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FILTER 45: Music For the Eyes: The Illustrated Epics of Craig Thompson

By Kevin Friedman; thumbnail by Alicia J. Rose on November 18, 2011


FILTER 45: Music For the Eyes: The Illustrated Epics of Craig Thompson

photos from Habibi courtesy of Pantheon Books

Craig Thompson is altering the parameters of what we expect from a graphic novel. From the snow-weighted landscapes of Wisconsin, as illustrated in Blankets (which established him as a vanguard in the format), to the fictional Middle Eastern land of Wanatolia, an Islamic desert kingdom in his latest opus, Habibi, Thompson erases the lines that have framed the borders of the comic book, pushing it into the realm of the traditional, epic-length book. At a hefty 592 pages, Blankets broke ground not only due to its size, but also its scope; here was a fully illustrated novel detailing Thompson’s complicated relationships with family, love and religion. There are no superheroes; it is not fantasy. It exists as something deeper: a literary autobiography—albeit a somewhat emo account.

In Habibi, Thompson moves away from personal experience to create a sprawling epic inspired by tales from 1,001 Nights, the Quran and Islamic history, complete with virtual lessons on Arabic language and lettering. The protagonists, Dodola and Zam, are a pair of outcasts—escaped child slaves who wander deserts, kingdoms and cities while their relationship zigzags across the lines of mother and child, sister and brother and, ultimately, lovers. As Thompson explores new realms in story, the author himself is reflected in the characters as they struggle with words, religion, sexuality and family; a quest perhaps to make sense of the confusing aspects of male and female relationships, the power of language, the purpose of art and the importance of environment. 

Thompson is a powerful storyteller and a skilled artist. As such, it wouldn’t matter his chosen format, but having picked the graphic novel, which exhibits his gifts both with words and illustration, he is helping to transform the medium.  ››

Can you give a brief overview of how the story of Habibi came about?

Craig Thompson: When I was finishing Blankets I was really sick of drawing myself and these very mundane Midwestern landscapes. I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself. There were two modes I was thinking of pursuing: a fantastical, Lord of the Rings-sort of comic-book fantasy, or something politically or socially relevant. Habibi was both of those energies meeting in the middle, just like a fairy tale, where I could pick and choose from political and religious topics that felt relevant to me.

What was your exposure to the aspects of Arabic calligraphy used in Habibi?

After 9/11, Muslim culture was being so vilified in the media that I wanted to educate myself about it. I got really inspired by elements of Arabic calligraphy, Islamic art and geometry. I wanted to focus on the beauty of that culture. There’s a quote about Arabic calligraphy, that it’s like music for the eyes, and that resonated with me because to see the written form turned into something that’s primarily visual mixes up a lot of the attitudes that I have about the comics form—that the drawings are like handwriting and actual words are like drawings. It’s about a music or sort of a rhythm. 

Throughout the book there are interludes where you give a history of the significance of certain shapes and numbers working together, or even historical references to science. It was interesting to see those included.

In art, I always like the wandering parts of the narrative, or of the visuals. And in comics, those are the parts I’ve been most excited about, too—the panels that make you pause for a moment. It’s not just about propelling the story forward. I had the influence of 1,001 Nights, too. I was reading that and getting inspired by how the story folds in on another story, and on another story, and you sort of lose track of where you started. I wanted to create that tribute to 1,001 Nights—including the scatological humor and, of course, the sex. 

What is your history with the Quran? It seems very influential to Habibi.

Before the book, I had no history with the Quran. I grew up a fundamentalist Christian, so I was a devout reader of the Bible. I was one of those people who read it everyday for about 10 years. The Bible and comic books, that’s pretty much all I read, so it’s just appropriate that I would make Bible-sized comic books. I started reading the Quran when I started researching for Habibi. And I actually prefer it to the Bible, at least as a literary object—it’s more eloquent, it’s more poetic. I don’t think that you can totally understand the Quran without having preexisting biblical knowledge, because it’s like 1,001 Nights; it’s all woven together. 

You started your career with four-panel newspaper comics and now you’re doing 650-page books. How do you go from one to the other?

It feels the same, because I would do maybe six pages of comics a year and it would feel like a huge accomplishment. Once you graduate from one to the next you just keep upping the ante. I did mini comics and zines throughout the ’90s, which was appropriate during that D.I.Y. era. But once I started working in the industry, I knew I wanted to do books. I wasn’t actively interested in what were called “pamphlet comics”—which I’m more interested in now that they’re going extinct—at the time, I felt they were holding back the medium. That format and the comic-book stores that existed then felt like awkward porn stores. Now, there are cool comics stores, but 15 years ago the industry needed to change; it seemed broken. 

Are you going to keep working in the book form?

This book took me eight years. Now I want to do four books in the next four years before I turn 40, but that’s a challenge because I’ll have to increase my work rate. I want to make books while there’s still a book industry. 

How do you see your contribution toward moving the medium forward?

When I was working on Blankets I had a feeling that there was a much larger audience for comics outside of the ghettoized world of people who went to comic-book stores. After Blankets came out and all around the same time, a lot of books came out that were graphic novels. It really did change the industry and brought a lot of readers in that weren’t associated with the comics world—especially women. I was just talking with a friend and every cartoonist we know in New York City is a woman, but 20 years ago there were barely any. It was this boys club of stupid fantasy stuff.

It’s an interesting transformation because many people associate comics with fights and explosions. Characters are often very one-dimensional—good guys, bad guys and superheroes with a few personal demons.

The medium isn’t suited to huge, explosive, bombastic action stories. We have video games to fill that role. Comics are quieter and more intimate, like a hand-drawn letter. I felt that by their nature there was always something more feminine about graphic novels. The death of the print medium is aligned with this horrible C.G.I. explosion in cinema, but comic books have this small window where they can be one of the more graceful visual mediums while everything else is disintegrating. Action is boring when you’re an adult. F

For more on Craig Thompson and his work, visit his blog, Doot Doot Garden
Habibi is out now, available for purchase at the Random House online store

This article is from FILTER Issue 45