Tuesday, May 8, 2012

No over-reading for this graphic novel please

Last year, I picked Craig Thompson's most recent graphic novel, Habibi, with apprehension. Why? Well, I didn't really like Blankets, his most famous work. I found it too heavy on the Christian theme. His earlier work, Good-bye, Chunky Rice, I just found so-so. It was compared to The Little Prince for reasons I don't know why, even after a reread. (For the record, I also have no strong feelings toward The Little Prince. I just found the illustrations cute.)

But thank goodness I still decided to buy Habibi. It's one beautifully illustrated graphic novel with a sprawling storyline. If you flip its pages, you'd understand why there's a 7-year gab between Blankets and Habibi. I think these are the most immaculately detailed drawings that I've seen in graphic novels. One can see that these pages do not need color to make the panels come alive. Just look at these sample pages.

And the story? It has breadth and texture. Basically, Habibi is a love story between Dodola and Zam set in a fictional Islamic country called Wanatolia. It's a love story that's somewhat painful to read in some parts. At the start, we see the child Dodola forced to marry a much older man. Then Thompson sets up the circumstances wherein the young Dodola assumes the responsibility of taking care of the baby Zam. Years pass and the two spend many of those in an abandoned ship in the dessert, with Dodola offering her body to passing men in exchange for food.

Dodola and Zam get separated when Dodola is abducted by the Sultan's men for his harem. In the harem, Dodola gets a reputation for her skills in satisfying the Sultan. She ultimately gets pregnant but loses her child when it gets murdered by one of the other women from the harem, done out of jealousy apparently. In another parallel narrative, we see how Zam finds himself in the company of eunuchs and eventually become a eunuch himself. It is this condition that lets him work in the Sultan's palace, thus setting the scene for his reunion with Dodola.

But the story is far from over yet. We see how a man named Noah takes care of our main characters, letting them live in his shanty amidst the landscape filled with all kinds of refuse. We read how Zam takes a job in a construction firm, allowing him to have enough money for him and Dodola to start afresh. The ending is a very sweet and redemptive one, especially after reading through all the hardships that Dodola and Zam go through.

A lot has been said that Habibi doesn't do much in terms of presenting the Islamic culture to the world. The male characters especially are rendered into stereotypes. I couldn't care less. I didn't read it for that reason. Thompson does do a good job in showing some of the aspects of Islam, methinks. And that I think is a bonus. I read Habibi for the engaging story. I flipped its pages because of the beautiful artwork. I bought it because it's a beautiful book.

Photo courtesy of R.

So will Thompson be more known because of Habibi? Perhaps. He's still more popularly known for Blankets than any of his works. It did win the Eisner after all. But Habibi, in my opinion, is even more satisfying than Blankets. Habibi had scope, whereas Blankets was very inward looking. Sure, Blankets was autobiographical, which may account for its introspection, but Habibi draws you into its fictional world with its detailed sense of place. It's wonderful to get lost in it.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything by Craig Thompson.
  2. You like your graphic novels complete in themselves. No volumes and series please.
  3. You love exploring other cultures and immersing yourself in far-off places.


Anonymous said...

beautiful illustrations, wasn't the biggest fan of dodola. :)

and now thinking of reading Blankets, and Goodbye Chunky Rice, for the little prince comparison. :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, stokedbunny! I guess the illustrations are what we all agree on.

I can lend you my copies of his two other works if you want.

fantaghiro23 said...

It's a good thing you liked Habibi. However, I don't think that talking about how it presents Islam is over-reading, don't you think? Especially as the author himself explicitly says that it was his response to Orientalism. That leaves him wide open for judgment.

You can choose to read it for the plot or you can choose to read it for what it symbolizes. In Habibi's case, I think you can find enjoyment either in its story or in its critique. Personally, I liked the critique better.

Peter S. said...

Hello, fantaghiro23! Oh, I'm not too fond of the critique at all. I just really liked the story.

fantaghiro23 said...

I know. But neither do I think you can say that the critique is over-reading.

Peter S. said...

Hi, fantaghiro23. The over-reading I am referring to in my blog entry has something to do with reading the novel for purposes other than enjoying the story. In my opinion, being too focused on the critique is over-reading. When I read this novel, I had no thoughts about the apparent response of the author about the concept of Orientalism. That's why, in my opinion, thinking of other things besides the story when you're reading Habibi is over-reading. For me, it's just a graphic novel with a beautiful story, plain and simple.