“Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years.
The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there.
Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, — the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos — is famous for improving the debate. In the early ’90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down.
The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.
What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria:
Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check.
He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.)
“Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics.
“High Road to the Shmuck Seat” by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality.
“Drama” (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
“Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge.
Hip Hop Family Tree” (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms.
McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness.
In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels?
The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest…
The comic book emancipates adults from irony.
The following interview with Joe Sacco, the comics journalist best-known for his accounts of the war in Bosnia and life in the Palestinian territories, could be called “How to Draw an Atrocity.” His work is layered in well-earned details. Safe Area: Goražde depicts a besieged town sealed off from the world by the Balkan conflict. In the midst of a civil war, one young woman asks Sacco to get her some nice jeans from Sarajevo. In what is so far his magnum opus, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco researched a forgotten massacre of Palestinian civilians during the Suez War in 1956. There is no photographic evidence of the massacre, and so Sacco was left illustrating the testimonies of older Palestinians, filling in the physical details based on his frequent trips to the Middle East’s Soweto. It’s not clear if he broke any unwritten rules concerning the way an atrocity should be depicted. He may be inventing rules of his own.
In his new collection of short pieces, Journalism, he chronicles poverty in rural India, the training of Iraqi security forces, and the recent wave of African immigration to Sacco’s native Malta. (Sacco was born in Malta and remains a citizen of the island nation, but he spent his childhood in Australia and the U.S. and has mostly lived here for about 40 years.) I met Sacco on an August afternoon in his studio in his house in Portland. We began by discussing one of the stories in Journalism, “Trauma on Loan,” about two ordinary Iraqis who were tortured by American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq War. I pointed to one moment in the piece in which Sacco illustrates the story of one of the Iraqis with a point-of-view shot from the perspective of an American soldier.
The Millions: This is something that’s very hard to do in prose journalism. If a victim is telling a story it’s very hard to see it from the point of view of the victimizer. But you, as a comics journalist, can create something like this image.
Joe Sacco: The whole point is to be able to recreate things from different perspectives. I have to give myself that freedom. I’ve always said drawing is a subjective act. Does that absolve me from an accusation of manipulation? Perhaps not in some people’s eyes. You could tone it down, I guess. I could have drawn it in a different way. That’s true. But I chose to draw it this way.
The words themselves are accurate quotes. It says, “One of the detainees was in front. His actions were like a dog’s.” I’m not going to draw a guy who’s just surly, holding back…I have a dog. And the way a dog acts, it begs and is excited. I’m just trying to visualize that.
TM: In your last Comics Journal interview you said that there has always been a grotesque quality in your work. There is some sense of the grotesque, of the strange, of the uncanny in your figures, even though you have this very journalistic desire to show something that’s real. How does this problem manifest itself when you are drawing sympathetic people like these two [Iraqi] gentlemen and this less-than-sympathetic American soldier?
JS: When I’ve said that I’ve tended toward the grotesque…what [I’m] saying is that I can never draw as beautifully as Craig Thompson (Habibi, Blankets). It’s just not in my hand. Even people who look good in real life never look good the way I draw them, not through any desire to make them grotesque but through a certain inability. I just don’t draw beautiful people beautifully. I would rather draw a good-looking woman as a good-looking woman, but I don’t have quite that ability to get it right. So my stuff tends in that direction anyway.
If I’m going to draw some American soldiers taunting an Iraqi prisoner, I’m not going to make their expressions neutral. If you’re taunting someone, you’re taunting someone. And if you’re getting a kick out of it, you’re getting a kick out of it. The action itself is grotesque. The action of doing that is grotesque. And so that’s reflected in the drawing.
TM: There’s a claim that a good novelist has sympathy for all of his characters. [Do you have any such sympathy] when you draw these bullies?
JS: No. Not always. When you’re drawing you have a lot of characters who don’t have speaking parts. A novelist generally deals with a set amount of characters. And you can flesh those characters out. But [when] a novelist is describing getting on a train with a hundred people…[he or she’s] not fleshing out all of those characters. I have to draw them. So it presents a problem.
