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Royal Reviews: Habibi

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Wednesday, September 21 2011 and posted in Reviews

The epic graphic novel by Craig Thompson is finally here!

Comic Review Cover

Credits & Solicit Info:

Habibi HC

Release Date: 9/21/2011
Writer :  Craig Thompson
Artist :  Craig Thompson
Manufacturer / Publisher : Knopf Publishing
Diamond code : JUN111212
ISBN : 9780375424144

Habibi is a deeply romantic story that explores and celebrates the beauty and cruelty, the complexity and depths of the Islamic world. Craig's stunning artwork is matched by the haunting strories of his characters' lives. Set in a mythical Middle East, at once contemporary and timeless, Habibi is a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the First World and the Third World, and the common heritage of Christianity and Islam. The magic of storytelling allows us to see the fragility embedded in cruelty, to understand how beauty can preserve us from destruction and how love can save us from loss of hope.


We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories that help us relate not only to each other, but with our past, our heritage and the world we live in.  We are all a storytelling people.  That's how religion, mythology, and folklore all come into play in the lives of so many.  It's really all just stories that get us through what we're going through.  Stories can be a inspiring, or they can be a coping mechanism.  They can put fear into our hearts, keep us warm, or protect us. 

Writer/artist Craig Thompson gives a lot of thought to the importance and power of telling stories in his new graphic novel Habibi, an epic tale of struggle, sacrifice, trauma and triumph that is as moving as it is ambitious.  The scope is staggeringly large and the storytelling innovative and constantly engaging.  At a hefty 672 pages, it may be one of the most powerful accomplishments in all of comics in 2011.    

Dodola is a young urchin who is sold as a child bride at the age of nine, which leads her on a path to being sold into slavery and sexually exploited during her formative years.  Early on, she effectively adopts an even younger abandoned child named Zam, whom she takes care of for years as they live together in the desert.  They are separated when she is taken away from their hideout (an abandoned boat stuck in the middle of the desert) and forced to live as part of the sultan's harem. The plot is relentlessly grim, particularly in the first half.  Dodola is raped over and over again throughout her young life, as she resorts to prostituting herself for food and supplies while in the desert raising Zam.  The whole time, she tells him stories from the Qur'an and from traditional folklore that help her as much as they do him.  The relationship between Dodola and Zam, which is central to the book, is especially close and heartfelt, and the story of their separation is heartbreaking.  The world of Habibi is small and violent, and oppressively tough. 

It's also writ large, to the point of expansive, via the use of mythology, and Thompson beautifully expands the story and the reader's mind through the intense and creative manner in which he renders all of the action.  He provides a look into Islamic mythology, along with its commonalities with Judeo-Christian stories, and the various ways storytelling and folklore relate to our lives.  The book absolutely shines in these mythological interludes, which are woven right into the story of Dodola and Zam.  The plot is presented in an intriguing non-linear fashion, a storytelling conceit that is executed flawlessly.  The non-chronological time periods are woven right into the fabric of the story along with the folklore to synthesize a sweeping, all-encompassing epic that takes place over a period of almost twenty years and incorporates so many storytelling techniques that are so stunning that not a single page is wasted. 

What's remarkable is the way Thompson makes so many different connections between disparate elements.  For example, the book examines the path of a river and draws comparisons to the paths created in the desert sands by the wind; these are then compared to the calligraphic flow of Arabic writing.  Thompson makes the point that our relationship to the natural world is reflected in our writing.  He draws similar parallels throughout the story that he actually enriches his own ideas.  The mythology and Dodola's extensive studies and thoughts place the story into a larger, more esoteric context.

There are some exhausting moments, though.  Dodola and Zam feel like mere victims of circumstance for much of the story.  They get kicked around by the world and one wonders if they'll ever be able to escape their awful situation.  The world seems far too big for them.  As Thompson himself said at a panel during the Brooklyn Book Festival, "I wanted the characters to be small in a vast landscape."  That much is certainly accomplished.

Habibi is an exceptional graphic novel that really takes full advantage of the possibilities of the comic book medium.  It is also an emotionally draining read, but one that ultimately wraps up in a truthful and complete way.  The artwork is beyond gorgeous, featuring incredible page design and Thompson's very confident brushwork.  It all adds up to one of the most powerful and important graphic novels to come out all year.  

Review by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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