Habibi, Craig Thompson’s first graphic novel in eight years, is a sorrowful epic pipe dream of Muslim culture filtered through a Westernized lens. It tells the story of Dodola and Zam, two child slaves living in a vicious universe in which rape and murder are assumed facts of life. The details can be jarring. The soldiers in his fictional Arabian Nights-inspired kingdom of Wanatolia have daggers but no guns, while street vendors sell slaves in chains next to DVD stands. Still, one need change only one or two small facts of our history and his book could serve as a cousin to the non-fiction comics journalism of Joe Sacco.
Thompson spent a day on most pages of his book. Certain pages, the ones that include intricate Middle Eastern designs, took three days. The cartoonish surrealism of Thompson’s first book Good-bye, Chunky Rice and the simplified, stripped-down drawings in his account of first love in Blankets offered some solace against depictions of abuse and sexual frustration. But the exotic, overbearing detail of Habibi can disturb. The beauty of the book both attracts and alienates.
I met Thompson at the home of mutual friends, a Spanish couple, a writer and painter, in Iowa City on the morning of September 25. The hotels in town were overbooked thanks to a Saturday football game, so he had stayed there the night before. He met me at the door, wearing yesterday’s shirt, looking well-rested. We sat in a huge white room. Sunlight came in from long vertical windows hitting several paintings, including a few of recognizable spots in Iowa City. A cat came by occasionally to rub up against our legs. What follows is a pared-down version of our interview.
The Millions: Was there any moment as you were beginning this book when you sought permission to write it? You are a white person from a very Christian family in Wisconsin. Was there any voice in the back of your head saying, “You don’t get to write about black people or Arab people in the Muslim world”?
Craig Thompson: I didn’t worry about that specifically, partly because the two characters — Dodola and Zam, an Arab girl and a black boy — delivered themselves fully realized from my subconscious. So they already were characters that existed outside of me and they dictated a lot of the things they did. I trusted the Turkish writer Elif Shafak — she wrote The Bastard of Istanbul — who describes fiction as a way to live other lives and in other worlds. You don’t need to have those experiences directly. It’s almost a shamanistic journey where by tapping your own imagination you access these other roles. And I trusted that.
With all my work, I struggle with giving myself permission to do it. And that comes from coming from a very religious household and a very anti-art household.
I come from very lower-working-class roots, so it’s not like my parents wanted me to have a more high-powered career, like being a doctor. They actually wanted me to have a more modest career, like being an electrician, something that’s very practical. [They wanted me to do] something that serves society rather than [something that] serves oneself, which is their perception of art. Every day I struggle with allowing myself to be an artist. And I have to try to trust the instinct that hopefully art also helps other people and not just oneself.
TM: Do you graft a Christian ethos onto your art then?
CT: Well, for me the Christian ethos is not to judge other people. No human can judge another. I think I am true to that in my art. When you’re a writer, you’re not judging your characters. You can live a lot of different roles on paper without judgment.
TM: A lot of Orientalist art from the 19th century is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s all in service to an ideology that has caused an incredible amount of destruction in the world. How do you square that problem, especially in the current era when there are an enormous amount of issues with the way people regard Islam, the Muslim world and the Arab world?
CT: Well, that exactly is the intent [of the book], to bring up the correlations between the turn-of-the-19th-century Orientalism with the new brand of Orientalism that exists throughout the world, this new Islamophobia and this labeling of people as the other. I was also thinking not of Orientalism, [but of] the Arabian Nights as a genre, like cowboys-and-Indians. So cowboys-and-Indians is a sensationalized version of the history of the American West and doesn’t really reflect reality. So I wanted to work with the Arabian Nights genre in the same way and steal from all these tropes and not shy away from their inappropriateness.
There’s a very offensive Islamophobia that happens in the media, especially the conservative media. But then there’s also this overly-PC, liberal reaction to tiptoe around a lot of subjects which I think is its own form of insult, because the Muslims I know are very open-minded people and would rather engage in a dialogue.
I don’t know if I’m sidestepping the question, but the book all along was a mash-up of the sacred medium of holy books, like the Koran and the Bible, and the vulgar pulp medium of comic books. For me Orientalism is like a comic book, like superhero comics, with all the sexism built into it. Orientalism is eroticized and sensationalized and you could say the same for superheroes.
TM: You were drawing these very intricate decorations all by hand, and if you look closely you can see that. This part of the decoration [pointing to one part of a random page] is different from that one, even though they follow the same pattern. I imagine the labor that went into that was extremely intensive. By doing these patterns you were aping what an artisan from this other part of the world does. Was that your own personal way of getting into the mindset of the culture?
