It’s stunning to think that Craig Thompson had been off the grid, so to speak, for 8 years. His latest book, “Habibi,” focused on Islamic stories and fans been hearing bits and pieces about it since 2004. I recalled him getting a celebrated advance for the work by Random House, but a few hundred thousand dollars looked less like a comfortable income when spread over 8 years. Granted, he has had arthritis issues, so I’m sure that that plays some part in his slow pace – he would never be like Jack Kirby, penciling a full comic book every week.
Admittedly, Mr. Thompson was in a tough spot. It’s hard when one created a masterpiece so early in one’s career – like he did with “Blankets” – and then have the rest of a career to produce things that compete against that earlier work.
What made “Blankets” so special to me – and I think most readers – was that Thompson didn’t get too dark or too zany with it. He kept a good balance that made it seem grounded in reality. Growing up in much the same surroundings as the rural Wisconsin that Thompson portrayed, I could certainly relate to the majority of what unfolded while he was growing up. I can’t think of anything else that was quite like it, in terms of showing the life and loves of the upper-Midwestern pop culture geek in the early 1990s.
Eight years later, “Habibi” appeared to be a completely different animal and I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Persepolis” when I read about it. Of course, “Habibi” didn’t sound uninteresting, but it also didn’t quite grab my attention the same way “Blankets” had when I first heard about it.
I should make clear that I didn’t think that “Habibi” was a bad piece of work. It generated rave reviews and they were justified. The art was insanely good and the story was heartbreakingly honest. It was basically what everyone had hoped that Mr. Thompson would deliver after eight long years.
Unlike “Blankets” though, “Habibi” wasn’t something that I envisioned reading over and over. So much of the plot revolved around sexual abuses that it was a hard read at times. And I realize that that was part of the point, to shine a light on injustices while trying to tell an ‘honest’ story. It was educational in a way, given that it made me wonder about how true-to-life the depiction of women was in certain situations within the semi-real region where the story takes place. By the same token though, I found myself agreeing with some reviewers who felt that they were eventually desensitized to the reoccurring sexual traumas.
And, yes, “Blankets” had a couple of similarly dark elements, such as child molester babysitter and the general overbearing rage of the teen protagonist’s parents. But it never quite went to the same dark places that “Habibi” went to semi-frequently. Further, I could more-directly relate to the family situation and religious tensions in “Blankets,” even though the relationships that I had with those elements later in life have been nearly the exact opposite from where Mr. Thompson ended up.
From an artistic standpoint, I’m a little baffled as to how Thompson managed to crank away on such a down-beat story as “Habibi” for eight years. It may simply be a matter of differences in personality, but I couldn’t do it. I prefer my creative endeavors to be more about the good guys winning and everything working out in the end, rather than slavishly reflecting the realities of, well, reality.
That said, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking “Habibi” out. It was clearly another milestone work by Mr. Thompson in the graphic novel form.
Mr. Thompson mentioned during recent interviews that his next project(s) would involve: 1) An all-ages comic, which hadsort of a magical look to it, 2) a nonfiction/essay-like book, and 3) an erotic graphic novel. Based on that preview, perhaps he was looking to come out of the darkness, but we’ll have to wait for that next work to appear to know for sure.
One side note regarding “Habibi” and its marketing: I was surprised that the publisher released it in late September 2011 and not in conjunction with Comic-Con a month prior. The impression given on Mr. Thompson’s blog mid-summer 2011 was that he was virtually done with it, so I don’t think that it was a matter of him racing toward the September 2011 deadline. It seemed like a missed opportunity for free promotion, although the book was poised to be a bestseller irregardless.