A Habibi Roundtable

Charles Hatfield:

Joe, per usual, your reading leapfrogs into fascinating territory, particularly your dazzling take on the book’s reigning cluster of metaphors and its, as you say, narrative super-structure. That super-structure is what I had in mind when I spoke of the unity and cohesion of the book’s design schema—that “diagrammatic table of contents” which, as Hayley points out, supplies the novel’s entire structure. I see this designing tendency as a mighty, though not wholly successful, attempt to strengthen a story vitiated by its, as you suggest, very length, breadth, and wandering nature. The book tries to disguise, or shore up, its sloshing with a hyper-disciplined presentation, which works like a form of secondary elaboration, a willed architecture to box in its poetic waywardness.

To me, Thompson’s careful rigging of this super-structure (which, yes, calls to mind Moore’s work) tensely coexists with the almost physical ardor of the work, including his supple line, his emphasis on sensual pleasure as well as pain, and the overall thematic of longing. As Tom says, Habibi is a story “of longing for a beloved,” perhaps too an attempt to recover a lost faith. It’s a mixing of religious and sexual passion, in that sense like Blankets. Yet it seems uneasy in how it seeks to reconcile a distanced view, meaning an architectonic view of the book as a total design, nested, layered, and deep, with that more spontaneous, or at least initially spontaneous, spiritual ache. Habibi puts the lie to anyone who still thinks Thompson is an unreflective navel-gazer without a grasp of form—but it may be that the book’s design is too clever, thus airless, controlled and controlling, overdone, overly finished (Hayley’s tight leash?). In other words, it may be that the book’s formalism vitiates the sense of longing we get from it—or at least makes it harder for us readers to participate in that longing. This seems to be a theme in many of our comments: nothing is left to our process of discovery; everything is overdetermined.

I was talking to a colleague at a conference just days ago who dearly wanted to love Habibi but who was repulsed a bit not only by the Orientalist tropes but also by the book’s quality of obsessive deliberation and finish, a quality she and I agreed might be best described as overbaked. Is it perhaps this quality that leads Tom to call the book manipulative, to say that it leaves “nothing to the reader”? Is it this that prompts Joe to say that Thompson leaves nothing implicit, and Hayley to say that the reader “can add nothing” to the tale? Thompson’s level of craft is so high, it’s perhaps suffocating.

On the other hand, I sympathize with Katie’s point (rebounding from Faber), that in the comics world, or at least in a certain part of it, there is a prejudice against virtuosity. This may help explain our resistance to Thompson’s “manipulation.” It also helps explain why Thompson’s debt to Eisner, who in discussions like these often serves as the epitome of melodramatic manipulation, has come under such intense scrutiny (see the comments thread after Nadim’s Damluji’s review of Habibi, for instance). Thompson’s “Eisnerian approaches” are part of jerking on that leash, eh?

A Contract with God ©1996 Will Eisner

Hayley, I agree that the Eisnerian strain shows through especially strongly in the chapter with Noah the fisherman. Yes, that chapter reads like a lost Eisner work, particularly Noah’s arc from naive optimism to icy pessimism to renewed faith. The gestures there are especially broad. But I also agree that this is a lovely chapter, one of the gleaming highlights of the book. (Is it just me, or does the poignancy of Noah’s tale not remind you of Captain Chuck in Good-Bye, Chunky Rice?)

Katie’s point about mistrust of virtuosity reminds me of so many things, not least discussions of why people value what they value in music. The reverse snobbery of the punk fan who distrusts skillfulness and fetishizes supposed authenticity via technical clumsiness comes to mind. Such dislike of virtuosity smacks of James Kochalka’s notorious, though long-ago, declaration that “craft is the enemy,” by which I take it Kochalka meant that mastering everything in one’s art to the point of having nothing else to discover is a drag. Good point. More vexingly, though, Kochalka has also said that “there is no art in illustration.” I don’t believe this. It’s a commonplace, though, in circles where suspicion of craft leads people to prize crudeness for its own sake.

