Habibi: Life, Love, and Calligraphy
Craig Thompson is a comics artist well known for his ability to tell stories with a sort of melancholy beauty. Characters in his stories more often than not come to misfortune, but it is clear that Thompson cares about his characters, and wants them to succeed. This makes the miseries and desperation that characters encounter easier to swallow, as it is clear the characters are not just pawns of an author who wishes to destroy them in order to create pathos.
The characters in "Habibi", Dodola and Zam, are perhaps the most desperate characters conceived by Thompson yet, and therefore their story is perhaps Thompson's most melancholy. Dodola was married while still a child to a scribe in order for her family to gain money. The scribe was a kind man who taught her to read and write (although the story makes it clear that he did consummate his marriage to a 9-year old), but was soon killed by bandits who sold Dodola into slavery. After saving a black slave baby from being killed for being worthless as a slave, Dodola escapes with him into the desert, naming him Zam and discovering a ship lodged in a sand dune where they can live. As the two grow up, Dodola tells stories to Zam of the Qu'ran and the Bible, while bartering her body with passing caravans for food. Zam, on the other hand, wanders the desert following a snake, until he discovers a source of pure water, which he sells to the residents of a small town nearby.
But the happy life they forged together couldn't last, and the two are separated, their lives undergoing many ups and downs as they long to be reunited. All throughout this tale Dodola reflects on the stories and calligraphy she learned as a child, seeing parallels in her own experiences.
This is a beautiful story, and Thompson (who has been working on it since 2004) clearly has invested a lot into it, not the least of which is the beautiful Arabic calligraphy that infuses the story with life. Dodola often comments on how what the words look like can mean just as much as what they say, and this helps make the story all the richer. Thompson includes notes in the back that explains and translates most of the calligraphy, which helps the reader get into the culture of the story.
Both Dodola and Zam are interesting characters, thrown together by a chance act of compassion by Dodola when they were children, which develops into an inseparable bond as they grow up together, although what shape that bond takes becomes an issue that troubles their relationship all throughout their lives. When the two are ripped apart it is painful, and the reader wants nothing but to see them together again. However, even when the two do meet up again later in the story, they are both so changed that it is an open question as to whether they are the same people as they were before. It is a beautiful but sad story all throughout, and it is wondrous.
The story deals with some rather heavy subjects, in particular racism, sexism, sexual violence, pollution and slavery. Most of these are handled subtly and well, as Thompson is a good enough storyteller so that he doesn't have to spell out his criticisms of society to make them abundantly clear. However, this also means that the story deals with sensitive issues in a rather off-putting way. An underage girl trading sexual favors for food, blatant racism against blacks by Arabs throughout the story, and slaves being treated as less than human all turn up and this may shock readers who aren't expecting it. There are definitely uncomfortable moments in this story,particularly the many scenes of sexual violence. In addition, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is set in a relatively modern, Arabic setting (although one with very little Western influence) , which makes the abhorrent things that occur seem even harsher.
Thompson has gotten criticism for that last point, as it makes it look like he thinks the modern-day Islamic world is a place of blatant cruelty, racism, and sexism. I don't think that is exactly Thompson's intention: I think he was intending to point out examples of racism, sexism, and the rest in the Qu'ran, the Bible, and classical Islamic society (which there was), as well as criticisms of modern-day pollution and the theft of natural resources, which don't fit together as well as he was imagining. It's better to think of the story taking place in a timeless realm, with the first three quarters depicting an un-romanticized classic Islamic world and the last quarter showing us a dystopian Arabian future.
All in all, however, the work is poetic, melancholy, and beautiful. I really loved seeing what Thompson has been working on for the past few years, and I found it to be a great work of fiction. Definitely check it out if you come across it.