CT: You’re nailing it exactly. I hate using the terms East and West because they are purely imaginative boundaries. But in the Western world, at least, art is placed on this pedestal. There’s so much ego tied up in the artistic process. In contemporary art, in fine arts, it’s more common for the artist to be more of an overseer, where they come up with the concept, but then they dictate all the actual labor to a bunch of unnamed assistants. And that’s always really offensive to me. We cartoonists in general have a more modest approach to our work where it’s just got to be us alone in our studio for hours and hours. You can’t fake comics really, or actually you probably could, but not in the old-fashioned alternative comics world. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, there’s all these artisans and craftsmen who work meticulously and have a lot more skill, but do it without the monetary reward and the egotistical reward. So I did want to pay tribute to those people. But even that sounds a little pretentious, because I was still just working with the very malleable form of ink on paper. I’m not carving wood or laying tile-work or doing something much more complex.
In a very small way I wanted to pay tribute to that and just be responsible for every single drop of ink on the paper. Throughout the book, people were pressuring me to get an intern to help me out. They could see that was wearing myself down a bit. But it was just really important in the end to make sure that every single line was my own. It was an act of defiance against the digital age where everyone is rubberstamping everything.
TM: You open each of your books with a major trauma that shadows the rest of the narratives.
CT: Well, it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s interesting what you say about how it shadows everything after. I think that’s similar to our own lives and the traumas we carry. To some degree, you’re always carrying that with you. Certainly you’re always carrying your inner child with you and the damages that happen to that child. And other people aren’t aware of it. Only you are. I like that you say that. That resonates with me.
TM: One of the issues I have with seeing major traumas in the opening pages of your books is that it’s impossible for me to, say, forgive your parents when I read Blankets for what they do early on, or to believe in any real good in the world of Habibi because of what I see in the opening pages.
CT: Well then how do you live in the reality of our world?
TM: I’m not very forgiving.
CT: (laughs) I was waiting at a bus stop once and I was assaulted by six drunken rednecks. Waiting at the bus stop with me was this retarded man and they didn’t hurt either of us badly, but they pushed him to the ground and kicked him a couple of times and spit on him. And of course after they left, this retarded man was bawling. And he came to sit with me on the bus. And he was just torn to pieces. “Why do people do this?” he said. I said, “Something like this could happen to anyone.” He’s like, “I don’t want to live in Portland anymore if something like this could happen.” And I was like, “This could happen anywhere. It’s just random that it happened in that location.” He was like, “Why would I want to live in this world anymore?” He was just saying it in this very pleading way. It was this really interesting dialogue I had with this mentally disabled man. And I was just trying to encourage him. “Yes, this could happen anywhere. Horrible things happen everywhere.” He was telling me what he was doing. He was going to see a friend. I said, “You’re going to see a friend. There’s good people in the world. That’s what you have to focus on.” At the end of our bus ride he was as happy as could be. He was really happy to make a connection on the bus. He was standing at the door of the bus, like “Bye friend!” He was really happy.
I think that’s a theme in my work. The world is a horrible place and humans do horrible things to each other and you have to work for positive energy and to carve out a place of safety and shelter within each other.
I open Blankets with a lot of negativity because I wanted to communicate to the reader why Christianity was so important to me as a child. It really was this shelter. I wasn’t really a happy child. I was an unhappy child and not comfortable in my skin and not comfortable in my environment so, like a lot of people, all my comfort and solace was in religion. Even at that tiny age.
TM: There is something about the world of Habibi that is unrelentingly vicious. In the world of Blankets you offer some moments of escapism, but I never felt there was a way to escape Habibi. I was thinking of Cormac McCarthy as I was reading Habibi. [I open a random page of Blankets]. I just pulled this up, but the mere fact that you can just walk in the snow and enjoy nature and have some kind of breathing space resonates in Blankets. I don’t know if you saw that difference as well.
CT: I love Cormac McCarthy. I think the essential philosophy to his work is the viciousness of human existence and that may be true of Michael Haneke too. I would acknowledge both of them as inspirations. But I’m more of a positive nihilist. I have a nihilistic view of humanity and a belief that humans will wipe each other out of existence. But that makes it even more important to labor in a positive way now. That energy continues on. I think life continues on whether or not the human species will. With Habibi, I was processing some major heartbreaks and I was processing health problems. I was processing a lot of frustrations with the art world or at least the comics industry.
TM: What were the health problems?
CT: Some of that is in Carnet De Voyage [Thompson’s account of his trip to Morocco and his European book tour for Blankets]. A very crippling hand pain, at the time. I had to take months off at a time where I couldn’t draw. So there was that sense of despair around: “Do I have to figure out a different career?” “Will I be able to draw for many more years of my life?” So there was a lot of anxiety caught up in what I was passionate about doing: drawing.
TM: I may be sounding like your parents now. But: You have hand pain. You suffered heartbreak. The industry that you’re in, like everything in publishing, is falling apart.
CT: “Unprofessional” might be a good word.
TM: But how does that lead to writing about child sex slaves?
CT: “Child slaves.” I think for a child those two terms feel synonymous. And there’s more slavery in the world now than ever before in human history. And capitalism and global trade are probably the main fuel for that. Wealth in the Western world only feeds off poverty and exploitation of people in other countries. So there’s processing that American guilt of being a participant in this imperialistic machine.
