on 15 October 2011
Set in a fictional country in what seems to be the Middle East, a 6 year old girl called Dodola is sold by her poverty-stricken parents to a calligrapher to be his wife. The man is brutally murdered and the girl is stolen and sold into slavery. She saves an infant boy from certain death by claiming him as her own and then later escaping with him to live on an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert. She names him Habibi. The two of them manage to survive for a few years by Dodola prostituting herself to merchants travelling across the desert in exchange for food. Then one day she is stolen once again and taken to join the harem of the Sultan. Habibi does his best to survive but must take himself to the city in order to survive and from there the story begins, the two of them striving to meet one another again.
To say that the book is beautiful is an understatement and an insult to Craig Thompson; the book is sublime. Clearly an enormous amount of research has gone into the book and every page contains stunning details whether it's the designs of the rugs to the elaborate jewellery of the Sultan or the clothing of the guards to the swooping flights of mythology from Islam and Christianity. There's a two page splash drawing of a giant heap of garbage and it stops you in your tracks, it's so detailed. Thompson dives into the story never shying away from the hardship of drawing a crowd scene (and there are several scenes set in marketplaces) or drawing rivers of discarded human waste as well as bringing to life the wonderful characters of Dodola and Habibi.
There is a lot more to the book than I've let on in the brief summary at the top, after all it is a nearly 700 page book, but the epic scope of this love story is utterly compelling and the way Thompson weaves in aspects of religion and mythology into the contemporary story is flawless. He goes into etymology with the detail of a scholar and then he's talking about how the designs of clothing are influenced by old stories. He effortlessly describes an alien society (from the perspective of the West that is) with the confidence of a sociologist and not once does it seem inscrutable.
Having read his previous books, and if you haven't I highly recommend them, I can see aspects of "Good-bye, Chunky Rice" in the book in the way that Dodola and Habibi are separated, pine for each other, and strive to one day meet again. I see the way that the simple, innocent love between a man and a woman depicted in "Blankets" is transported to this book but elaborated upon and explored further. And even in his "Carnet de Voyage" which was essentially a sketch book of Thompson's travels in the Middle East, a lot of those designs and ideas are incorporated into this book, and this was nearly 8 years ago! In short, "Habibi" is the culmination of Thompson's career as a writer/artist thus far and as close to a masterpiece as can be in comics.
I utterly fell in love with this book. The love of storytelling and words that Thompson infuses into Dodola is infectious and if there were moments I felt that the book could have been edited into a shorter story, I would say that the pure joy found in the expression of art and literature triumphed over any such cynical thoughts. This is a book that transcends the comics genre and becomes a work of literature to be enjoyed by anyone who loves books. This is not just one of the best comic books to come out this year but one of the best books, full stop, and shows that Craig Thompson has not just reached the same level as other masters of the genre like Will Eisner or Bryan Talbot, but has the potential to surpass them.
I highly recommend "Habibi" because as much as I've talked about the book, I haven't even begun to describe a tenth of what it contains - the wonder of which awaits the reader to discover themselves. Go and discover it.
on 15 October 2012
Habibi is a beautiful, beautiful work of art. It is absolutely stunning. But it is also disconcerting.
Set in a fictitious Arab sultanate, this is the story of a young girl/woman and the toddler/boy/teenager/man she adopts. Our heroine is sold into marriage, then abducted by slavers, put in a slave market, where she adopts a black toddler. She escapes with the child, and forms a small family unit in the desert, never quite sure whether she acts as a mother or a sister to the growing boy. She tells the growing boy stories from the Qu'ran and other myths / fairy tales. But their life in the desert is not meant to last forever...
The graphic novel is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated thing I've ever read / beheld. It is clearly deeply in love with its aesthetic, and its aesthetic is mesmerisingly beautiful. In terms of the story, I was never bored reading this book.
