“As much as an artist I want to strive to create comics as art or as literature, I’m still at my core just a cartoonist. Cartoonists want to make these exaggerated caricatured playful ridiculous irreverent drawings in some ways. I do feel reverent and respectful to elements of Islamic faith, but through the whole book there is a sense of play and self-awareness around the fact it’s still just a comic book. It’s super heroes in some ways. It’s Star Wars. But maybe the energy to focus on Habibi as an academic text is coming from outside the comics medium, where people are surprised to see more mature elements in a comic. In some ways the dialogue should also revolve back to the medium itself, which still has a satiric intent. I hesitate to say that, because I don’t want to say that Habibi is satiric towards any faith or religion. But comics are this sort of a self-deprecating medium inherently.”
Before I begin, I should note that part of my intense distaste for this book and for Thompson as an artist lies in the fact that, yes, I see in him a resemblance to myself. It is unlikely that I would have gone about this review in the tone I do without recognizing that the rift I see between my and Thompson’s writing is reflective of one within myself. I believe that this in no way negates my critique, only that it means I share, to an extent, his taste for pulp and exploitation in art. On the other hand, I strive in my work to value art that honours humanity instead of denigrating it, and to work hard to appreciate humans as people rather than as stock images one can despoil for personal gain.
I have no affection for Habibi, only an icy and begrudging appreciation, as one might have for the beautiful coloration of a poison arrow frog. To use a convenient metaphor, the art of this voluminous book is a sand dune—shapely and majestic yet unstable and constantly disintegrating into dust. When I first investigated works for my project on cultural imperialism and graphic novels, this one seemed to hold the most promise. Though I knew it would be Orientalist and imperialist in many disturbing ways, there was the sheer skill of its execution to contend with. Yet what I found was such a narrative excursion into overtly exploitative sexualization, mealy-mouthed guilt, and cultural appropriation of the rankest order.
Where Frank Miller tenders his lurid revenge fantasies close to his heart, Thompson offers us a book that every bit reflects the quotation we read above. In seeking to be both a fairy tale, a playful work exploring and attempting to humanize another culture, and a treatise on the ravages of capitalism, aggressive male sexuality, and violence, it negates both. it It is simultaneously leviathan and weightless, delving into horrific subject matter and refusing to confront it because “it’s just a comic.” I had my fill of this constant refrain when I still followed the video game industry’s incessant quest for both artistic legitimacy and immunity from critique. While I try to be a dialectical thinker at my best, there is nothing remotely honest or courageous about such a move. Within his text, Thompson offers us nothing but a “humanist” text that sacrifices its own characters to get its audience to sympathize with an abstract myth, the plaything of comic artists, would-be literati, and genre hacks.
What I mean by this is that the more the book gazes in awe at Islam, that rich mystical and textual tradition from which Habibi draws its impressive style, the more it creates monstrosities of those who practice it. As the abstractions and ornamentations pile up and entangle themselves in ever more compelling and complex ways, the characters and the realities of their culture shrivel up into caricature by comparison. The two principle actors in this story are Zam and Dodola, child slaves who live a precarious existence together and apart through the many decades covered by the plot. Zam is an African child whom Dodola, an Arab woman, adopts and later comes to love. Her body is offered up as a sacrifice to most of the men in the story, as well as to the eyes of the reader. She is not a complex or fully developed character despite being the main focus of the story. Instead, she serves as an aestheticized body, who spends most of the story selling her body for survival and ends up yearning for nothing more or less than being a mother. Zam, meanwhile, is often depicted as the prime sort of African victim the likes of which you’ve seen in those television ads for missionaries and aid organizations. He is by far the more complex and developed of the two protagonists, and bears the largest weight of a the novel’s sickening expedition into male sexual guilt, even emasculating himself at one point in penance for his lust. While the characters manage to escape oblivion and find some kind of life for themselves in the plot of the story, they cannot escape the fact that the story they are in finds them curious and fascinating but not really in a way that identifies them as concrete individuals rather than two more stars in a whole constellation of mystical symbols and thematic structures Thompson clearly found more worthy of his efforts.
The backgrounds of his panels are peppered with shifty and violent Arab men, poor people scavenging in the trash contrasted with celestial opulence, and nude women. Lots of those. It is exotic Arab fantasy elevated to a sublime spectacle. Men in this universe are bound to sexualize women and desire to rape them, even the good ones. Thompson has made comments that he in fact believes this to be the case. His depictions of harem scenes are self-consciously derivative of racist Orientalist painting from 19th century France, and don’t have any less of an exploitative taste for the exotic despite the thin gauze of irony the book layers on top of them. I am not suggesting that Habibi is unconsciously Orientalist and exploitative despite its author’s intentions. I am suggesting that it attempts to reappropriate the “genre” or thematic and graphic stereotypes of Orientalism for liberal and humanistic political ends. The novel is a critique or satirical gloss on these tropes, that is true. Unfortunately, however, a satire, in order to work, has to present what it is critiquing to the audience (notice that I am using Thompson’s images in my review), with a solemn and implicit pact between author and audience that everyone gets the joke. In this case, however, the joke is decidedly unfunny, beyond the fact that many, many people will not get it. It ends up being a rather uncritical, albeit “playful” summary or index of Arab stereotypes and Western sexual fantasies rather than a scathing indictment of them.
Would a more ethical and polemical bent turned this book into mere propaganda? Perhaps, but considering the literature arrayed on the other side of the spectrum, I think that we are due for some pro-human propaganda in the graphic novel world. Because it is sheltered in its own comfort with disturbing subject matter, because it refuses to be outraged or passionate about its characters, it consigns them to abstraction and, ultimately, negation as human subjects with their own integrity. Removed as it is from the real Middle East and a reckoning with real history, it aspires to be and achieves nothing more than a romp through a fantasy desert. That could have been a fascinating point of distance from which to launch a scathing critique of Islamophobia or imperialism or sexism or environmental degradation or capitalism, but instead it becomes an excuse to bring up those issues but never deal with them in any real way. Ironically, the more it revels in dusty, earthy details the less those seem to matter in light of the vast mystic/religious frameworks the story is elaborating on.
I am grateful that someone talented in art and writing felt the need, even if only motivated by private guilt, to [literally] draw the explicit connections between the Abrahamic faiths, to remind us that our histories are entwined with myths that belong to other cultures than our own. Habibi is not stupid or without insight. It is, however, devoid of wisdom and compassion on anything other than an abstract level.
That makes sense, though. After all, this is the same man who wrote, “So I’m exploring that contradiction: any man claiming he’s feminist is bullshitting, because your still animalisticly male.” And I suppose that anyone in the West who wants to be sympathetic to the Middle East is bulshitting because it can only be done in the abstract. After all, it’s impossible for us to think of Arabs as real people. So we might as well turn their stories and myths into pseudo-humanistic, guilt-assuaging, exploitative fun times for our audiences. Yes, that sounds about right.