I received Craig Thompson‘s graphic novel Habibi as a Christmas gift this year. Ever since I read his Blankets I have been tracking him and so when Habibi was released I absolutely wanted to get it (so it was an awesome gift).
I essentially consumed the whole 600 plus pages in one day. Before I get into the review I should say a few things – I have read other reviews of the book already. Typically I do not do this but I wanted to get a sense or the reception of such an unusual creation.
Broadly speaking critics have widely praised the technical excellence of the art and drawing Thompson has achieved with Habibi. Critics are more divided however on the content in terms of story.
Habibi is a story filled with tragedy, allegory, metaphor, love and desire influenced heavily by the style and art of Arabic script. The story is also substantially influenced by the Quar’an and Islamic culture.
There is no sense of time in Habibi having a blend of past and present influences. The story is set in a fantasy version of our own world that serves to act as a satirical vehicle for commentary on themes of environmental stewardship, anti-consumerism, racism, misogyny, sexism, gender intolerance and a strong voice against a the current growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor and all the suffering that goes with that. Through it all Islam also serves as a representative of all three major middle eastern faiths being influenced by both Judaism and Christianity. Throughout the text Thompson keeps his critical voice free of hate and treats the subjust of religion and faith with deep respect in the form of his main characters Dodola and Zam.
Some reviewers have accused Thompson of cultural misappropriation and misrepresentation considering it inappropriate for him to offer up Islamic, Muslim and Arabic themes and settings as a white, mid-western American. While I understand those concerns I think they are not warranted given the respect with which Thompson treats the subject matter. It is somewhat patronizing for a member of another culture to state that one from the outside can offer no level of understanding or contribution; that one cannot learn. This perspective is divisive and is what has led to much of the cultural and religious conflict that exists today.
The characters of Dodola and Zam somehow manage to encompass virtually all the forms of oppression one can imagine in the world today and it is their relationship with one-another and their faith that somehow guides them along the way. It is difficult to tell which informs which as the threads of the story are so deftly intertwined that it seems that faith is informing life as life is informing faith.
One of the things I appreciate about Thompson is, while he seems to stand outside of belief and faith (at least based upon my reading of his previous work Blankets) he handles his subject matter with great respect and fearlessness. His fearlessness pushes him to go places others would not likely tread such as his treatment of sexuality.
His respect and fearlessness combine in his treatment of the Prophet Muhammad. As a visual medium Thompson runs the risk of breaking the Islamic prohibition against depicting the prophet yet he does depict the prophet – only he is always veiled so as to be visually neutralized – respectful and fearless in one.
I loved Habibi. I loved it from cover to cover, every word and image. It is brilliant and necessary and I believe is another work that sets Thompson apart from others in his genre. With Habibi Thompson has done what great artists always do – lifted his work above its genre into something universal and beautiful.