I have a difficult time drawing the eyes of people when they’re committing atrocious acts. It’s not like I don’t do it if I’m sure they’re sadistic. In this case I probably could have done it. Because in this case, [with] a soldier taunting someone, I can imagine their sadism and I can understand a sadist’s face, or I have the pretense of thinking I can understand a sadist’s face…
Think of it as acting. Think of it as [being] a film director, because, ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You’re saying to yourself, “How is this person going to be looking if you’re an actor?” And every time you draw something, much like acting, you have to get into the role on some level of what that person is thinking or feeling. It’s easier to draw a sadist. The more difficult thing is to draw ordinary people doing atrocious things. Someone throwing a cigarette to taunt someone is a sadist. Or anyway that’s a sadistic act. And maybe that person isn’t always a sadist. [But] I’m going to draw a sadistic expression.
I had more trouble in the book Footnotes in Gaza with this sort of thing because I didn’t think all those people [Israeli soldiers] were sadists. I think there were sadists among them. But to me, this is a case, generally speaking, of ordinary human beings killing other human beings and perhaps not even out of a sense of hatred.
I couldn’t understand the psychology of doing what they were doing. As I was drawing I didn’t draw their faces exactly because I didn’t want to presuppose their intentions or their psychological state, which is why I very seldom [draw] their eyes.
Doing [Footnotes in Gaza] in particular is when I realized I didn’t understand how to draw certain things because I didn’t understand the psychology of the moment. It’s easier to understand fear. I can draw fear. I can draw sadism. But an ordinary person doing something like this is a very difficult thing to understand. I’m not going to pretend I understand it. It was easier to hide the face.
TM: But when you are giving this level of individuality to these Israeli soldiers, these Serbian genocidal killers, these American soldiers, does that allow you to imagine a kind of individual intelligence behind them that you just described to me?
JS: I think about it all the time. I think, “This one’s gesture is going to be more aggressive. This one’s going to be aggressive but not as aggressive.” …There’s a range. Not all of them are the same. They’re not all going to behave the same way. But then you think, “Well their officers are there and they’re being told to do this. Are they going to do it?” There might be a moment too when you’re doing it and these people [victims] might be sniveling and crawling in front of you and it helps you, because they’re humiliating themselves which makes you despise them. These are things I think about. But they’re not necessarily things I understand. I’m going off in a different direction with my new work because of these very questions.
TM: What’s this new direction?
JS: I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and understanding human nature. It [came from] the problems I had doing this [Footnotes in Gaza]…With journalism I can explain [events]. I can even explain the history behind [them]. What I couldn’t explain to myself is the individual relationship to those events. That’s why I’m telling you I had a hard time drawing this stuff.
TM: What are you working on now that is dealing with this new direction? I don’t know if you’re comfortable announcing a new project.
JS: It’s hard to describe what I’m trying to do. I want to grapple with the concept of human nature, how we develop societies, our relationship to authority, starting from the primate level on. [It] sounds like a huge huge undertaking and it is and I don’t know if I’ll be able to figure it out. I don’t know if it will make for good comics necessarily. I just want to concentrate on this story about Mesopotamia and the development of the first cities — even before the first cities — of how hierarchy developed, how central authority developed, how our role as people under central authority, this relationship, developed. It all interests me. That is enough. And that could go on for years. And I’ve been interviewing archaeologists in different places…
TM: Your books are very easy to read. And many of your contemporaries have moved to making comics difficult. Art Spiegelman, when he made his book about 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers, designed the format so you don’t know where your eye is supposed to go at any given point. Chris Ware does that a lot as well. You have a linear method. When I read your books I usually feel I know where my eye is supposed to go.
JS: Well if you don’t it’s very intentional. There are cases where you are supposed to be a little confused about how to read things.
TM: Did your journalism training make you think you had to make your work as clear as possible?
JS: I think so. I think that’s it. Journalism is a constraint, on some level. I don’t even like drawing representational-y very much. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it to be honest. It never feels completely comfortable. And I’m not even sure if I drew in a cartoon-y fashion if that would be comfortable.
This is not your New York Times kind of journalism which is often really boring. The difference between reading the standard New York Times writer — there are some exceptions — and someone like Robert Fisk of The Independent is like night and day. I feel like I’m there with Fisk, you know. That’s the tradition I’m more interested in journalistically speaking. Yes, I want the situation to be [as] clear as much as possible because I also think often the subject matter itself is difficult for people. It’s not pleasant. I don’t need tricks. I don’t want tricks. It’s mostly pretty standard. You’ll see in my first journalistic work Palestine that there were a lot of different angles and all that. That was fun to draw, [but] it didn’t necessarily help the story along.
