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With Habibi, Craig Thompson delivers another of the phone-book-sized narratives for which he’s justly celebrated. Stretching nearly 100 pages longer than his landmark previous book, 2003’s Blankets, the story takes Thompson away from autobiography and into a terrain of his own imagining, a hybrid of Middle Eastern fairy tales and industrial modernity. This world is inhabited by the escaped child slaves Dodola and Zam, who meet many obstacles in their attempts to forge new lives for themselves, but their journey is only part of Habibi’s sprawling canvas. Using a structure derived from Islamic magic squares, 3 x 3 grids that Thompson likens to “mystical sudoku,” the book expands along horizontal and vertical axes, incorporating close reading of Koranic and Biblical passages and an exploration of Arabic calligraphy. It’s a heady mix, dazzlingly ambitious and largely successful, and it again establishes Thompson as one of the most important comics artists working today.
The A.V. Club: What was the first element of Habibi that fell into place for you?
Craig Thompson: The characters, Dodola and Zam. They arrived fairly fully realized from the start, sort of like a little nugget from the subconscious. It feels like a little gift you’re given, and then the rest is hard work. But the first sketches of them in my notebooks are pretty much the same. All I knew about them was that they were child slaves. I didn’t know what world they inhabited, or what story shaped them, but there they were.
AVC: You knew that, and knew they were from that part of the world?
CT: Depending on “what that part of the world” means. No, I didn’t know where they were from, actually, even though those early sketches have both desert-scapes and also industrial clutter and factories. The earliest drafts of the book were far more fantastical. I was going to go more into the fantasy, and a lot of those fantasy elements fell away as I got deeper into the book and I got more interested in the religious elements.
AVC: The book is a substantial departure for you in term of setting and subject matter, and non-autobiography. Have you had characters come to you before in this way?
CT: Characters have definitely come to me before. Before Blankets, I worked in a more cartoony mode—you know, funny-animals mode. Good-bye, Chunky Rice is kind of emo animals, and predating Chunky Rice, it was more full-on funny animals. I think with Chunky Rice, it felt novel to me to give this emo twist on these funny animals. And with Blankets, I wanted to work with human characters and aim for a bit of realism. I think I got that out of my system with that book. Now it’s more challenging to work in fiction, but I’ve enjoyed it. I definitely want to do more and more fictional goodness, but I also want to explore true non-fiction in the comics medium, in more of an essay style, where the subject becomes the narrative, rather than a narrative.
AVC: When did the idea first surface? Was this after Blankets?
CT: Yeah, after Blankets. I know a lot of creators are conjuring ideas as they’re working on a project. I don’t think my brain works that way. It wasn’t until Blankets was out the door, even after the first tier of Blankets touring, that I was able to settle down enough to think about the next book. This would have been November 2003. But for me, I really think of October 2004 as the conception of Habibi, because I basically had a week or two on Habibi before it was disrupted by nine months of touring and health problems and business issues, and a little bit of Hollywood, to boot. It wasn’t until October 2004 that I grounded myself again. I moved back to Portland. I got a new home and a new studio. That’s when I started working on Habibi in earnest. October 2004 is my personal landmark for actually getting to work on Habibi.
AVC: There was a point where you were saying you were going to have some form of Habibi done by summer 2005, which didn’t quite turn out to be the case.
CT: That must have been what I was saying around November 2003, because the deadline I had in print was summer 2007. It was springtime 2005 that I signed a contract for the book, and at this point, nothing had really been written rather than an outline. Then I signed a contract with Pantheon, and I predicted I would be done with the book in summer 2007. Probably at some random point before, I was even more crazy, saying it would be done in 2005. 2007 was the one I agreed to, in print, with Pantheon. I liked the numerology in it: two and seven equals nine. But obviously, it extended another three years beyond that. It was September 2010, actually, that I finished the drawing of the book.
AVC: You’ve dealt with being raised as an evangelical Christian and moving away from that faith. It’s interesting that the Koran plays such an important role in this book, not just in the story, but also in terms of the actual structure of the Koran, the missing “Bismillah” and so forth. When did you start to develop that interest? Was it just as a result of the story?
CT: Yeah. Prior to Habibi, I hadn’t read the Koran. My earliest inspiration for the book was One Thousand And One Nights, but I recognized pretty early on that it was a work of Orientalism—not that I had a problem with that. But all the sensuality and adventure and violence and bawdiness and fart humor, I was curious if it was coming from [translator] Richard Burton rather than the original folktales. So that was around the time I started actually looking into Islam, Arabic calligraphy, and the Koran, even though I was still thinking of it as this fantastical, Arabian Nights landscape, just to flesh out my knowledge of that imaginary world. But then I got really inspired by those things, fueled by them. When you were mentioning it, though, I was thinking this personal relationship with a holy book might be unique to Christianity. It’s a bit presumptuous. In Judaism, there’s this magical, annual unrolling of the Torah. It’s drawn out, it’s ritualistic. Then in Islam, the Koran, you do have a sense of its sonic beauty and mystery when you listen to it at a mosque. But Christians have this strange DIY attitude toward reading a holy book. So I think I carried that sort of attitude to reading the Koran.
