Craig Thompson’s latest graphic novel, Habibi (My Darling in Arabic), is a stunning visual work. The story takes place in an unspecified Middle Eastern country in the fictional city of Wanatolia. The art incorporates Arabic calligraphy and complex patterns from Islamic mosaic art. It took Thompson about six years to do the book and it is evident why it took so long. The detail is amazing.
The story told in these nearly 700 pages of art and words is about Dodola and Zam. Dodola is married very young, at about the age of 10 or so. Her husband is a scribe and teaches her to read and write. But things go bad and Dodola ends up in a slave market. She escapes and rescues a small boy, Zam, at the same time. They run into the desert and find refuge in a boat stranded in the dunes. Zam’s job is to find water, Dodola’s to get food from passing caravans. Zam finds a spring, Dodola learns that in order to get enough food to survive she must prostitute herself in exchange.
They live in the boat for nine years during which time Dodola tells Zam stories from the Qur’an. These stories will be recognizable to many as they are stories of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Solomon but they aren’t quite the same as the stories in the Old Testement. Dodola also tells Zam about the mysteries of magic squares and a few other mystical charms. She also becomes a woman and Zam reaches puberty and begins to having feelings for her about which he is ashamed.
Events happen that separate Dodola and Zam. Dodola ends up in the Sultan of Wanatolia’s harem. She is, essentially a sex slave. Zam has no idea what happened to Dodola and he goes to Wanatolia looking for her and for a way to survive. He finds a way to keep from starving but it demands a high sacrifice that he eventually decides to give.
Years pass and Dodola and Zam are reunited. Both are adults now with deep scars. Still, they also carry within themselves the children they once were. There is no neat and tidy ending to the story, which is good. However, there is the implication that Dodola and Zam are on the road to healing and wholeness, accepting each other for who they have become and making a new life together.
The art, as I said, is exquisite. Be aware that is not a book for young readers because it has quite a lot of nudity in it. Too much really. Dodola is frequently completely nude even when she doesn’t have to be. There is also sex as well as a rape. The story is not as good as the art. In fact, I didn’t like the story much at all. There were just too many threads, too much going on, and it doesn’t always connect together. A complex story coupled with the complex art was a bit overwhelming. One or the other needed to be simpler. My preference would be for a simpler story.
Great art and a not so great story combine to make a so-so book. Since I loved Blankets I had high expectations for Habibi and was disappointed. I hope whatever Thompson does next is better balanced between art and story and doesn’t take him six years to complete. He’s a fabulous artist and writer but just missed the mark this time around.