I’ve always wanted to do a book about sexual trauma. In Blankets, I talk briefly about being molested as a child, but that’s almost insignificant [compared] to some people who were very close to me as a young kid who were raped. Before I knew any positive form of sexuality, I knew rape. Growing up — and I grew up in a small town -– I assumed that every woman was raped. And that was my social circle. And ironically, once I moved away and lived in bigger cities, that proportion got watered down so it wasn’t like everyone I knew was raped. But everyone has either been raped or abused or had some spiritual abuse imposed on them through religious dogma or just had a natural clumsy awakening into sexuality.
TM: I know you were going for something that bordered on magic realism. But looking at the landscape of this book, I don’t think you have to change too much to make it something that could take place in our world as we know it. Here we have a boat in the middle of the desert. How did you walk that line where if you changed one millimeter of a percentage of the laws of physics you could imagine those things existing?
CT: That’s a good question. I think I saw this after I had written this into the book. There’s these photos of the Aral Sea after a big drought and there’s all these fishing boats stranded in desert, basically. That’s a very realistic little detail. The things that I chose to exclude were guns and television sets. I didn’t want people in slums all hanging out around television sets the way they would in reality. So in a way I took away things that to me were boring to draw or more mundane or things I just wasn’t interested in.
TM: Star Wars.
CT: Star Wars? You must have read this in another interview then.
TM: No, because I was thinking of it as I was reading it. The boat looked like the Jabba the Hut skiff that was in the middle of the desert. And then there’s the sand guys with the masks…
CT: Yes, the Tusken Raiders.
TM: Did you do that and think, “Oh man, I just cribbed from George Lucas, who cribbed from other people”? Or did you pay tribute to him consciously?
CT: I can’t recall. I do know that I was thinking of the book in a Star Wars-y way. And I’ve described it this way in interviews that it doesn’t take place in any specific geography or time like Star Wars, which supposedly took place long long ago in a galaxy far far away.
That was always disrupting to me as a child that this futuristic-looking world actually happened “long long ago.” And also that he was filming all these things in North Africa and his other-planet landscape was all drawing from the influence of North Africa. In Carnet I talk about going to Morocco and seeing everybody in Jawa costumes. And I was really using a lot of those hooded djellabas in Habibi so I was thinking this is basically Star Wars. I’m not meticulously researching any place. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get caught up in the real details, the historical, heavily researched details, because there was this emotional core, this very heavy relationship that I wanted to focus on. And so the rest of it was collage. It was taking elements from different places and cultures, which is also Star Wars, I suppose.
TM: Given the history of racism in comics, when you sat down and drew these characters, were you thinking: “No that doesn’t look quite right, no I can’t do that”?
CT: I don’t think I worried about it much. I feel like Zam is drawn very realistically for cartoon-y style. Whereas other characters, like Hyacinth in the harem, is a weird caricature of certain guy. And I just embraced that. I don’t think of it in an ethnic way. I just think of it as a cartoonish caricature to make him that strange lunkish build. And there’re a lot of characters where a cartoonishness is built into their design. I feel Dodola and Zam are definitely the most beautiful characters in the book. I want the reader to be attracted to them.
In the rape scene, originally, I had a much more grotesque character. And I didn’t like how it felt sensationalized. So that character ended up looking more and more attractive. At a certain point, he was almost a pretty boy. And that’s when I added the element of these aviator glasses. Because I felt like it put up some distance from him and obviously he is a monstrous character. But if you were to remove those glasses he would almost look like a classic Aryan pretty boy.
TM: There isn’t a panel in your book that doesn’t seek out some form of aesthetic pleasure. Why do you depict something like this [pointing to the rape scene in book] in a way to make it beautiful? People hate Schindler’s List, among other reasons, because the black-and-white is so gorgeous.
CT: I tend towards the sentimental. So there are times where I try deliberately to pull back and have an unbiased camera angle. I don’t know if I’m necessarily trying not to make it beautiful. As I said in depicting the rapist, in earlier drafts he was more monstrous. Even the way things were framed was a little more horrific. Finally, I found that it was more powerful to use that Hitchcock-ian method of just “less is more.” The camera is still in there. But there’s just more formalistic structure to it. Coldness isn’t the word. But I’m trying to create some emotional distance in depicting these things. I want the reader to have their own emotional reaction and not impose an emotional response on them through the drawing style.
TM: You haven’t worked with color in any of your four books. Is there anything about color that turns you off?
CT: No, I wouldn’t say it turns me off. For me, cartooning is a cursive shorthand for a bigger drawing or a painting. And I still adhere to those principles. I want the drawings to have a hand-written quality. For me, color is just an added layer of process that in some ways actually creates some distance from the reader. And I love it when artists work in watercolor, in a really organic medium like that. There’s a little bit of laziness in me where my books would take even longer to get out if I was also coloring them. And I wouldn’t want to hand off the responsibility to someone else because of that obsessive-ness of wanting every line to be my own. Also I recognize some of the actual printing mechanics and expenses of adding color as an element. Chris Ware, of course, is a master of color in comics. He talks about comics as typography. I think of comics as calligraphy. And for me the purest form of that is just the ink on the paper. It’s just the artist’s brush or nib.