AVC: Early on in Habibi, you contrast the Biblical and Koranic versions of the story of Abraham and Isaac, or Ishmael, as it is in the Koran. Especially as a child, the Bible version is incredibly disturbing: Not only does Abraham agree to sacrifice his son to God, he tricks his son into it.
CT: It’s a horrible story. [Laughs.]
AVC: In the Koran, Ishmael agrees to be sacrificed, which is at least a little less horrible. I don’t know how many non-Muslims have actually read substantial parts of the Koran, let alone the whole thing.
CT: Oh, really? I think everyone should read it, not that I’ve read the whole thing. I have to acknowledge, too, that I’m reading a watered-down English translation of the Koran. But I really favored it for its poetry, even in that form. I think it’s far more poetic than the Bible is. At times [the Bible] is very poetic—certain books, like Ecclesiastes. But other times, it’s very clunky and laborious. The Koran is also more concise. I think it was written in a 23-year span, as opposed to the hundreds and hundreds of years it took the Bible to be compiled and disputed.
I think [the Koran] is a beautiful book, and it can expand your experience of some of the Biblical stories. I think it works really well in tandem, because you need some knowledge of those pre-existing stories to understand how the Koran sort of passes over them.
AVC: It’s amazing when you study the Bible, especially in a secular context, and realize for instance that there are two separate, contradictory accounts of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis; first the earth is created in seven days, then in one. It’s hard to know how Biblical literalists reconcile that one.
CT: I prefer Jewish discourse, where there’s a very active wrestling with the scriptures, a questioning. That’s far more interesting. It makes more sense to me. The way Jesus spoke to his disciples, he was always speaking in parables, not wanting to give them clear answers, getting kind of pissed-off at his disciples when they wanted a cut-and-dried lesson. I think it’s important, getting into the wrestling ring with the text.
AVC: You mentioned that in your initial drawings, there was sand, but also the industrial landscape. How did this mix-and-match setting come to you?
CT: I didn’t think of it as a mash-up of the old world and new world. I think I surprised even myself when it came to later chapters, where there’s a certain mundanity to the modern world. Initially, I was drawing what I wanted to draw. I was drawing fast and loose from a lot of different sources, drawing modern things if I wanted to, drawing fairy-tale dreamscapes if I wanted to. Later chapters in some ways deal with confronting the mundane, adult world. That’s where the landscape started looking even more modern and familiar.
AVC: Over the course of a 650-page narrative, you’d presumably have to establish a more solid concept of when the story is set, in a more ancient or a more modern context. How did you negotiate that mixture over the long haul?
CT: Good question. Definitely all the childhood sequences take place in a more fairy-tale world. All our childhood experiences tend to feel like this sort of mystical quality. I did want every chapter to be a completely different backdrop, to be its own self-contained graphic-novel nugget. So I wanted wildly changing backdrops. For the time apart for the two characters, I wanted to contrast the hellish slums with the idyllic palace. And when they were reunited is when I was ready to bring it into this modern world—I don’t know, just to capture in some ways adult relationships, where you have to worry about paying bills and whatnot.
AVC: There’s the idea that when you grow up, you have to enter the “real” world. Is that what you were going for?
CT: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. There are definitely three clear acts in the book, and maybe they can be compartmentalized like that. One is the fairy-tale past, one is in this very pronounced contrast between heaven and hell, and one is this more mundane… I keep saying mundane, but that’s not the word. Modern.
AVC: It seems like you keep trying to write shorter books and not managing to. How do you keep track of a graphic narrative this size? There aren’t really any models for you to draw from.
CT: Well, all the credit is due to the magic-square talisman, which is like a mystical sudoku. Sudoku is comics, in a way; it tells a mathematical narrative. This is an aside, but I also think of Arabic calligraphy as comics, because it’s this perfect fusion of picture and word. I tend to see comics in many forms. I relied wholly on the magic square as the skeleton to drape things on. The similarity with Blankets is that there’s nine chapters. There’s something magical with nine chapters, I think. With both books, having chapters really helps, as it helps in prose. It gives you these—they’re not necessarily bite-sized—but it gives you the right increment to work with and try to have it self-contained in its own right.
The magic squares also invited non-linear story structure, and gave me the almost contrived structure of each chapter being based on an Arabic letter, and exploring the themes of the letter. It’s almost like an episode of Sesame Street: “Our magic letter for the day is B!” I’d never started writing in that form before, and at times it was a little suffocating and contrived, because I had to cater to that letter. Other times, it gave me great freedom, because I had that sort of structure. I can’t think of a comic book or graphic novel that’s done it. People namedrop the book Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, a book that’s written in a non-linear fashion, where you can literally hopscotch around from chapter to chapter, and theoretically it’s supposed to work no matter in what order you read the chapters.