I’m reminded of John Sheinbaum’s essay “Progressive Rock and the Inversion of Musical Values” (in the book Progressive Rock Reconsidered, edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson [Taylor & Francis, 2002]), which shows how the very skills valorized within classical music criticism are damned in rock criticism. Sheinbaum’s point is not to reprioritize classicism at the expense of rock’s energy and iconoclasm, but to show how the mere upending of classical values cannot usefully account for all genres of rock and creates its own kind of critical narrowness. Point taken. Similarly, the idea that rough directness in comics is always to be preferred over technical virtuosity rules out of court a lot of work that is interesting and beautiful (I take it this was Faber’s point).

That said, I admit to taking a Kochalka-esque view of some things. For instance, I’ve always found Pink Floyd’s later output (including Dark Side of the Moon) to be labored and oppressive in its well-crafted slickness. Maybe that’s because of a mismatch between the band’s lacerating cynicism and its technical polish? And I find myself wishing that Thompson would create another short blast of a book, something like his Carnet de Voyage, something that could serve as a tonic contrast to the laboriousness of Habibi. I’m not wholly consistent on these things.

But perhaps the issue of craft is a red herring. Like Tom, I don’t mind being manipulated if it’s well done. I think my misgivings have more to do with Habibi’s basic conception: to me, the novel’s most important troublesome element is its participation in Orientalism as a genre (the core issue for Damluji as well). The hyper-elaboration of its design and its surface strikes me as overcompensating for that dicey conception. Yet I also must confess that, again like Tom, the book’s hopefulness moved me. When I got to the end of it, I was pretty close to Hayley’s what a fucking book. Yes. Perhaps that was simply a reaction to my own considerable investment in it, both the hopes I had had for it and the sheer effort I put into reading it?

I want to say, before I forget and let the point slip through my fingers, that I consider Katie’s point about racism in the novel important. I don’t agree with her, though, that the black characters often look inhuman—something I hadn’t even thought of. It’s their speech that often disappoints, particularly in the case of Hyacinth, the chief eunuch, who, as both Katie and Tom point out, is taxed with particularly obnoxious dialogue. His Black Power rhetoric is woefully flatfooted. The other efforts at humor I don’t mind, including the “walnut” joke about skin color, which I took to be the result of Thompson’s research into slavery and racism in Arab history—which are hard, unerasable realities (I suppose a useful starting point on this issue would be Race and Slavery in the Middle East, by Edward Said’s antagonist Bernard Lewis [Oxford, 1992]). In general, I think the humorous asides are surprising because they don’t conform to the prevailing image of Thompson as achingly sincere (this is more a Blankets image than a Chunky Rice one, I’d say). But I agree with Hayley that these sallies are welcome.

Another unattached thought: the pivotal Chapter 8, “Orphan’s Prayer,” which consists of picture-less nine-panel grids—that chapter Joe calls the near picture-free alif chapter—is a brilliant stroke. It’s brilliant because (a) it finally confronts the aniconism (ban on images) that is so important in Islamic art and culture, and (b) it’s the one place where the overwhelming leash-tugging power of Thompson’s virtuosity is stilled, and yet it still remains powerful. Of all the ingenious formal moves in Habibi, perhaps the smartest is the one in which Thompson’s drawings disappear.

Chris Mautner:

Charles’ “overbaked” comment in a way gets at the heart for me of what was problematic about Blankets. All of the criticisms the book has received—it’s too shallow, there’s no subtext, it’s too bourgeois (isn’t that what Menu said?), it works better as a book for young readers—miss what I think is the book’s critical flaw, mainly that it’s overstuffed. Quick, what is Blankets really about? Is it about Thompson’s relationship with his girlfriend? With his parents? With his brother? With God? All of the above? And what about the girlfriends’ parents and siblings, who are given more space in the book (or at least equal space) than Thompson’s own parents? For me, Blankets’ central problem is that it tries to juggle too many subplots, too many characters and too many themes, with nothing ever jelling (transcendent moments aside) into a cohesive narrative whole.

That being the case, what impressed me right off the bat about Habibi is what a comparatively smoother read it is. If anything, the book boasts a larger cast and twice as many subplots and yet I never once felt all these disparate units weren’t part of a greater naarrative structure. This time around, I could admire the individual joints and beams without feeling like I was failing to grasp how they interlocked into each other (if I may use a weird housing analogy).

