Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a tough book to review, because on some levels it’s a remarkable achievement, while on others it’s an undiluted disaster. Thompson is a skilled storyteller and a terrific artist, and this volume, which clocks in at over 600 pages, is a massively ambitious undertaking.
In many ways it succeeds admirably, and it ought to be a landmark in the development of the graphic novel as a serious form that tackles heavyweight subjects, alongside Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Instead, it’s just another footnote in the long and dreary history of Western portrayals of the non-Western world.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The book is beautiful, from its faux-leather hard covers to its compellingly rendered black-and-white drawings. Thompson is one of those artists who can pretty much draw whatever he wants, and his subjects here—whether human forms, Arabic calligraphy or abstract geometric patterns—achieve a wonderful balance. To the extent that the book succeeds, it succeeds largely because of Thompson’s skills as a draftsman. He’s also mighty good at, and mighty fond of, drawing nubile naked young women, but we’ll get to that later.
The story, set in an imaginary Middle-East-cum-North-African sultanate called Wanatolia, incorporates a good deal of material concerning calligraphy, the Qur’an, and the different ways that the Bible and the Qur’an approach iconic stories such as that of Abraham and Isaac. This is all brilliantly done. Even readers who imagine themselves less than interested in such philosophical musings are apt to be touched by the power of these pages, as the illustrations perfectly convey the poetry that underlies them. A river of water becomes a river of ink, which then becomes a scribble on the page, which resolves into the flowing letters of an Arabic verse—one which refererences the Word of God. When Thompson deals with such weighty matters, he does so with a touch which is both light yet freighted with significance. Bravo.
Similarly, his skill is impressive both in representing Arabic writing—which he has said he does not understand—and Islamic design, an art tradition that incorporates geometric patterns as a way of suggesting the endlessness of an Allah who cannot be represented figuratively.
In interviews, Thompson has said that Habibi, which took him years to plan and complete, was in part a reaction against the anti-Islamic sentiment he felt in the US following the 9/11 attacks. Looking into the religion for himself, Thompson discovered not just a set of laws, but a cosmology, a history and an artistic sense that he felt was being denied its place amid the war-talk hysteria. In a sense, this is his attempt to put those elements back into the conversation.
What a shame, then, that his story reinforces the gamut of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes, many of which serve to salve the conscience of a pro-war West that justifies its murderous policies in the name of human rights and freedom. This might sound like a lot to lay at the feet of a comic book, but rest assured, there is nothing in this story’s narrative arc to challenge the most reactionary view of the Arab world, or the Muslim world, or even the entire non-Western world.
Modern-day slavers? Check. (Because, you know, there’s lots of that over there.) Wide-eyed, oppressed slave girls? Check. (Because, you know, that’s how women are treated over there.) Forced marriage? Childhood marriage? Check and check. (Because, you know, that’s how they do it over there.) Greasy, repulsive Arab men literally drooling as they rape their nubile victims? Check. (Because, you know, they’re so violent/repressed/sex-crazed over there.) Fat, slobby, all-powerful sultans? Check. (Because, you know, that’s how they run things over there.) Harems full of hot naked babes? Check. (Because you know they’ve got them over there—try not to be jealous.) Scary black guys? Check. (Because, you know, they are.)
Look, I know it’s a comic book, but the fact is, such a place as this doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did, which is an open question. The fact that Thompson felt the need to create some imaginary hellhole to showcase his defense of Islam is profoundly disturbing. Why, exactly, was it necessary to create a cartoon representation of everything bad that ever happened in one region of the world—and then set his story there in the present day?
Because make no mistake, this story is happening now, despite the Scheherezade trappings that crop up from time to time. There are motorbikes and factories, neon Pepsi signs and all the other detritus of modernity mixed in with the sultans and their harems and eunuchs. A muddled reader might get the distinct impression that, hey, this stuff still goes on today. A less muddled, more criticial reader might reasonably ask: why is the writer going to such lengths to create a nightmarish representation of a region which is so thoroughly out of touch with the modern-day reality of the place?
Such concerns undermine the legitimacy of the book. The story, which centers on a slave girl who rescues a younger slave boy, then runs away to a different kind of slavery before reuniting with her companion—who has himself been enslaved in the meantime—has its genuinely moving moments. The story is compellingly rendered visually as well, notwithstanding all those images of this incredibly hot, wide-eyed young woman having sex, consensual and otherwise, with numerous repulsive (and very stock) characters.
Ultimately, though, the fine artwork and compelling visual elements can’t outweigh the sheer volume of Orientalist nonsense on display here. Thompson has once more taken up the white man’s burden of civilizing the natives, in this case by giving voice to oppressed brown women who are, presumably, too dumb to speak for themselves. The impulse is no more convincing now than it was in 1899, when Kipling wrote his poem. Thompson may have been trying to shed light on Islamic art and culture with this book, but what he really ends up illuminating are his own debilitating prejudices.