for a much less interesting story than it could have been.

The sultan who uses a harem, the one Dodola is enslaved to, is shown to be utterly despicable and disgusting in every way. Not only is he somewhat stupid and completely sex crazed and over indulged, he treats his servants and citizens with complete disrespect, showing absolutely no concern. Not only is this character completely evil, he is not believable! Yes this does give Dodola a good reason to be upset, but wouldn’t it be far more interesting to have her be upset with someone who may be overindulged but is possibly a good ruler as well?

Truly, the most interesting force of antagonism is the industrial city Dodola and Zam end up in, characterized in particular by a builder of the dam that brings the city electricity. The city uses up all the water of the local area, causing the people living there to survive on basically sewer water. Yet the city also provides work and opportunities for downtrodden individuals like Zam and Dodola. Yet for how well the works as a multi-dimensional antagonism, the city and the dam (which Zam and Dodola have contact with early on) are never fully mentioned until the last bit of the book!

Up until the end, the landscape we are confronted with alongside Zam and Dodola is almost completely one-dimensionally evil and cruel. Of course, this would make sense for two child slaves of this fantastic Middle East, but even the worst of situations have their moments of goodness. Thompson makes up for this greatly by incorporating throughout the book the positive memories of Zam and Dodola’s secluded home in the desert. Yet this does not make up for having overall weak forces of antagonism that are one-dimensional and ultimately rather fake.


Habibi is a worthwhile read that definitely deserves some further analysis and study. It is unique in its content and format, bringing about very interesting developments within the comics medium. The story itself is worth reading, especially in relation to the symbolic use Christian and Islamic stories. For all its flaws, it is a timely book with themes not often discussed and a genre that is not often seen anymore. Although I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, I would call Habibi a turn into an interesting, new direction both for comics and stories in general.

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  1. Although I agree that pacing and some flashbacks are a problem in Habibi, I really like the cut after Dodola turns the water into gold. I don’t even see it as a cliffhanger. It’s a moment of triumph. She had been given an impossible task, and pulled it off in a satisfactory way. And then Thompson gives us Zam’s tragedies. That’s good balance. She owes the palace, he’s on the streets; she uses her sexuality, he denies his. The problem is that Thompson takes over 100 pages to give us the conclusion of Dodola’s moment, falling quickly from triumph to another tragedy. That’s too much. Because, for over 100 pages, it wasn’t her story anymore.

    I also disagree that the antagonists must be multi-dimensional. Sometimes, yes, it works beautifully. Alan Moore certainly can do it. But not every writer can, and not every story needs it. I’m particularly tired of artificial dimensions that only add more length to a story. There’s a need of focus: what story are you telling? Do you really need to develop everybody? In Habibi, the story is Dodola and Zam. I don’t even think that society is the antagonist here. There is no real antagonist! The tragedies they face come from an old tradition of religion and literature. They face tragedies because that’s what characters do before the happy ending. The mind behind those tragedies is Thompson’s, playing god, which also relates to story.

    Yes, maybe Habibi could be richer with interesting antagonists. It could present a better-developed, more interesting world. And “world” is the key here, because there’s no need for anything else to be done with these two characters. The problem is that the book would also be longer, and probably bloated. And different.

    • David Balan says:

      “There’s a need of focus: what story are you telling? Do you really need to develop everybody? In Habibi, the story is Dodola and Zam. I don’t even think that society is the antagonist here. There is no real antagonist! The tragedies they face come from an old tradition of religion and literature. They face tragedies because that’s what characters do before the happy ending. The mind behind those tragedies is Thompson’s, playing god, which also relates to story.”

      Tragedies don’t just happen. Tragedies have a cause – and the cause of the negative aspects of the story must intrinsically be powerful. This is because human beings always give only the necessary effort that any situation demands.

      We are hardwired to not over-exert ourselves or expend energy that we do not need to solve any given problem. Therefore, any negative problem that besets us must be extremely powerful indeed to cause the kind of life-changing choices that all great stories revolve around.

      But that’s pretty well done in Habibi. What isn’t is actually just what you said – focus. Every story must have a primary force of antagonism, whether human or not. The most effective antagonist in Habibi was the industrial environment, and yet it was flatly presented in the back end of the book. What story are we telling? Who is the antagonist?

      A simple “woe is me” jumping from random tragedy to random tragedy is both boring, and not how life works.

      If Habibi had multi-dimensional forces of antagonism that were consistent (that doesn’t mean there has to only be one – just one ultimate theme) it wouldn’t present a richer world but a richer story, and with that kind of focus, probably a shorter one.

      • “Tragedies don’t just happen. Tragedies have a cause – and the cause of the negative aspects of the story must intrinsically be powerful. This is because human beings always give only the necessary effort that any situation demands.”

