Craig Thompson, Author of Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Carnet de Voyage and the critically acclaimed Blankets is back with his latest offering – the 670 page proverbial monster called Habibi.
Set in a timeless middle east, Habibi follows young Arab girl Dodola, sold into child marriage at 9. She is taught to read and write by her kind hearted husband, and her knowledge of letters and numbers wind it’s way through the trials and triumphs of her life. At age 12, She is taken as a slave by thieves, manages to escape with a 3 year old boy, Zam, and finds an abandoned boat in the desert, which they make their home. In order to survive, Dodola must prostitute herself to traveling merchants in exchange for food. As time moves on, and Zam grows into puberty, he struggles with lust for his foster mother/sister, something that haunts him into adulthood. This struggle is not helped when he witnesses Dodola being raped by a merchant, so he decides to be more proactive in providing for them, selling water in the local village. While Zam is out collecting water one night, Dodola is kidnapped and sold into the Sultan’s harem. Zam, in a desperate attempt to find Dodola, lives of the streets in the city, where he befriends a group of eunuchs, and, still struggling with lust and haunted by the image of Dodola being raped, decides to join them and is castrated. Despite their separation, the story never stops being about the relationship between Dodola and Zam, and is masterfully crafted by Thompson.
At times the narrative moves along at a roaring pace, faster than an 8 year old on a sugar high, but mellows down when it needs to, offering some deeply emotional scenes. In fact, along with the stunning visuals, it is the emotion of the story that is the true champion.
The way Thompson makes us empathise with the characters is a rare skill – we share the deep sorrow, the loving contentedness, the emotional turmoil of the characters. There are plenty of lighthearted moments as well – In one scene, a young Zam is so annoyed with himself and confused after getting his first erection thinking about Dodola that he punches himself in the groin, not realizing the pain he is about to go through.
Habibi is a visual banquet, a veritable feast of brushstrokes and intricate detail. Thompson uses eastern design and the beautiful Arabic script to weave the story together in a soft, organic flow that floats along from panel to panel, page to page in rich, breathtaking beauty. His loose panel layout and masterful panel composition help the story flow forward and keeps each page interesting.
Habibi is a truly magnificent book, one that is compelling, thoughtful, emotional and visually Beautiful. It does contain a fair bit of nudity and sex, so it’s probably not appropriate for children under 15 or so, but aside that, I can’t praise it highly enough. I was totally hooked from the first page – I was just going to read the first 100 pages or so before bed but ended up staying up till the early hours of the morning reading it cover to cover. If Habibi is not the graphic novel of the year, I’ll eat my left testicle.