I was recently exploring Orbital Comics in Covent Garden for the first time, and I came accross a signed copy of Craig Thompson’s latest tome, Habibi. Because I thought the celebrated Blankets was overrated and his lesser-known Carnet de Voyage to be a bit boring, I had no plans to purchase it. But I decided to flip through it because, in addition to being signed, it had an original drawing in it. A couple glances at the elaborate artistic style Thompson developed for this book had me at the till, book in hand, in no time.
Throughout Habibi, Thompson manages to sustain an unvbelievable quality of detail and care to his art. The sheer quality of what he has created exculpates him from any accusations of exoticising the Islamic bent of the tale he has written. He generates inventive, gorgeous Arabesques, filling pages in the same frantic but mesmerizing horror vacui that became so distinctive during high periods of Islamic art in the near east.
The story Thompson tells – an epic tale of the relationship between two orphans living almost paradisically in the desert only to be torn apart by kidnapping, slavery, their own narratives, and their own sexual identities – stretches from origin myths to modern poetic romance to brutal sex to fart jokes. Thompson weaves themes throughout the narrative through the overlap of words, symbols, calligraphy, and meaning. As a graphic novel, it not only pairs words and images, but uses words as images and vice-versa. Sometimes it even feels like you’re getting free lessons in Arabic… you begin to recognize words and letters, and the significance they have been attributed within the graphic novel and Islam more generally.
And yet somehow, the whole thing manages to seem a bit empty, all in all, when divorced from its context within the art. This may be more of a compliment than a criticism. This story could not have been told if not in this medium, and Thompson has outdone himself to bring the story alive in this way. However, like with Blankets (or even Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, for that matter) I felt the story was more often propelled by sex than anything else. Sometimes you wonder if you keep reading because you want to finish the story, or because you just have that natural pull, and Thompson uses it well. One way or another, the massive tome is easily digested in a couple of hours, the images and text flow quickly… the only risk is getting stuck looking at one beautiful page for ages.
Habibi also helped me recognize further what I believe is unique to comics and what keeps me coming back to specific authors. There is a kind of alchemical power to the constant repetition of progressively complex symbolic systems. Comics, through the format itself, are able to do this in beautiful, manageable ways. With just the right balance of explanation and visual mystery, the medium – when placed in the hands of its most skilled creators – has the ability to construct massive symbolic systems that are unique to a particular narrative. David B.’s fantastic memoir about his brother’s epilepsy, Epileptic, has a similarly haunting effect. Chris Ware does the same, in all his stuff. See samples of both their work below, in respective order. While hints of this can be seen in the images reproduced above, what I am describing becomes evident when you read the book in it’s entirety.