        Yes, tragedies have a cause. Always. I agree. However, I disagree with the idea that this cause must always be developed, explained or even presented. It depends on the story you’re telling.

        About humans only using the necessary effort… Well, some people spend a lot of time worrying too much about things when there’s no real necessity, but okay. I’ll accept that.

        However, this only means that the problem should be big enough. You’re in a situation. Period. Is it really necessary, every time, to develop the cause?

        Parents who have children with special needs often spend the first months wondering why it happened to them. And, at least the best of them, eventually realize that it doesn’t matter! You gotta deal with it. The child is already there, how are you going to raise it?

        In North by Northwest, Cary Grant gets into lots of trouble just because he resembles a spy who doesn’t even exist. What could be more arbitrary than that? It’s a very silly reason, but James Mason wants to kill him and he has to stay alive. The problem is big enough. The cause is completely absurd.

        But again, we agree, in Habibi that’s pretty well done. The problems are big enough.

        What I don’t understand is the need for a strong antagonist. Not always, not if the situation is strong enough. Not here.

        Habibi is part of a huge tradition of social stories in which you present a world, you present a character that suffers a lot, and if the audience is willing to accept the character as a victim, great. The audience is supposed to feel pity. Now, before you roll your eyes and say: “but this is crappy melodrama”, let me remind you that some of the finest films ever made are exactly like that: Umberto D, Bicycle Thieves, Nights of Cabiria, Pixote… If memory serves, they all have developed protagonists, big problems and one-note antagonists. And yet, they all work.

        For me, the biggest problem with Habibi is that, although it has two great characters, I don’t think the relationship grows naturally. It’s a very tricky situation, they’re mother and son, sister and brother, wife and husband all rolled into one. That’s something that I don’t think Thompson resolves as well as I would like him to. It bothers me a little the idea that the castration is only there because the author didn’t want them to have sex. It upsets me that when they become “adults” they suddenly look the same age. She immediately sees him as an adult!

      • David Balan says:

        I haven’t seen any of the other films you mentioned, but I have seen North by Northwest, and what you mentioned is actually, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental problems of the movie. The entire thing is based on arbitrary happenstance – and that’s always a poor way to develop a story.

        Yes, people will spend a lot of energy worrying over pointless things (I do it alot!) but their actions will almost always show the course of action that causes them to expend the least amount of energy outwardly.

        I didn’t say you need a strong antagonist, however. Some stories function without a single person opposing the protagonist, but every truly sublime story has well developed forces of antagonism – the environment someone is in can be the force of antagonism.

        And that is the case in Habibi. But take the forces of antagonism here – we have the unfair world of this fantastic landscape, with industry, slave trade, decadent sultans, and a huge water dam that runs the whole thing. These may all exist in a real place, but in the book they are poorly tied together, and the information given about the penultimate cause (the dam, and how these people are really doing this to themselves) is relayed to the reader through flat exposition from a flat supervisor character who has no real reason beyond convenience to tell Zam this.

        This makes the different forces of antagonism seem disconnected and disjointed, as they are all presented in a very one-dimensional, non-real way. (The review about already talked about how unbelievable the character of the Sultan is.) This hurts the credibility of the situation, because it feels not like a real situation, but a constructed one that just happens to come along at the right time to serve the author’s needs – that doesn’t happen in real life.

        All the building blocks of great forces of antagonism are there in Habibi, they’re just not quite put together right.

        Your mention about their relationship is another concern – but I think it would actually be resolved by integrating that plotline more thoroughly into the world around them, by making that world around them make more ultimate sense.

        We realize, of course, by the end, that the dam is the reason for all their troubles, but how so? The effects of such a thing aren’t really tied in well with the rest of the story – the setup of that idea isn’t layered into the previous tellings.

        Hm, I’m beginning to agree with Forrest. He did try to do too many things. Good read nonetheless!

      • Oh, everybody should watch Umberto D. Unless you really hate dogs, in this case try Germany, Year Zero, which even has a villain. Wonderful movies.

        About Habibi, I guess we all liked it, but none of us was completely satisfied with it. No one here seems totally convinced, or moved, by it.

      • I agree. Umberto D is a classic. Neorealismo is one of the great schools of cinema. (The Partisan!) The one everyone knows is The Bicycle Thief (a great film too), but Umberto D is probably #2.

        Mario, thanks for mentioning Germany Year Zero. Great film.

  2. I personally loved “Habibi”. Very insightful article however, I really liked it.

  3. I’m working on a review of this book myself, so I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who read this book. Thompson’s latest offering certainly is a VERY worthwhile novel if anyone out there hasn’t read it; however, it certainly has its fair share of problems too some of which were touched upon here. I think part of the problems readers have had with the focus (or lack thereof) in Habibi is due in large part to Thompson being a bit over-ambitious in trying to accomplish too much.

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