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Habibi (Pantheon)

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The art is both the greatest glory and the biggest downfall of this years-in-the-making graphic novel from Craig Thompson (Blankets, Goodbye Chunky Rice).

 

672 pgs., B&W; $35.00
(W / A: Craig Thompson)
 
Craig Thompson has made his name in the comics world with autobiographical works, most notably Blankets (2003), which was based on his life growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family in Wisconsin. His latest work, Habibi, is something quite different—an intricately structured, beautifully drawn, and yet ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a fable set in an unspecified, apparently Middle-Eastern land, and at the same time to explore ideas about magic, storytelling, and the mystical powers of language.
 
The central story in Habibi ("my beloved" in Arabic) involves a child bride named Dodola and a Black slave child named Zam (the Habibi of the title) who Dodola raises as her own child. These two encounter enough misfortune for about 10 lifetimes (including deflowerment at age 9, slavery, prostitution, and sexual mutilation, as well more ordinary troubles such as orphanhood, widowhood, hunger, and homelessness) but they're not really characters in the naturalistic sense so much as players in a fable set in a country which is at once quite primitive (children are openly sold on the streets, caravans pass through the desert) and modern (oil pipelines cross the desert and the cities are full of automobiles and skyscrapers, including one which features in a segment which feels like a deliberate lift from Slumdog Millionaire). Religious, philosophical and mystical elements appear regularly in Habibi as well as footnote-like information (an explanation of magic squares, a catalogue of herbs) which is reminiscent of a 19th-century novel (remember the jam recipe in Anna Karenina?). Habibi feels 19th-century in another way as well—it has a huge cast of stereotypical characters worthy of a Dickens novel, many of whom appear in one episode, serving their purpose in the story of the two main characters, and then are gone forever.
 
The art of Habibi is both its greatest glory and its biggest downfall. Many of Thompson's pages are stunning in their intricacy, and I love the way he integrates Arabic motifs and Arabic lettering into his work. Unfortunately, his drawings of human characters are much less realistic, which I could accept as a stylistic choice were they not also frequently goofy and stereotypical in a way that can only be described as "Orientalist" in the bad sense of the term as used by Edward Said—as part of a Western tradition of diminishing and primitivizing non-White peoples in a manner which provided an excuse for European imperialism (as in "these backward, dark-skinned people need us superior White people to civilize them"). Habibi is filled with ugly, cruel, leering Arabs and Blacks, offset with some which are comical in an equally stereotypical manner, while the heroine (also presumably an Arab) is drawn according to Western standards of beauty. The ghost of Will Eisner seems to have informed much of the character art of Habibi, and it's not a good fit for the serious ambitions which Thompson sets out to fulfill.
 
Independent of my problems with the art, I don't feel that Thompson ever penetrated the soul of even his two central characters—instead they seem like the inventions of someone with good intentions but without a clue as to what it would be like to be a woman or a Black person, let alone two such people in a culture so different from his own. Even in a fable, we should be able to understand the motivations and feelings of the characters, and I never had that feeling with Habibi.
 
Although I don't think Habibi is ultimately successful, I still think it's worth your time—as a work of great ambition and something quite different from any other American graphic novel I can recall. You can see a preview here http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2997/habibi_craig_thompson_9_15_11/ and read interviews with Thompson here http://www.avclub.com/articles/craig-thompson,64496/ and here http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/11/a-conversation-about-habibis-orientalism-with-craig-thompson/. | Sarah Boslaugh
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