But there are some things that are troubling. This book shows the Middle East through a Western prism. We get Middle Eastern aesthetic, beautiful Arabic script, myths from Arabian Nights and the Qu'ran, but we also get sultans, harems, slavery, eunuchs, beheadings, intermixed with mobile phones, dams, electricity and the modern world. The first two thirds of the book could be set in the 1800s and could have been written by a Victorian pornographer. The last third, with its hints of Dubai about it, feels like a somewhat uncomfortable add-on.
As I just mentioned the word "pornographer", it's perhaps worth talking about that, too. Our heroine spends an awful lot of time being naked, and there is a lot of sex in this book (indeed, sexuality is one of the major themes). The book is in love with the sensual aesthetic of harems and silken veils, but not really the modern focus on modesty that Islam tries to stand for. This Middle East is not the Middle East of our 2012; it is the Middle East that James Bond or Lara Croft or Indiana Jones might travel through: an aesthetic, a sensual oasis of lust. It is a comic book, pulp fiction Middle East.
So perhaps it is forgiveable that almost all characters are disgusting scoundrels (if male), or envious and bitchy (if female) or both (if eunuchs). Perhaps it is forgiveable that our heroine oozes sex appeal in every single picture, even the ones where she is a child (with a woman's curves, a woman's legs, and full lips and hair) or about to be raped. Except, the subtext of the book seems quite judgemental: all (Arab) men are potential rapists, all the oppressed are collaborators with their own oppression, there is no kindness without a demand for something in return. Perhaps I should some it up like this: rape is not an erotic act. Drawing rape so it looks sexy is, in my opinion, wrong.
This is a story about abuse, but by choosing to draw all the abuse in the sexiest possible way, it puts the reader in the abuser's shoes, which is uncomfortable. It's a bit as if someone had taken a Todd Solondz movie script, added lots of Neil Gaiman-esque love of mythology, hired Oscar-winning arts directors to create the aesthetic, but given the result to Michael Bay to direct and cast. It's art, it's entertainment, it's rich, it's beautiful, and it's also crass, oversexed, perhaps even misogynistic.
on 13 October 2011
Where do I start when reviewing this work? Firstly I should state that I havent read Craig Thompsons' highly praised graphic novel Blankets. Although I have looked at it many times and seriously considered buying it, there have always been other options at the time. So this is my first, proper, introduction to Thompson.
What an introduction this is! Habibi tells the story of two child slaves Dodola and Zam brought together by fate who take us through some of lifes most important lessons as we read their continuing stories in a fictitious Arabian landscape.
This book must have been painstakingly researched by the author as its scope and breadth of storytelling is just breathtaking. It was almost too much for me, and I read lots of comics and graphic novels. Encompassing quotes from the Koran and the Bible we see the similarities of the faiths, beautiful drawings of Arabic calligraphy, chemistry, biology, philosophy and all encompassing unconditional love. Indeed it is this which keeps you coming back for more as at its core this is surely a story of love between two people(s)
A beautiful 670 page hardback book it is stunningly designed and drawn from front cover to back cover. It reminds me somewhat of the manga Buddha by Osamu Tezuka which is also a work of incredible scope.
Beware though, the book does not shy away from adult themes and therefore is probably not for everyone.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
on 3 April 2014
Whatever else I say below please do note that I enjoyed the book. It's absolutely beautiful with passages that will take your breath.
It's also a book in which there's a truck load of orientalism by a white American.
It attempts to take on Arabic calligraphy, Islam and environmental issues, but at times seems as deeply embedded in those topics as Disney's Aladdin take on Arabic culture and history. I loved Aladdin because it was a bright and colourful romp, a stylised comedic adventure and not much more. Habibi portends to be much more serious but fails. This is particularly visible in the fictional country wherein historic and a contemporary settings are conflated, the effect being to suggest that Thompson couldn't be bothered doing serious and concerted research, instead mashing together tropes of Arabic culture, Islam and contemporary slums.
