Stories are the framework that we build our lives upon. Our beliefs, our fears, our relationship with the world, with birth, with death, with fate, all come out of the tales we whisper to each other, huddled round campfires in the dark. We have taught ourselves to respond to myth and legend, fable and saga. Fantasy used as a way to understand and codify the callous, bewildering universe around us.
In Habibi, Craig Thompson takes the idea of the story as key to survival and runs with it. Riffing on Islamic and Christian mythology, the Thousand and One Nights and the ways in which language can both divide and unite us, the book is an astonishing, bravura example of how the graphic novel can do things with a story that no other medium can touch.
Habibi is the story of two refugees, Dodola and Zam. They are child slaves who escape from a cruel fate to be drawn back into one that could be even crueller. The two grow up together, lose and find each other in surprising ways before finding their own path in a world that is falling apart around them.
Thompson sets his tale in a fictitious Arabian state that seems both ancient and modern. Ruled over by a child-like sheik whose every whim is obeyed without question, it is drowning in waste and corruption. It could be anywhere in the last thousand years, or right here right now. Slavery is endemic. The environment is on the brink of collapse. Through it all, Dodola and Zam survive, bringing each other back from the brink of disaster time and again.
Dodola is a storyteller, a sharply intelligent girl with imagination and street-smarts. This is a combination that gets her in as much trouble as it helps her to survive. But her instincts are good, and her heart is pure. And her bond to Zam remains unbreakable. Zam never loses faith in Dodola, who serves as both parent and later lover to him. The two are bound by love and a trust that they will be reunited that the pitiless world around them cannot sunder.
The book is an artifact in it’s own right. A thick, beautifully bound volume, it feels like something that you’d pluck from the shelves of an ancient library. Something rooted in older traditions, something with the weight and heft of history. Thompson’s art is equally remarkable, owing nods to the fluid, expressive work of Will Eisner and Paul Pope. But it’s his delight in the calligraphy of the Islamic world that really sings off the page. Words, phrases and poems twist and mutate, becoming the things that they signify. Hidden meanings are tucked into the curlicules of decorative script, peering out and revealing themselves to the patient eye. This is a book to devour in one sitting, and then go back and tease out the quite literal sub-texts. Words appear in a trail of blood, in the path of a boat across a trash-choked river, in the curve of Dodola’s collarbone.
This is lovely, grown-up, mind-expanding work from an artist and writer who is at the absolute top of his game. A story that encompasses storytelling, a dream that holds all others, a comment, satire and celebration of the big magical fiction tales. Habibi is a legend made real, a myth that you can hold in your hand before it takes flight in your head. If you love to curl up with a good book, then Habibi will curl up with you and whisper spells and enticements in your ear while the sky falls. Along with Dodola and Zam, you will come to see that the word on the tip of your tongue has many meanings, and a sound that you can only really voice silently.