TM: I was thinking about the power of the short form versus the long form. I found Footnotes in Gaza impossible to read in one sitting. I felt reading it that there was a circularity to the narrative in which we kept returning to the same problem and that [this circularity] is reflective of the subject matter. So when you see the atrocities in Footnotes in Gaza they stop having the same shock after awhile. But with something like this, “The War Crimes Trials,” which is a total of six pages, there are just these few panels that have, for me at least, far greater shock.
JS: To me that’s very subjective because I’ve heard many people say very different things about Footnotes in Gaza from what you just said as far as its power to shock them. But I’m not even sure that I’m going for shock. I’m just trying to represent things in a way, even in a dull way somehow. I’m not Joe Kubert, may he rest in peace. I’m not going to draw everything spectacularly with explosions and people flying though they look like they’re in a ballet somehow. That’s not how I think of things.
If you look at the scene that you’re pointing to, maybe some of its power comes from the fact that you’re not seeing anyone getting his testicle bitten off. You have to imagine what it’s like. Would it have been more shocking if I had shown it? Maybe on some level. But it would have been cheaper and not as effective. You can be shocking and also not be effective.
TM: When you have to draw these horrors, does it affect other elements of your life?
I was miserable. And I don’t want to do it again, really. There are reasons for going off and doing other projects that aren’t journalistic in the way I’ve done them before. Partly I want to learn something new. I feel like I’ve gone about as far as I can go looking at these sorts of incidents. Which aren’t the same incidents. They’re very different kinds of things. But when you’re involved in [them] they begin to look the same. That’s one of the reasons in that Journalism book I tried to do something different than massacres. I wanted to do [things] about human migration or poverty. And even those are tough things to do. But they’re physically not as hard as drawing dead bodies over and over.
TM: I don’t know if you’ve been told this but you don’t have an identifiable accent. I would have no idea where you’re from unless I was told you were from Malta. It’s not clearly American. It’s not clearly Australian. It’s not clearly anything. Now you mention that you feel some responsibility as a Maltese citizen when you write about the plight of African immigrants in Malta. And that you feel some responsibility if not as an American citizen than as an American taxpayer for the American government’s support of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories. But in some ways — I don’t know if this is insulting — you are a man without a country.
JS: Why is that insulting?
TM: I don’t know. I’m telling you that in some way you have no fixed background. I don’t know if that helps you when you travel.
JS: Culturally, I feel more American than [anything else]. This is where I spent a lot of my time. I also have a cultural upbringing that is Maltese. So I’m not going to shake either of those things. Nor do I want to. You are who you are. I’m relatively comfortable with who I am. I don’t feel vested in any particular nationality or in any national project. I live here because I live here and I’m comfortable here. I like being here and there are things I like about living in the United States. But I don’t feel I owe anything to the United States, or to Malta or to Europe or Australia. I might feel more responsibility based on where I am for what the United States does or what happens in Malta on some level.
[As for] Bosnia…I don’t think I have a dog in any fight, in a certain way. But I certainly don’t have a dog in that fight. It’s just humans and other humans.
This transcript represents selections from a 90-minute interview. Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
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.
I wasn’t predisposed to like Habibi, Craig Thompson’s Michener-thick new graphic novel. Though I’d loved his debut Good-bye, Chunky Rice — a slender ballad of a book about lost friendship — I found Blankets, his widely hailed follow-up, to be maddeningly precious. In using 600 swooning pages to tell an autobiographical tale of teenage identity, Thompson elevated his subject to a wildly exalted level. “I heard Raina’s breathing,” read one typical passage, as his protagonists lay in bed. “And beneath that, her heart beating — and beyond that, the gentle murmur of spirits in the room…And the sounds wove into a rhythm of hushed orchestration — spiraling me into slumber.” Characters couldn’t just fall asleep; first came Marillion lyrics. Blankets, and Thompson, were praised for the same things that would later fuel ridicule of Stephenie Meyer’s writing: an overwrought breathlessness in communicating the banal.
Unlike Meyer, though, the problem wasn’t a lack of talent. Rather, it seemed Thompson had too much talent for the story, like Peter Jackson directing an Edward Burns script. Though it grappled with religion, Blankets was at heart a tale of that dreaded thing, adolescent love — and as such, was a poor match for its visual flights and experimental layouts. Thompson’s abilities needed a wider narrative, a larger canvas to fill.
