Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson
Pantheon
$35

I am conflicted about Habibi.

On the one hand it is one of the most beautiful books I have ever laid eyes on.

On the other hand it attempts to go so far beyond anything that has been done before in comics that the end result becomes tedious.

So, is it a good comic? Yes!

Is it a great comic? Maybe.

Comics are a unique art form that is based around the balance of words and pictures to tell a story. While there are examples of wordless comics (or extended segments of comics) that manage to tell a story, they are the exception to the rule. There are also many examples of books with pages of text punctuated by a page of illustration. But those are more “illustrated novel” than comic book. Where Habibi is a resounding success is when Thompson blends words and pictures seamlessly. Where it flounders is when he abandons the art and fills the page with words.

Habibi is a complex love story between two people who are incredibly close to each other. Because of their unique ages and circumstances, the love evolves from that of a mother and child to that of a brother and sister, eventually becoming the love of a husband and wife. The love is true and deep and resounds with the reader. It is a love that we all hope to have. A love that transcends time, space, and circumstance.

At the same time, the world around the main characters is constantly evolving and changing. It moves from a barren and empty wasteland to one cluttered with garbage and refuse. This change mirrors the lives of the characters. Their lives, so full of potential, become cluttered and crowded with the circumstances and decisions that come with the lives they lead. In a powerful scene, Habibi attempts to reclaim their home from the sea of garbage. He is unable to, proving that he cannot escape from his past decisions. However, the immensity of Habibi’s struggle, coupled with his words and the words of Dodola make this scene so powerful. Were it silent, the reader would not know the depth of need that Habibi feels nor the depth of love that Dodola shows him. Were the scene relayed entirely in text, the futility of the situation could not possibly be displayed.

For most of the book, Thompson is able to maintain this balance. The book flows freely, bringing the reader along, engulfing us in this world beyond time and slightly beyond our space. But Thompson makes one more stretch, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, which brings this thing of glory crashing down. Thompson attempts to tie the entire story in to the stories of Islam.

Like the Old Testament in Christianity (and the Torah in Judaism), the Koran is full of many stories that explain and define morality, eternity, divinity, and the origins of life. While references to these stories, or the inclusion of some of them in the book may have added to the richness and depth, the length and abundance of these stories became an intrusion. These stories or explanations (particularly the explanations of some of the more mystical and numerical aspects of the religion) spread across many pages, often with minimal illustrations. It ceased to be a graphic novel, and it became a treatise on Thompson’s understanding of spirituality. The balance was lost, and unfortunately, so was my interest.

Habibi is an ambitious and experimental novel that stretches itself to the breaking point. Sometimes, less is more, and Habib would have gone even farther with a little less emphasis on the the spiritual. Read and enjoy Habibi, but be prepared for some skimming along the way.

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