The fuzzy gray border between language and image is no more apparent than in comics. From sound effect to the logotecture of Will Eisner's splash pages for The Spirit, words and pictures stand in for each other creating a language unique to the form. But the idea of language as art is not limited to just the funny pages, and in fact all written language originates from a pictorial form. In Habibi the new full-length graphic novel from Craig Thompson, story, language, and image come together in an exaltation of both the comic medium and the Arabic script.
The story opens with the sale of Dodola as a bride to a scribe. She's only a child. Though not explicitly depicted, her "wedding night" is far from a comfortable happening. But her husband gives her the gift of language, teaching her the Arabic calligraphy which becomes such a relevant motif and theme throughout the book. Her husband is killed pages later by bandits, and she's abducted into slavery, but before we are taken to that time in her life (and in Habibi there are many such flash, the story skips ahead to her life on a boat in a sea of sand, caring for Zam, an orphaned slave she has rescued.
So then is the tone of the book set, or rather, its variances. Habibi is a work of beauty and ugliness. There are acts of kindness and redemption packed in shoulder to shoulder with instances of abject cruelty and selfishness. These are real people living on the page in ink, and Thompson has sculpted characters that are perfectly imperfect.
It's these weakness and strengths, working hand in hand, that drive the story. Dodola and Zam's lives, played out in the fictional arabesque (and Arab-esque) nation of Wanatolia, a land that drifts amorphously between the problems and progress of the modern Islamic world and the jasmine-scented lamp lights of a Scheherazadian eve. Their lives separate and reweave throughout their lives, crossing all echelons of society, from the garbage strewn gutters of the poorest neighborhoods to the most lavish palaces imaginable.
"When I finished Blankets, I was so sick of drawing myself and midwestern snow blankets. I wanted to do either something fantastic, which comics are well suited for, or something journalistic like Joe Sacco's stuff. Habibi sort of did both."
The book itself is physically gorgeous, with an attention to design usually reserved for holy texts. Open the cover and you find yourself looking at a beautiful rendition of a scene of disgust: waves of garbage-strewn ocean. It is not a pleasant sight, but it is rendered with such detail and attention that one cannot miss the hidden message between this and the cover: sacred or profane, everything in this story has the fullest of it's teller's skill poured into it. "I don't read or write Arabic," said Thompson, "I had a friend who could translate English into Arabic, then I'd use a computer to arrange the layouts of the text, and then hand drew it into the book." In some instances, Thompson used classical examples of Arabic calligraphy in the book, and over the years of work put into the project has learned… a little. "I know the 28 letters, and can recognize words if I know the spelling."
With Habibi, Craig Thompson has cemented himself as a certified graphic novelist with a body of work easily comparable in scope and depth to that of any writer of contemporary literary fiction. In a little over a decade he's produced now four graphic novels including the coming of age fable Good Bye Chunky Rice, the multi-award wining autobiographic work Blankets, and the North-African/European travelogue sketchbook Carnet de Voyage. (The latter, published by Top Shelf, is of particular interest to those readers of Habibi who are taken with and crave more of his absolutely gorgeous inkwork depictions of Arabic architecture and design.) Habibi stands as a new masterwork in American comics, and a graphic novel seriously worthy of sharing shelf space with Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco.
"I like creating a book you can get lost in."
Habibi is an ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS $35 hardcover, 672 pages, available from Pantheon Books.
Greg Baldino is a Chicago-based writer and impresario, promoting arts and culture on several fronts. He writes regularly for Rain Taxi Magazine, and the American Library Association.