Again, I enjoyed the book and it is beautiful, but also ultimately its a bit thin, with problematic shades of colonialism and orientalism.
on 25 October 2011
I bought this book for my son who is an artist and graphic designer. The quality of the art is absolutely superb, incredibly precise and very very cleverly integrated into the text giving alternative meaning to different scrips. If you want a book to treasure and pass on to your discerning children and grandchildren...buy it.
on 4 January 2012
I love it when a publisher says 'Do you know what, this book is beautiful, we should make sure it looks really beautiful.' The pleasure from Craig Thompson's latest graphic novel comes as soon as you pick it up. In fact it comes even before you do that. A soon as you see its beautifully designed cover the old pleasure receptors start firing and once it's in your hand then you can add a sense of import to the pleasure. It's fitting that this book, which I was aware drew on stories from both the Qur'an and Bible, has a biblical heft to it. Over 650 pages are contained within the intricately detailed, embossed and foiled cover and holding a book of that size feels very significant. A quick glance at the pages within and you can see you're in for a treat. This is a big, bold and ambitious book about love, religion, storytelling and mythology and it contains the very best and the very worst of human behaviour. Arabic calligraphy combines with religious symbols, spiritual visions with nightmares, opulent harems with pollution-choked slums. The novel manages to be ancient and modern at the same time so that the primacy of storytelling comes to the fore. We feel for most of the book as if we are reading an ancient story of slavery and redemption until the latter stages when the modern world intrudes making its themes suddenly very contemporary.
In a land choked by drought nine-year old Dodola is sold into marriage by her parents. Her husband is a scribe who teaches her to read and write and through his work she learns 'the Sacred Qur'an and the hadiths, One Thousand and One Nights, and the woks of the great poets.' Some amazingly detailed panels at the beginning with decorative frames are gorgeous but the idyll they describe and come from is rudely interrupted when her husband is murdered and she is abducted. About to be sold for the second time in her short life, this time into slavery, Dodola manages to escape with an apparently abandoned baby boy, Cham. The two of them make a home for themselves on an old boat 'afloat on an ocean of sand' in the desert and when Cham finds a small spring of water Dodola renames him Zam after the well of Zamzam found by Ishmael, son of Abraham. This change of name is symbolic for Cham, named after the third son of Noah who was born black and later cursed, and represents freedom as much as their escape into the desert. Dodola becomes mother, sister and teacher to him, passing on her own knowledge of writing and storytelling to her eager young pupil (whom she calls Habibi or beloved one). His discovery of a source of water is also as significant as that created by the kicking feet of young Ishmael. Water is incredibly important in this novel as a source of life, salvation and power.
The two of them manage a relatively safe and isolated existence in the desert, Zam protected from the knowledge that their supplies come from Dodola's visits to the travelling caravans and the exchange of her body for food. In fact it isn't the outside world that threatens to ruin their solace but the natural changes that come from within as they grow older and in particular as Zam nears adolescence. Having always been able to share both bed and bath, Zam's quite natural burgeoning desires threaten the safe roles they have been assigned. When he is 12 he becomes aware of what Dodola has been doing to keep the two of them fed all these years. His anger at the sexual violence of other men and his guilt about his own desires lead him to undertake the journey out of the desert to find supplies in her stead. When he returns, Dodola has been abducted once again and the two of them will remain apart for many more years.
Separated from one another each undergoes their own extraordinary and physically torturous journey. Dodola becomes part of a Sultan's harem, prized as the 'phantom courtesan of the desert', challenged to satisfy the famously fickle Sultan for 70 nights in a row to earn her freedom and, after she only just fails to do that, later to turn a jug of water into gold for the same prize. This latter challenge is a fabulous set-piece in which Dodola draws on her learning and ability to read at first and her cunning and guile when she is frustrated. Zam in the meantime is forced to leave the desert when starvation threatens his survival and falls in with a group of eunuchs in the city. It is amongst them that he is introduced to the idea that he might be able to purify himself of the thoughts that he sees as responsible for driving them apart.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the two of them will be reunited (the cover illustrations show them older together) but I won't specify exactly how or what happens then. What is important is that these two 'orphans' who looked after one another in a world of scarce resources find themselves just as much at the mercy of them when they emerge into the thoroughly modern looking environment of the novel's final third. Water, which has always been precious, is now bottled as a commodity, its discarded plastic containers contributing to the waste and pollution that chokes the natural waterways. In fact there is a huge environmental message underneath this tale and panels which echo those created by Nick Hayes for his book, The Rime Of The Modern Mariner, which carried a similar warning. Thompson shows throughout the novel how humans exert power over each other by controlling those resources and how men in particular can exert their power over women. What chance is there for the meek in a world like that? Zam and Dodola are allowed a measure salvation but only after having paid a huge price personally. The reader is left exhausted and exhilarated by such an arduous journey, a witness to all the suffering who cannot help but be uplifted by the glimmer of hope offered in the closing pages.
