Later, when I had a chance to actually read the story, I realized the problem was not with Thompson's understanding, but the arena for discussion. Habibi is like a golden braided cord, woven through with layers both visual and metaphoric. In many ways it's a meditation on stories, presenting many other stories within the book, similar to Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights. Next to this complexity, Thompson's brief presentation is excused for being only superficial and vague.
Massive in size and content, the book presents a world that could be the the present or the near future. It focuses on two two orphans, Dodola and Zam, who escape slavery to grow up together on a boat in the desert. For a while their stranded boat is an oasis, until they become slaves of one kind or another once again.
As mentioned, the setting at first seems ancient, but things like motorcycles and plastic bottles, modern cities and water wars intrude. While Habibi also explores the stories of the Quran and the Bible, it focuses on the story of desert life, water lost and found.
Craig Thompson has had a quirky body of work. From his early cartoonish and poignant "Chunky Rice," to the breakout memoir "Blankets," to his sketchbook "Carnet de Voyage," all of them and none of them prepare you for "Habibi." The black and white art is stark, at time feeling like a linoleum or woodcut. Thompson often pauses in the story to present full page musings on Arabic history, or comparing the Muslim and Christian cultures. Later, he has a full section consisting of only words contained in otherwise blank frames.
Here are my notes from his appearance at Stumptown Comics Fest 2010:
As of 2010, Craig Thompson had been working on Habibi for the past six years. He said that "Blankets" took three and a half years, completing about two pages a day. A lot of the background patterns in Habibi were inspired by calligraphy and doing the patterns was a way for him to meditate on them.
Q: Why not do your work on a computer?
A: Many reasons. American guilt, craftsmanship, (he) wants to be egoless, humble. Drawing this way is taking the glamour out of the process. It's also a sort of a psychedelic experience, a Unity of experience like Sufi meditation. Influenced by Rumi and Hafiz (Persian poets). (He is) trying to achieve unity through drawing, which is sort of ironic because he's doing this alone.
At this point Thompson follows a tangent, talking about which artists he likes to draw with:
- His favorite drawing days are with Theo Ellsworth. He notices a difference between drawing with American vs European artists. The American school is very precise, controlled. The French disdain this: they scorn penciling, preferring to go direct to ink.
- He has traveled with Chris Ware and also with Seth.
- He mentions a French cartoonist Edmond Baudoin, whose work has not been translated into English.
- Q: How did your travel influence your work?
- A: The sketches from his sketchbook influenced Habibi. (He) had broken up with his girlfriend, so he was traveling alone. During a trip to Europe the publishers set up too many signings, stressed. So he took off to Morocco. Due to a deadline he had to do production work in the middle of the trip.
Q: Can you read Arabic?
A: He can read the alphabet and can sound out words, but can't translate.
Q: Where the character names in Habibi come from?
A: "Zam" comes from the sacred well of zamzam. Dodola is a Serbian rain goddess. There was a long research phase for Habibi.
Q: What's your process?
A: Did an initial sketchbook as stream of consciousness. Hated it. Then created a nonlinear structured and that punched it up. Took years before he realized the ending of story-- only last year (2009). Fall of 2006 is when he actually started drawing the book. The publisher did not ask for a lot of editing, but they mostly acted as a proofreader. Thompson spent six months revising the ending.
Q:Where did you get the inspiration for Habibi?
A: (The settings come) from actual architecture and photos, but it's always tweaked. In the mornings, he does sketches and writes ideas. Afternoons are for revision and finishing. Almost every day he wings it a bit.
Thompson's goal with Habibi was to humanize and compare Arabic society with Christian society. At the time in 2010 he said he had set a personal challenge: five books in five years.
"Habibi" won the 2012 Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist, and has been nominated for a 2014 Oregon Book Award Best Graphic Novel. Craig Thompson's website www.dootdootgarden.com.