Thursday, January 26, 2012


Craig Thompson's Habibi is an excellent example of why the name "comic books" is kind of useless as a descriptor.  There's pretty much no level on which the word "comic" applies here.  I suppose that's why we have the term graphic novel, though sometimes that seems inadequate, too.

This was one of those books that is hard to give stars to, or even to say whether I enjoyed it.  I can list off its qualities, though--the art is incredible, simple and expressive.  The long passages about Islamic numerology are beautifully rendered but somewhat confusing.  It shouldn't have surprised me that this was a fairly explicit sexual coming of age story (given that the author's previous book was Blankets), but the sexuality, the explicitness, and the complexity of some of the relationships was actually pretty shocking.

The time period and the historical context are a little confusing--the desert, sultan's palace, and city all feel like timeless places, so the occasional glimpse of a motorcycle or pickup truck are jarring.  It spans many years, too--Zam is three at the beginning of the story and about 19 at the end.  Dodola is a little girl when she's sold in marriage, and not yet a teenager when her husband is killed and she's sold into slavery.  She takes Zam under her wing and becomes his mother, his older sister, and his protector. 

They are each other's only family and whole world, and as they grown up in close quarters and all alone, sex takes on a strange aspect of their relationship.  So many harsh elements of sexuality are touched on here--rape, concubinage, prostitution, castration--and those studies are probably what I find most successful about the book. 

Considering the heavy influence of Islamic mysticism in the story, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more explicit discussion of sex in Islam.  All of those elements were symbols, metaphors, and analogies, which I'm not usually very good at.  I think I could have used a study guide for those parts; I'm not even sure what the stories meant to the characters, except to the extent that storytelling itself was an escape, a power, and a connection between the characters.

This was a beautiful book in a lot of ways.  It was also shocking, harsh, confusing, and challenging.  A real work of art, I think.

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