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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2012

Pictographicus Miraculous In Respectable Circles

Habibi (Pantheon Books, 2011)

I have met my critical match.

I'm staring at Habibi, an enormous, gilded leather-bound tome. It's huge in every sense. If my son wandered into the room and yanked it off my desk, it might knock him out. It took days to read, and that was rushing it. Almost seven hundred pages of thick, detailed illustration, calligraphy and design.

I could spend years poring over Craig Thompson's calligraphy, swooping and darting to weave myth with the story of two forgotten people.

I could spend years trying to realize what it means to comics, to myself, to love and God and all the big issues. I could spend years trying to articulate what its flaws mean, and how they interweave with its strengths in such a way that it is impossible to separate aspects of the work from each other.

But I have a review to write, and I've got to try and summarize something this big in just a few days.

God help me.

It's incredible, and I mean that in the original sense of the word. I cannot credit it as the work of one pen; I cannot comprehend its vastness. It's a work of calligraphy, of art, of storytelling, and even of architecture. In the realm of sequential art, it's the first English work to really merge words -- in this case, the wondrous Arabic alphabet -- with pictures.

Very few comics even aspire to what Habibi achieves. I would say that four comics have ever achieved a perfect marriage of text and art. They are Maus, From Hell, Fun Home and Persepolis.

Maus is probably the greatest comic ever written, a work at once humane and shocking in its depiction of the Holocaust and one man's perception of why he survived and how. The simple visual conceit -- Jews as mice and Nazis as cats -- manages to transform the conception of identity. This is a comic about survivors -- about their justifications, their regrets and their ache.

Persepolis is deceptively deep, a tale of growing up in a world at war. The horror of civil unrest is communicated with the same mundane and quirky art style as the child's conversations with God and the awkwardness of puberty. It's a work that shows how precious a simple life is by contrasting it with the transformation of Iran into a fundamentalist state.

Fun Home is a wrenching chronicle of homosexuality discovered, a narrative in which a young woman's gay identity mirrors her father's secret life and secret affairs. Architecture, nature and literature all envelop the piece, contrasting their structure with the breaking shape of Alison Bechdel's life.

From Hell takes a labyrinthine theory about Jack the Ripper as a royal assassin and thus turns his murders into a hinge of history and destiny. Watchmen is a minor work compared to the full-strength Alan Moore of From Hell, playing with the audience's perception of sanity and fear.

Comics, which marry two art forms, work particularly well for pieces that deal with the question of identity. The visual and the literary are masks, approximations of an identity -- the survivors and the marginalized, the terrorized and the broken, the prophetic and the mad.

So where do we shelve Habibi? Has its ambition and magnificence earned it a place with these legends of comic art?

It is all the things I've already said -- deep, detailed and sublime. It is about the identity of the human, the self-creation of the sexual being and the self-creation of the holy, the debased and the purified. And yet Habibi is deeply, deeply flawed. While it aspires to the perfect marriage of fictional text and artwork that From Hell achieved, it is obvious that Craig Thompson's narrative does not have the furious brain of Alan Moore behind it, and the connections he draws rest on the believability of his narrative, but the narrative resorts so often to the horrific that it gets off-balance. What's more, the loaded real-world connotations make it difficult to read without stopping to wonder why an American is writing this.

Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home are all autobiographical, as was Craig Thompson's former magnificent work Blankets, which gives their stories an instant credibility a fiction writer must envy. In that sense, Habibi is really aspiring to From Hell's niche.

Habibi follows the life of two slaves, Dodola and Zam. Dodola is sold as a child to a man who "consummates" the marriage with child rape but afterward keeps his hands off her, teaching her to read and write.

She is then stolen away into slavery. She and Zam find an abandoned boat to live in out in the desert, and she finds them food through sexual favors, as a child and then as a woman, for the denizens of nearby caravans.

Zam is her little habibi, "beloved," and Dodola tells him the stories and shows him the calligraphy that her husband taught her. Their quests for water and food lead them to split up for one fateful day, when Dodola is stolen away into slavery. Later Zam is taken in by a strange order of eunuchs, castrated himself, and then offered up as a candidate for prostitution.

Dodola ends up in a sultan's harem, where her sexual experience makes her his favorite, and she only gets through her subsequent pregnancy and death of a child in an opium haze, wishing she were back with her habibi.

So, in case you haven't gotten it, let me break it down for you: Rape. Child rape. Qur'anic stories and Islamic myth. Rape. Sex slavery. Rape. Calligraphy. Rape.

About halfway through, after Dodola was brutalized for the tenth time, I found myself ironically humming the old song from The Fantasticks. "Oh raaaaaaape . . . You can get the rape emphatic, you can get the rape polite, you can get the rape with Indians, a very charming sight . . ." (The song used "rape" in its original sense of "abduction," and thanks to a linguistic quirk, is now rather off-putting.)

That's Habibi. It's all rape, but you see, the sort of rape depends on what you pay.

For the moment, let's forget about the implications of Craig Thompson, as a white man, writing a story about an Arabic woman who is repeatedly raped. We'll come back to it.

Is From Hell horrifying? Oh yes. There is little in graphic art to match the horror of the scenes where the Ripper, a little old doctor, cuts the prostitutes apart meticulously. But most of the book is creeping horror. Only a few times in its enormous narrative does it explode into violence. A little goes a long, long way.

Contrast this with Habibi, which portrays rape after rape in explicit detail. Thud. Thud. It's as if Jack the Ripper killed fifteen prostitutes, not four, in the six hundred pages of From Hell.

And yet . . . and yet Habibi is almost there. It's hard for me to say when precisely it went over the top. Dodola's wedding night is rather well-handled, in which the horror of child rape is represented only by one stain on the sheet.

Dodola and Zam's stories mirror and reflect holy stories. Their sewer escapes and their quests for clean water are swept up in calligraphy and countered by the stories of Noah and the ark and Hagar's search for water in the desert.

But every work of art also has to deal with the conception the reader will form of the artist, the God who moves the story. Again, this is easier in frankly autobiographical works. Reading Habibi, I got a sense that Craig Thompson was careless with his characters. He was too casually brutal.

It yanks you out of the story -- you start to feel like an accessory to rape. It yanked me out as a reader. Eventually I found myself asking: why is an American writing this? Why is our American, white author detailing the rape of this Arab woman?

And what am I perpetuating by reading it?

Storytelling is so intimate. The reader trusts the writer with parental confidence. When the writer seems careless with cruelty, we almost feel abused. We don't want the author to be gentle. But we want the cruelty to mean something, to be placed carefully, to be an explosion of horror, an apotheosis, as in From Hell.

Habibi is not quite there. But that shouldn't stop you from reading it, because it expresses the potential of comics in a way none of the others do. Few English artists, perhaps because they are not letterers, truly take the time to consider the role of text in the art itself. This book marries the artistry of Arabic to story and picture in wondrous, undreamt-of ways.

I've said before that Alan Moore and Will Eisner were Marlowe and Chaucer, and the Shakespeares of comics are doing their best work right now. Habibi isn't Hamlet, nor Othello, but it should be read, for its accomplishments and for future artists to keep away from its failings.

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