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.
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.