Habibi is the Craig Thompson’s long awaited follow-up to Blankets and Carnet de Voyage. In it, Thompson crafts the sprawling tale of a girl (Dodola) who is sold into sexual slavery at a young age. While she is still a child her father sells her (via a dowry) to a man who makes the young, seemingly prepubescent, girl his wife. This man is then killed and she is enslaved. After being branded, she escapes along with a young boy (Zam), who is also a slave. They move to the desert into an abandoned ship, where they live for years while she prostitutes her body in order provide for the both of them. As her reputation grows as an neo-mythical desert prostitute she is captured and enslaved as a part of a sultan’s harem where she quickly becomes his favorite, has a child, and falls into a deep depression. In the meantime the boy she escaped with has grown into a young man and seeks her, which leads him to tragedy in the city.
Thematically it is quite similar to Blankets in that there is unrequited love, religious imagery, sexual awakening, and guilt. However, it ventures into a darker place and grapples with many forms of sexual violence, including genital castration, prostitution, and sexual slavery. Thompson harnesses religious stories, parallels, and iconography to enhance the story and to try and emphasize a sacrificial theme. The problem is that it rarely does.
The duality and similarity of the Christian and Islamic religious mythos does little to clarify or add to the story as a whole. It feels tacked on. That’s not to say that it is completely wasted artistically. Some of the most impressively illustrated single pages in the text are ones that heavily reference this duality. Specifically the story of Isaac (Christianity) or Ishmael (Islam) and the Ram leads to a set piece with Abraham in the middle holding his two sons down to be sacrificed. It is artfully constructed, but seems rather purposeless and mostly wasted for the narrative.
Another narrative device that Thompson uses without a clear plan is to jump back and forth in time. This serves to unmoor the story and left me wishing he had kept it simple. It dives backwards, but not in a way that adds to the story. It does in a small way elucidate some small aspects of characters (some small players, some large), but it comes off as unnecessarily confusing the main narrative and not for a clear payoff.
All of the above is not to suggest that the book has no merit. In fact, the art is gorgeous. Thompson excels at incorporating religious mythology, the naked human form, and waves — both sand and water — into gorgeous and clear panels. He has given himself a lot to work with in this book.
I found myself marking multiple pages (before running out of paper from my bookmark) that I felt represented Thompson at his best. To reiterate, I ran out of paper because there are just so many superb examples. Another favorite panel is how he represents Dodola passing time while in an opium haze. It is simultaneous frightening and beautiful as she stares up eyes adrift as the moon travels a full month in a clouded smoke haze. It is without a doubt his strongest and most impressive work as a comics artist to date.
Habibi’s physical binding and cover are also worth mentioning. It is a sturdy book (survived with only a small tear a big fall in my car), and one of the most well bound comics that I’ve owned. Checking in at over 650 pages, this is no small feat. The book is also a delight to hold in your hands, the cover is smooth and the type is very pleasing to the eye. A treasure to look at.
by Craig Thompson