Clocking in at a downright staggering 672 pages, the first thing you notice about cartoonist Craig Thompson’s Habibi is, needless to say, it sheer mass and heft. Lovingly presented by Pantheon Books in a handsome hardback that looks like it came through a wormhole or time vortex of some sort reaching back into distant Arabian antiquity, the book has a lovingly detailed design sensibility that belies its modern, assembly-line, mass-production origins. You hold the volume in your hands and honestly wonder if it might be the only one of its kind.
The second thing you notice is, no surprise, the art. Eschewing the more minimalist sensibilities of his contemporaries in the field of so-called “alternative” comics, Thompson’s lavishly-detailed, bold, and often majestic line work and brushstrokes don’t sparse on the details — each and every panel, no matter the size, has the look of a genuine labor of love, often-times excruciating in its precision, yet consistently (and quite paradoxically, I might add) maintaining a free-form, almost organic flow from start to finish. Thompson combines the eye for detail of place of fellow “travelogue”-style comix artist Joe Sacco with the strong compositional balance between black and white of Will Eisner and the feverish, romantic representations of the mythic found in the works of, say, an Eric Shanower or a Barry Windsor-Smith. Again, the word staggering comes to mind.As one would expect, the story here is as epic as the artwork — set in a Middle East both ancient and modern (the actual time-frame is never firmly established — nor, frankly, should it be) , Thompson creates a world where brutal contemporary slave markets exist side-by-side with Arabian Nights-style mythology, and the result is a tale that, while flawed, does manage to often seamlessly bridge the gap between history and modernity and show that the problems humanity faced then are not so different from the problems we face now. Following the trek of his protagonist, Dodola, as she goes from illiterate child bride to sex slave for nomadic tradesmen to fugitive from an execution squad (be on the lookout for some terrifically-rendered, genuinely breathtaking action sequences in this book) to prisoner in a brutal dungeon to “kept woman” in a sultan’s harem and beyond, the scope of the story here is truly vast.
And yet, at its heart, Habibi is, in fact, a love story, albeit one of a decidedly different sort than the autobiographical one Thompson presented in his previous major effort, 2003′s autobiographical Blankets (Thompson produced Carnet De Voyage, an annotated sketchbook of his travels in Morocco — the influences of which are, needless to say, quite obvious in Habibi — in the years in between) as this is a love story between Dodola and the black slave child, Zam, she adopts as an infant and to whom she serves as both mother and older sister. Her efforts to protect, care for, and even rescue Zam form the book’s emotional core and ground this sweeping tale in the kind of universal humanistic framework to which we can all relate.
As mentioned earlier, though, Habibi does have some rather serious flaws. For one thing, Thompson places his characters in jeopardy so often that it begins to feel a bit repetitious, and the story would probably have been well-served by paring these back a bit. Similarly, the sheer length of the book (brevity has never been Thompson’s strong suit — Blankets is 580 pages long) actually serves to lessen the emotional impact of some of what he’s trying to achieve here by creating something of a “we’ve seen this before” attitude in the reader. And on the ideological front, while I’m generally sympathetic to Thompson’s anti-capitalist views (his despair at how the marketplace turns literally everything about human existence into a commodity to be bought and sold is certainly evident throughout), a few examples would have communicated this more effectively than literally dozens of them, and again, while I applaud his “can’t people of all Abrahamic faiths learn to get along?” message (his illustrated representations of the Koranic versions of several Biblical stories are particularly poignant and heartfelt), it too begins to grate after awhile when he lets the earnestness of his message drown out the trajectory of his story.
Those minor quibbles aside, though, Habibi is a terrifically ambitious work that doesn’t always achieve everything it’s hoping for, but certainly can’t be accused of not giving its all in the attempt. Sweeping, majestic, emotionally literate, and genuinely humane, this is a work of tremendous scope and power whose only “sin” is that it tries to do maybe a little bit more than it can handle. It’s certainly one of the most impressive pieces of work the comics medium has ever produced, but if it scaled back its ambitions and reined in its passions just a tad, we might also be talking about it as one of the best.