I found this graphic novel through its excerpt published in the 2013 edition of The Best American Comics. From the first page, I was captivated by Thompson’s impeccable command of geometry and perspective. I’ve had the book propped open on my bedroom table to page 218, a gorgeous full page image of Dodola, the female protagonist, fleeing hopelessly toward a towering, intricately ornamented set of double doors, as a source of motivation for the last week and a half.
The cartoonish postures and slapstick close calls of the preceding pages turn effortlessly into desperation, horror, and finally acceptance as she comes to terms with the impossibility of her situation. Thanks to the author’s mastery of stripping a character down to their most basic emotional essence, this transition happens over a total of four frames. By the fourth page, I knew that the excerpt would never be enough.
The story is a compelling blend of tragedy, mysticism, calligraphy, Islamic lore, social commentary, and linguistics bound together to tell of the sacrifices made for a love that evolves from childhood through constraints of slavery, sexual exploitation, murder, self-inflicted mutilation, abduction, and economic tyranny. Think of it like an exceptionally tasteful amalgamation of a season the Jerry Springer show set in a dystopian desert, but better. Or don’t. Instead, read the book and then respond to this post with personal insults and better descriptions of this book. ‘It’s just so good’ would be a more sincere description.
The explanations of Arabic writings and symbolism are fascinating in and of themselves, but Thompson’s placement of them throughout the plot is flawless. These brief deviations move the reader away from the narrative only long enough to build anticipation, and the moral of the aside, whether through parallel, contrast, or foreshadowing, always augments the development of the characters and events.
The repetition of these words and symbols are cleverly placed throughout the book in the framing of panels, the design of the palace walls, the contours of the waves breaking on a storm-wrought sea, all of which make taking the time to appreciate the intricacy of the artwork all the more rewarding.
As far as graphic novels go, this qualifies as a tome, but the constant playfulness in its layout ensures that there is never a sense of redundancy. Action sequences give the borders that contain them a life of their own, skewing and swaying with the intent of their characters. Dreams and fantasies are engulfed in the flames of the jinn who inspire them. And, like that first image that left me breathless, the volume is riddled with full page frames that create such sense of space that I am left unable to appreciate their detail because I get lost inside of the image each time I try.
This is a book that inspires. I will think of these images each time I consider rushing the line work on an expansive background, when I purchase my first calligraphy pens, and when I turn back to the first page to read this book for the third time in two weeks. This story is so embracing and believably resolved that I can’t help but feel a little more optimistic about these undertakings and life in general.
A book that is as honest as it is clever, ‘Habibi’ has infinite replay value. A great first for the uninitiated, a better next for the seasoned reader of graphic novels, Thompson has created a work that I can only define as my favorite example of allegory to date.