Minimalism is in, but beauty isn’t always simple. It can be as intricate as calligraphy or as complicated as love. Beauty can be slender, or it can be opulent, like 672-pages-enshrouded-in-an-ornate-hardcover-binding opulent. This is what Craig Thompson has proved in his long-anticipated graphic novel, Habibi. In this work, Thompson has created something truly spectacular by infusing more instead of less into every pen-stroke, metaphor, and plot twist.
Set in a timeless desert unfettered by any particular time period, Habibi tells the story of Dodola and Zam, two orphaned slave children who find love and security in each other. On the cusp of adulthood, they are torn apart, abused, and left to reckon with the traumas of adulthood on their own.
Nothing in Habibi’s sprawling landscape is simple, and Thompson is not one for reductionism. The extravagance of his layout and lavishness of his images wonderfully correspond to the excessiveness of the content.
At its center, Habibi is a love story, but the trope transcends sexual attraction. Sex—of which there is a great deal in the story—actually becomes the adversary, resulting in abuse, depression, mutilation, gender-confusion, and self-loathing. In the story’s grim world, sex is a currency at best and death at its worst. Thus, the real love at the center of Habibi is more sacred, less physical; more ultimate, less carnal.
Interwoven with the non-linear narrative of Dodola and Zam are the stories of Islam. “Storytelling is our salvation!” the book seems to roar as it narrates the origins of Arabic letters and mystical number games as well as the familiar but warbled stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Solomon, Abraham, and Job. Though obviously centered on the Qur’an, the Old Testament is very present and everyone within—or even outside of—the Abrahamic faiths is welcomed into the tale. Thompson’s rendering of religion is benevolent and exquisite, a paradigm of open-heartedness.
Thompson grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and his acclaimed 2003 autobiographical graphic novel Blankets tells not only the story of his first love but also his coming-to-terms with the Christian tradition of his family, culminating in a crisis of faith. “I still believe in God; the teachings of Jesus, even, but the rest of Christianity—its Bible, its churches, its dogma—only sets up boundaries between people and cultures. It denies the beauty of being human, and it ignores all these gaps that need to be filled in by the individual,” he ruminates near the end of Blankets. Habibi, and its interplay between the stories of both Islam and Christianity, seems to be an attempt to rethink those boundaries.
It might not seem so odd, then, to transition from Midwestern evangelicalism to Middle Eastern Islam. In Blankets, Thompson—with heartbreaking beauty—portrays Christianity as a cultural force that operated mainly as a confidence-zapping, guilt-inducing straight-jacket. (And given the nature of his church experiences, some Christians might find themselves sympathetic.) But in Habibi, Islam is the force within that saves and empowers even when the world outside is cruel and nonsensical. In both, religion is the subplot. In both, religion is treated with respect and emotion. In both, the stories of the Abrahamic faiths enlighten the narrative. In Blankets they provide the counterpoint; in Habibi the parallel.
Habibi is even more ambitious than Blankets, not only in the narrative’s dark intensity, or in the art—which is far more intricate—but also in Thompson’s relationship with religion. No longer is he a boy wrestling with the legalism that hampered his childhood, but an artist delving into a tradition wholly other than what he was brought up in. “I went from a little ‘emo boy’ to much more of an adult in a relationship over the course of working on Habibi,” he said in a recent interview. Whereas Blankets is a vulnerable coming-of-age and into-doubt story, Habibi—while still a bildungsroman—delves further into the muck of adulthood and back into religion, this time with less hesitation.
Habibi is not only a moving artistic experience—surging off the page and swirling around the reader’s head—but also a reminder of one key aspect of religion: relationships. And as the story rolls out with the richness of a red carpet, Thompson pushes narrow legalism aside to make way for something much more personal: God. The impact of this parting of expectations creates a space in which love, not just judgment, thrives. This love is both horizontal and vertical, as Thompson also ponders the relationship between God and his people.
Throughout Blankets, Thompson was taught to behave, because if he didn’t, he would go to Hell, and if he did, he could go to Heaven. The simplicity of his church’s legalism pushed him away. We aren’t told what Thompson believes now—and his art does not require us to place him in any doctrinal camp—but by the end of Habibi he seems to have least worked his way to a beautiful observation: “God’s followers worship not out of the hope for reward nor fear of punishment but out of love.” And he makes it clear that love is never simple.
Kristen Scharold is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.
Craig Thompson, Habibi
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