Many graphic novels feel like well-realised shorts. By being pictorial the number of pages shrinks in reading time so that even some of the better ones can still feel a little slight. Habibi is epic in every sense. A big book, yes, but also a grand one with ambition, range and detail to make it a satisfying read from cover to cover and a treasure trove to delve into afterwards. Some of the larger panels have enough detail to keep the eye happy for minutes at a time, the manner in which Thompson threads themes and combines stories is quite brilliant and the structure of the novel as a whole is immensely satisfying, eschewing a straightforward linear trajectory for one that moves backwards and forwards in history just as memory does. If Christmas hadn't already passed then I'd be recommending this as a brilliant gift. There's nothing to stop you getting it as a gift for yourself of course...
on 13 September 2014
Craig Thompson writes a good love story. Even to a jaded old curmudgeon like myself, both Blankets and Habibi spoke with an authentically tender and caring voice. Habibi is a joy to hold and to look at. Once you've read the story there are so many insanely detailed pages of Arabic lettering and Moorish decoration that one's eye can get lost in.
The story itself spans many years and is held together by the thread of the relationship between Zam and Dodola. The story has themes of progress, of pollution and the environment, of race, gender, and of sex, but primarily and supremely it is about the supremacy of love.
My only potentially negative comment is Thompson's portrayal of women. This for me is a little conflicted, in his story is a beautiful young woman who is exploited sexually but who turns that sexual exploitation to her advantage. I think Thompson walks a fine line between a joyful celebration of the female form and an uneasy obsession of the same type that fuels his leering male characters throughout the story. Thompson acknowledges this himself through the character Zam who struggles with his own male feelings towards Dodola, recognising in himself the same desire that was the cause of such pain for her. However, I like that this is held in tension in the story and causes the reader to come to his or her own conclusion. I would like to read a review by a woman though to see what she thought.
Overall I think this book deserves a place amongst the absolute classic graphic novels. Certainly the artwork and the thematic scope of the book is broad enough, and in my opinion I think Thompson pulls it off.
on 16 March 2012
Wow! This is what reading a book should be about - not just the letters and graphics that tell the story, but also the hardcover that enhances the experience. The cover alone makes you happy to hold and read the novel! It first caught my wife's attention in the book store so I bought it on a whim. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I too was amazed when the book was delivered. The story is truly gripping from the very beginning, although to be honest, I got quite bored near the end. Nonetheless, it's still worthy read. The blend of the Bible and Quran was interesting, and the detail of drawings was breath taking (even more so considering that the graphics are all black and white). The background patterns too were unbelievable (I think that graphics alone carried me through to the end when I felt that the story faded). If for nothing else, this novel should be purchased and read just for the experience.
on 29 December 2011
After much hinting I received this book as a present for Christmas. Both the artwork and storyline are beautiful throughout this book. Once I started reading I couldn't put it down and found myself reading into the early hours of the morning.
This is an incredible book. As soon as I had read the first page, I found it almost impossible to put down until I had reached the end. A beautiful, though often shocking and tragic, story which draws upon themes of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, environmentalism, earth, water, fire, air, mercury, sulphur, mathematics, numerology, geometry, patterns, calligraphy and, above all, love in all of its many forms. The gripping and never-predictable storyline is supported by fascinatingly detailed artwork and ever-varying page layouts, all packaged in a physically beautiful book. This is an artefact which I will treasure forever.