Eight years after Blankets, then, he brings us Habibi. And though at a glance, it might seem similar to its predecessor — a boy and a girl against a hostile world, Islam standing in for Blankets’ Christianity — Habibi is indeed the canvas Thompson needed. It’s layered, daring, and brilliantly told — an intricate story of love, religion, desire, survival, poverty, hope. It’s drenched in metaphor and rich with double meanings. Yet for all it takes on, Habibi feels light on its feet; throughout, we feel Thompson reveling in his skills as a writer and artist. Its exuberance, even in its darkest moments, feels somehow celebratory. Despite my initial skepticism, I’m not sure that I’ve read a better graphic novel.
The book centers on Dodola and Zam, escaped slaves who live on a boat marooned in a fictional Arabian desert. Dodola — a beautiful, determined girl who at twelve fled servitude with an infant Zam — passes the years by teaching the boy about Islam, sharing its many stories. In Thompson’s telling, faith is a captivating, guiding force, something to learn from and revel in. Throughout, he runs tales from the Qur’an parallel with his present-day story, lending a latticework of gravity to his characters’ actions. Dodola and Zam aren’t simply casting blindly about; they’re retracing the steps of their forerunners. “I found lots and lots of water,” Zam tells Dodola after a gleeful excursion. “Just like baby Ishmael.” Thanks to Dodola’s storytelling, the context is his, and ours.
As with Chunky-Rice, Habibi is propelled by separation. Just as we gain our footing, Dodola is kidnapped and made a courtesan for the sultan of Wanatolia, a decadent megatropolis. Zam, bereft and unable to survive, descends into a slum where he undergoes his own tragic transformation. Each fears the other dead, and it seems that their stories will split. But when, by chance, they find each other — Zam now grown, Dodola dulled by sex and fear — Habibi manages to grow in emotional strength. The story of their second life together, as Dodola tries to understand a Zam quite different from the boy she’d known, is wrenching and profound. It is a love story unlike any in memory, because it is as ambitious and complex as the book itself. “She is my sister, my mother, my teacher,” Zam says in a self-loathing monologue. “Then I turned her into an object of lust… What choice do we have but to construct an ideal, an idol, to impose on the beloved?” This is a big question, but the author proves himself well up to the task of discovering an answer.
Thompson sees Habibi as an antidote to the post-9/11 vilification of Islam, recently telling an interviewer, “I wanted to humanize [Islam] and focus on the beauty, because it is so full of beauty.” He has achieved that goal, and anyone doubting his commitment or motive — he is, after all, a white man from Portland, raised fundamentalist Christian — need only read the book. He has given himself to it completely; one sees a bit of him in young Dodola’s husband, a scribe who “threw himself into his work — often laboring through the night.” Thompson’s own work is manically elaborate and ingeniously laid out; he’s become expert at moving the eye through exploding, dexterous panels. Working in “alternative comics,” a genre often mocked for its coffee-sipping ennui, Thompson has created a massive, lasting epic in Habibi. And if we must wait eight years for his next? I suppose we’ll have to wait.
New this week: Craig Thompson’s long-awated follow up to Blankets is here. Stay tuned for our review of Habibi later this week. Also new: Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, Joe McGinniss’s much leaked exposé The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, and a new, posthumous collection of Shel Silverstein’s poetry and drawings, Every Thing On It.
Now that Hollywood’s “award season” is over, the book world’s is getting started, and, in what may be a preview of the Pulitzer, Edward P. Jones’ much lauded novel, The Known World, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It took him so long to write this book that he was too embarrassed to call his agent when he finally finished it. Lucky for him, it seems to have worked out quite well. The winners in the other categories are: Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson in the general non-fiction category; Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman in the biography category; River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit for criticism; and Columbarium by Susan Stewart for poetry. As I may have mentioned before, the NBCC Award is great because it is not limited to American books — it includes all books written in English — and because, unlike the Pulitzer, it doesn’t skew towards rewarding books that are focused on American themes, thus allowing a book like Khrushchev to be praised.A New Wave of Graphic NovelsScott McCloud writes on his blog that the runaway experimentalism in comics in recent years has given way to a return to storytelling. The shining stars of this new trend are Blankets by Craig Thompson and an upcoming anthology called Flight.