By Craig Thompson
Pantheon, $35, 672 pages
Craig Thompson’s “Habibi” was one of two major graphic novel releases this fall inspired by the West’s recent, disastrous interactions with the Islamic world. The other was “Holy Terror” by Frank Miller, a thinly veiled Batman story that pitted the caped crusader against al Qaeda.
Both projects are intensely personal efforts that took years for the creators to knock into shape, and there the similarities very much depart. Mr. Miller hates and fears Islamoterrorism, and he roots that terrorism in the black heart of Muhammad. Mr. Thompson is much more concerned with the Western reaction to terrorism. In an interview, he told the A.V. Club arts review that the novel is “post-9/11 in a sense, because I was responding to this huge surge of Islamophobia in the United States.”
Based on their respective viewpoints, the early notices have been about what you’d expect. The A.V. Club reviewer called “Holy Terror” “simply a mean-spirited, boorish book” and warned that Mr. Miller’s “tongue isn’t in cheek, but rather hanging outside his mouth like a rabid dog.” “Habibi” has received better write-ups. The interviewer captured the spirit of those write-ups when he introduced it thus: “With ‘Habibi,’ Craig Thompson delivers another of the phone-book-sized narratives for which he’s justly celebrated.”
In one respect, that celebration is indeed just. Mr. Thompson is a superb artist. There are many examples one could cite. The best bet if you are browsing in a bookstore is to turn to Page 376. The only action on this page is almost microscopic. A camel little bigger than a speck marches through the desert along some sort of pipeline.
The camel’s cargo is vital to the story but for this one page, it hardly matters. Instead, you will notice the sand mounded up by the wind, forming stratalike patterns as it settles in the foreground and merging into hills and mountains in the background; and the clouds emerging from those mountains, reflecting the late afternoon sun as it prepares to set. You will see here exactly what Mr. Thompson the artist means to convey, that this is a barren place and a beautiful one.
Scarcity is the engine driving the plot of “Habibi” forward. The action is set in and around the fictional kingdom of Wanatolia and the time is hard to nail down. Parts of the setting are ancient. The sultans and slaves and palace intrigues could have stepped right out of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Yet there are aspects of modernity thrown in. The technology is contemporary and the shortage of water is more public-works-driven tragedy than classical drought.
Our heroine, Dodola, is a child bride who was sold/married to one of the few decent men in this story: a scribe. From him, Dodola learns how to read books, especially the Quran. These awaken in her a natural ability to tell tales. That is fortunate because before the first 25 pages have gone by, he is murdered and she is, more often than not, on the run. Dodola’s ability to spin tales helps her to survive and care for another young would-be slave, a boy she rechristens Zam.
Dodola’s storytelling allows her to keep her head attached and to make sense out of an often brutal and seemingly senseless life. It also contributes to Mr. Thompson’s catechetical mission by allowing him to present to a Western audience the Koranic/Islamic take on Biblical tales from Abraham to Solomon to Jesus.
As a story, “Habibi” is a success. One whole chapter, “Orphan’s Prayer,” is told with no pictures: simply panel after panel of words, as a by-now-beloved character contemplates ending it all. It’s an interesting trick that made this reviewer feel more and more nervous as I read on.
As an apology for the Islamic world, the book fails - badly. Islam seems more brutal than its competitors most of the time. The boorishness of the men was almost enough to turn me into a feminist, and the pictureless possible suicide chapter brought to mind an exchange with a American Muslim convert, pre-Sept. 11.
I met this convert at a college in Tacoma, Wash. He was enthusiastic and was in no easily observable way a bad guy. He got to telling me a bit about his newfound faith when something occurred to me. So I asked him, “How does Islam deal with sin?” “In Islam,” he told me, “we bear the weight of our own sin.” I met that statement with the only response that made sense to me, then or now. I shuddered.
Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books, is author of “William F. Buckley” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).