Sep 21, 2012

Review: Habibi

I recently read Craig Thompson's HABIBI, which came out last year. I'd been wanting to read it since it was announced, since I very much respect Craig Thompson's skills and because GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE is one of my favorite comics of all time and BLANKETS meant a lot to me at one point in my life, but I only got around to it recently.

It's close to impossible for me to talk about HABIBI without talking about those other two books, so here are my thoughts on them. (In short, I like CHUNKY RICE better.)

Set in a purely fictional hybrid landscape evoking both ancient and modern Middle Eastern environments, HABIBI, derived from the Arabic word for "love," is the story of a girl named Dodola and a boy named Zam, who both fell into slavery at a young age and managed to escape. Using her body and her knowledge of men, Dodola is able to provide for her and Zam. They are eventually separated when she's taken back into slavery and he's left to fend for himself, until, of course, because this is a story, fate brings them back together. The book has a strong focus on sexual roles as well as gender roles, involves eunuchs and courtesans, and gradually shifts Dodola and Zam's relationship from somewhat-maternal to sexual (albeit one-sided) to romantic.

There's a lot to take in here. On a purely technical level, I wouldn't hesitate to call it the best thing Thompson has ever done. His art is better than it's ever been, which is saying a lot considering how good he was to begin with. HABIBI had been in the works for years, and it shows. It's full of intricate patterns, and takes great pains to make sure that Dodola, Zam, and their supporting cast are portrayed to evoke their proper ethnicities — something that a lot of artists, mainstream or indie both, tend to have trouble with (a lot of artists tend to either draw the same type of face and rely on colorists to make sure the proper race is conveyed, while a lot fall back on caricatures).

The art also feeds into the writing more than your usual comic book, because there are certain parts where the origins and strokes of Arabic words are explained to the reader. Arabic has a more pictorial quality to it than English, so the synergy between the drawings and the words really makes the book work, especially since one of the book's themes is storytelling and the power of stories. So on a purely technical level, HABIBI is a masterpiece, and if you're not convinced, here's a page.

On the other side of the equation though, it feels almost too ambitious on that artistic level, as if Thompson said after BLANKETS, "Well, I did a book about myself, so let's see how I can do with protagonists who are the exact opposite of me in every way possible." As a result, despite the many taboo and unconventional sexual scenes in the book, it still doesn't feel as intrusive as BLANKETS did, and whether or not that's good bad is your call. (I know I'm of the minority opinion in finding BLANKETS a bit too personal and intrusive.) And that's also why, despite the extensive research (detailed in the back of the book), it doesn't feel as true or as genuine as either BLANKETS or GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE.

But it's not for lack of trying. In fact, it's the trying too hard that may have caused that.

I'm aware that this isn't the most helpful verdict when writing a review, but all I can really say is that this book is masterfully done, but it may not be for everyone. To me, something is missing, and that something may be just a little bit of heart, something extra to really drive the message of habibi home.

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