AVC: When you say a chapter is built around an Arabic letter, what does that mean?
CT: Initially, I don’t think I knew what that meant. Originally, I was reading about the secret science of numbers and letters that exists in the more mystical faiths—Abrahamic faiths, like Kabbalah. That’s where you’d think about it first, in Kabbalistic circles. But in all the Abrahamic faiths, there’s certainly a potency to numbers, and there’s a numeric value for letters in Arabic and Aramaic, and in Hebrew. And because geometric design had evolved so much further in the Islamic arts, there’s a lot of meaning and narrative attached to the geometric designs, and the numbers. So it’s all those things. Sometimes it was as simple as Sesame Street: “What’s a word that starts with this letter?” But to some degree, I was exploring the visual, pictographic elements of the letter, too, and how it could resemble a veil, or a trail, or a lonely and solitary figure.
AVC: Did you do all the Arabic lettering yourself?
CT: I did all the lettering, but it’s essentially glorified tracing, like Jason Lee’s character in Chasing Amy. I don’t read or write Arabic; I copy it. But it’s still my brushed line on the paper. Then again, I’m not using a nice, chiseled reed or something like a classic calligrapher’s tool. I’m using a sable brush and imitating.
AVC: Muslim culture isn’t something most Americans thought much about before September 2001. Now most Americans have ideas about Islam, but many of them are wrong. Did that play into your interest at all? Did your impressions, if you had any beforehand, change after you went into this research for this story?
CT: Certainly. The book is post-9/11 in a sense, because I was responding to this huge surge of Islamophobia in the United States. My response was to extend my social circle to include some Muslims, which it didn’t previously have. Very quickly, the more I talked with Muslim friends, the more similarities I saw, the more I identified with them in my Christian upbringing. It’s the same stories. All the Islamophobia in the States struck me more as self-loathing toward our own religious fundamentalism. Or, more subtle than that, a self-loathing toward oneself. You strike back at the part you recognize from yourself.
AVC: Can you expand on that?
CT: Well, again, Christianity and Islam, they have the same morals, same lifestyle, some of the same stories that shaped them. It’s like homophobia. The most homophobic types are the people that are lashing out at their own buried impulses. Islamophobia is coming from the same place. It’s more about self-recognition, seeing yourself in the other and hating them, because you haven’t come to terms with who you are. Most of my Muslim friends are politically liberal in a lot of senses. They are far more open-minded than the Christian circles I grew up in, which are, you know, actually scarier. That said, too, I still identify with the teachings of Jesus. I don’t think they resemble, or relate to modern-day Christianity. I don’t think they relate to imperialistic Christianity in any form, or even the Apostle Paul in his extending the ministry to the Gentiles. I don’t think Jesus probably would have supported a whole religion being brought up around him. I think you can still look to Jesus’ word for guidance in your life. It’s just not the guidance that it seems like most Christians are applying to their own lives. I’m probably getting off-topic here.
AVC: Like the illustrations, the language in Habibi is an interesting mix. You have some very ornate prose, but also people swearing in modern-day language, and even a point where someone uses the word “krawdaddin’.”
CT: Those are George W. references. Both “We’ll ferret this one out of its hole” and “She’s krawdaddin’,” they were both expressions that George W. used for Osama bin Laden. I thought it was pretty amazing that they had been used in presidential discourse. They’re definitely expressions that I understood right away, because I came from a rural background. They’re totally out of context, and for some people, that’s jarring. They’re out of context in this Arabian Nights world. I was always throwing in dashes of that sort of levity to brighten the darkness in the book. So, yep, George W. is responsible for “krawdaddin’.”
AVC: It’s definitely disruptive to have someone say “bullshit” in this fairy-tale world, but that seems very purposeful. It isn’t The Arabian Nights. You’re working deliberately against the seamless, self-contained fantasy that just sweeps people off into this magical place full of elaborate rugs and perfumed air.
CT: It seemed like a way to bring it back to comic-book level. Despite my pretensions for bringing some literary or fine-artsy-fartsy elements to the medium, I always want to pull it back to being a comic book. I guess it could be like a rock band. If they get too pretentious in their intentions, you’ve still got to bring it back to being this raw folk-art form that has its crass, pop-culturey elements.
AVC: There’s plenty of crudity in fairy tales. Even the Bible.
CT: Oh definitely. I just had a conversation with someone about the book of Ruth in the Bible being one of the classics of the romantic-comedy genre, which is true. There are some very gory books, like Judges, that seem to be written to be titillating, in an action-movie sort of way. All of those things are in the Bible, those humor things, slightly pornographic things.