I’m a bit angry. For months I have been reading a certain comics criticism website and seeing them rail against this book (albeit with a few defenders), for everything from its depiction of Muslim scripture to charges of sexism, racism, and essentially of being “too pretty” for its story. Well, fuck that. It is certainly not a happy journey – like all of Thompson’s other books – but Habibi is an accomplished and thoughtful piece of work. It angers me that a few years ago people were falling all over themselves to praise (rather, overpraise) Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis while Habibi gets a hard time.
Anyway. I’ve calmed enough to, I hope, objectively assess the book. The first thing that you notice is its sheer technical accomplishment, from the book’s design (also by the author) to its linework, impressively reproducing the patterns of Arabic imagery and calligraphy like a monk illustrating an illuminated manuscript. In this respect I am much reminded of the equally impressive adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by David Mazzuchelli; Thompson developed numerous ways to depict the word made flesh and back again as his heroine Dodola and her partner Zam grow up in a self-created world of stories.
Thompson is not as accomplished, I think, as the writer of the accompanying text. He is didactic and sometimes over-explanatory, and I do not care to speculate as to the reasons for it. But he is also genuine (or an extremely good actor). I was relieved to find that most of the self-doubt and worry about this book and himself that he expressed in his journal comic Carnet De Voyage is largely absent in Habibi.
I am starting to get a vibe from Thompson’s work, especially this and Blankets, which reminds me of the filmmaker PT Anderson, director of acclaimed films like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Anderson is a virtuoso with his camera and as an editor, but his scripts consist of him attempting to work out the same daddy issues again and again. Blankets and Habibi seem to me mirrored reflections of each other, examining child sexual abuse and the resultant low self-esteem, followed by aspiration to redemption and healing through scripture from the Christian and Muslim perspectives. It makes me wonder if Thompson will form a trilogy with a volume from the perspective of Judaism. Curiously, the section of the book that I found the most affecting was one that contains almost no brushwork, just a grid of panels that contain text as one of the characters considers an important decision.
After all of this ranting you might be expecting me to give Habibi an unqualified recommendation. I certainly want to. If you are a collector of beautifully drawn comics, you are in luck with any of Thompson’s work. If you want to learn about Islam and its sacred art and some comparison of its stories versus those of Christianity, again you are in luck. I just don’t feel as impressed with this book as I was with Blankets, because it feels like I have already read this story, albeit in a radically different “skin”. Of his four books, I have only kept one in my library: the travel diary Carnet de Voyage, because unlike the others, Thompson is sharing his own story without the veils in between, while still presenting beautiful artwork.
After battle, the prophet said, “we have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When asked, “what is the greater jihad?”, he replied: “It is the struggle against oneself.”