Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 3: Humanists

by tigermanifesto

Editor’s Note: See here for part 1, where I discuss some of the theory underlying this critical investigation. See here for part 2, where I discuss Frank Miller’s provocative, often odious oeuvre.

If Frank Miller’s work is blunt, propagandistic imperialist discourse, Craig Thompson’s Habibi has a similar affinity for Orientalist stereotypes, but employs them critically in order to explore and humanize Islam, or at least the author’s own interpretation of Middle Eastern culture. Its plot, communicated in a fragmented and dreamlike style consciously recalling 1001 Nights, tells the story of  Dodola, a prostitute, and Zam, an African child slave. It focuses largely on their complicated love affair, beginning with Dodola taking the role of Zam’s surrogate mother and ending with the two of them adopting a child together as a couple. In the words of critic Joe McCulloch, “it’s a love story augmented by a studious exploration of Islamic writings, with the love poised to humanize a caricatured culture and the study often meant to sap their Other-ness through emphasizing parallel traditions.”¹ These characters, along with dozens of others, inhabit the land of Wanatolia, a fairytale, anachronistic synthesis of several Middle Eastern and North African cultures where the feudal and modern coexist, where Orientalist Ottoman harem imagery comfortably—and not so comfortably—nestles alongside towering drawings of housing developments reminiscent of contemporary Dubai. Thompson’s drawings and prose constantly appropriate stock characters and stereotypes of Arab people and society, portraying burly and misogynistic men, oppressed and eroticized women, slavers, merchants, fanatics, bandits, court figures, eunuchs, and others. It also heavily borrows from Arabic calligraphy, Islamic mysticism, and Qu’ranic texts, attempting to humanize and draw explicit connections between Arab and Western, Muslim and Christian, in order to universalize his exploration of religions and cultures and to make additional comments on environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation.

The book acknowledges the ahistorical and fanciful nature of its text, noting, through the character of the sultan, that “what I am interested in is the fantasy,” but in its effort to humanize Islamic texts and “culture” and explore various mysticisms and esoterica, the book manages to dehumanize most of its characters. Arab men (Fig. 3) and most of the African characters are drawn in a crude fashion and speak in a jarringly modern American dialect (Fig. 4). Also omnipresent is Dodola’s naked female form, whose depictions fetishize both her body and her ethnicity, especially in rape scenes that are exploited for maximum thematic and symbolic function. On a deeper level, however, they serve to consciously reproduce and encourage a kind of guilt and reflection, no doubt resembling the author’s own self-confessed guilt over rampant Islamophobia that erupted after September 11. This is also connected to male sexual guilt, reinforced through the presentation of female sexuality and the eroticized female body as both an exotic, beautiful ideal and a source of male insanity and barbarism.² This extensive exploration of the “shadow,” the alien and exotic, for the sake of its humanization, ends up participating in a culture of imperialism, of appropriating and fetishizing the East as the West’s shadow, regardless of how much the narrative attempts to close its contradictions through the heavy application of guilt.³ Since the book only recognize the aesthetic aspects of culture to the neglect of both real Middle Easterners and the history of colonial exploitation, it ends up presenting idealized beauty and ugliness that fall uncomfortably close to the illusions the book wants to critique.

Fig. 3. Dodola, now part of the sultan’s harem, has become a favorite of the monarch.

Fig. 3. Dodola, now part of the sultan’s harem, has become a favorite of the monarch.⁴

Fig. 4. The strange language and appearance of Hyacinth, one of Habibi's black characters.

Fig. 4. The strange language and appearance of Hyacinth, one of Habibi’s black characters.⁵

Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad is based on the real escape of several lions from a Baghdad zoo during the initial American air raids on the Iraqi capital in 2003. It follows the fictionalized story of these lions as they find they have been entered a false liberation; the bombs have shattered their cages but placed them in a hopeless situation as the city falls into chaos. It bears many other similarities to Habibi as well, especially in the way that the creation of a fantasy within a historical context tends to efface the reality of the politics, culture, and peoples who actually inhabit those places. In Habibi, that problem is inherent in the way it compresses the “Middle East” or, more appropriately, “the Orient” into a single fantasized land where guilt and power fantasies are allowed free reign. Pride of Baghdad takes the Iraq war as its stage, dramatizing its narrative through anthropomorphized animals, long a staple of graphic media in general and especially comics and animation. Because this fantasy occupies the foreground, Vaughan’s text attempts to allegorize the trauma American imperialist intervention while set in Baghdad and barely acknowledging human victims. The fantasy and reality dwell too closely together, and because the logic of the story is constructed around these lions the story effaces any human Iraqi presence in Baghdad as their city is destroyed. The Iraqi people are denied any kind of voice, shown only as corpses, or, notably, crystallized in a statue  of Saddam Hussein (Fig. 5)

Screenshot 2014-01-05 00.41.15

Fig. 5 The emptiness of Baghdad is palpable.⁶

Another point of connection between Habibi and Pride of Baghdad is their employment of rape as a metaphor for imperialist exploitation of land. In the former, Dodola is constantly obligated to sell her body to survive, which also connects to the book’s theme of environmental degradation. In Pride of Baghdad, there is a scene of rape against the book’s matron figure, Safa. In the latter case, the rape is tied to Safa’s fear of what freedom might bring, a cautionary tale from her time in the wilds of Africa to discourage the more youthful female in the pride from pursuing idealistic notions of escape. Human disregard for nature also emerges as a theme in a brief speech by a turtle the lions encounter by the banks of the Tigris. “There’s black stuff under earth, boy. Poison. When the walkers fight, they send it spewing into the sky, and spilling into the…into the sea.” This reductive approach to the American intervention is characteristic of a graphic novel that, while taking place against a complex political and historical background, prefers the distance of metaphor and allegory. Its treatment of the city as largely empty of humanity turns Iraq’s people into silent victims. In an effort to keep “balance” and “neutrality,” to focus on the more intimate “human-interest”—or is that “animal-interest?”—story at the core of the plot, it removes the Iraqi people from their own story. Its narrative is certainly not an endorsement of military adventuring, but it seems that it was easier for the book’s authors and intended audience to sympathize with a group of bewildered foreign felines than with Arabs. After all, the animals speak American English. 

Notes:

1. Joe McCulloch, “A Habibi Roundtable,” The Comics Journal, http://www.tcj.com/a-habibi-roundtable/

2. Craig Thompson, interview with Nadim Damluji, October 4, 2011. http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/11/a-conversation-about-habibis-orientalism-with-craig-thompson/

3. Thompson also noted that he is aware of Said’s criticism. He says, ““Edward Said talks about Orientalism in very negative terms because it reflects the prejudices of the west towards the exotic east. But I was also having fun thinking of Orientalism as a genre like Cowboys and Indians is a genre – they’re not an accurate representation of the American west, they’re like a fairy tale genre.” http://poptonesmusings.blogspot.com/2011/09/interview-with-craig-thompson.html.

4. Craig Thompson, Habibi (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), 241.

5. Ibid, 234.

6. Brian K. Vaughan, Pride of Baghdad, (New York: DC Comics, 2008), 52.

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