What troubled me about the book—or at least one of the central things that troubled me about the book upon my initial reading—was its incredibly bleak outlook on life and humanity. With the exception of a very small number of people (most notably Nadidah, who I think serves as a very important counterpoint to Dodola), about every single person other than the two protagonists is greedy, mean, and abusive. What with all the child rape and slavery and rape and global warming and rape and prostitution and rape and social exploitation, I began to wonder whether Dodola and Zam shouldn’t just enter into some sort of suicide pact to escape the brutal world they abide in.

But of course, all that misery is really just the flip side of Thompson’s romanticism. At its core, Habibi is a familiar tale of two lovers separated by overwhelming adversity, a self-aware, modern-in-spirit-if-not-in-dressing version of Tristan and Iseult (or whatever star-crossed lovers of classical lore you prefer to reference). To throw so many enormous obstacles in the couple’s path gives Thompson the ability not only to comment on modern man’s general inhumanity to his fellow man, but also to emphasize the couple’s deep (and fated) connection with each other. To put it another way, it raises the stakes of the game and gives the reader something to root for. The worse off the young lovers are, the more desperate you are to see these crazy kids reunite. No wonder he indulges in so many Orientalist trappings; that sort of material just feeds into the kind of pulp romanticism that Thompson is ultimately indulging in here.

By the way, I’m not trying to doubt Thompson’s sincerity here or ascribe any sort of mercenary impulse. He’s very clearly a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. Nor am I saying that, despite my concerns (some of which have already been well articulated by the rest of the roundtable), I didn’t enjoy Habibi, though I suspect I ultimately may end up admiring it more than outright liking it. Certainly there can be little doubt that it is a visually stunning book, full of striking sequences. I especially appreciated how Thompson blends word and image so frequently and to such eloquent effect, and I’m waiting for R.C. Harvey’s thoughts on how that final “all-text” sequence at the end that CH mentions upsets the “verbal-visual” applecart.

And yeah, Haley’s dead on about the Eisner influence. That fisherman looks like he walked right out of A Contract With God.

Katie Haegele:

I’m afraid I’m very short on time now but I wanted to pop in for a minute. Charles, thanks for your comparison of authenticity in punk to this problem of “virtuosity” in comics. It seems apt. I see this in my zine corner of the writing/art world too (which is a punk corner too of course): things being dismissed out-of-hand because they look too polished. I am sympathetic with this view when I sense that the maker is pretending to be one thing but is actually another, or is using a more accessible format as a stepping stone for something he deems loftier, but I get angry when what is being put down is “craft” or perfectionism or even formal education. Thompson’s drawings are so “controlled” as you say, and so detailed and elaborate, that it seems to me what’s being shown off isn’t his skill (though he’s got it) so much as a certain devotion to his subject matter, and I can get behind that. It feels appropriate to the subject and his relationship to it. I’m reminded of a friend who told me there was a particular prayer her Chinese grandfather wrote out hundreds of times over the years, perfecting the lettering as a way of praying.

But content-wise, overstuffed feels about right to me too. For all that was crammed into the book I took little away. Getting through it felt like work; I finished reading it a few weeks ago and no aspect of it has lived in my mind since then. And I stand by my assessment that the way most of the “black” characters in this book were handled is off in several ways—especially in light of the book’s “Orientalism” as we’re politely calling it, which everyone was quick to identify—to the point that what Thompson was attempting to give us with these characters was totally lost on me. Comic relief? At whose expense? Anyway, the pompous attitude of this book cannot support hammy jokes; i.e. they aren’t funny. I wasn’t giving this some pointy-headed liberal reading, looking for things to be offended by. I’m honestly surprised that jive-talking eunuchs, etc., didn’t startle all of you right out of the narrative like they did me. Charles—I appreciate your insight that he may have been commenting on Arabic racism in the “walnut” gag that bothered me, but it still stands out to me as insensitive and just, like, ODD to make some Gong Show gag in that context (a slave auction). I take your point but overall I don’t believe that the humor rankled me because I expected or wanted the book’s tone to remain pious and sincere—I just didn’t find it funny! Most of the attempts at levity felt misplaced, either anachronistic or inappropriate to the subject matter (or, yeah, to the overall studiously reverent feeling of the book), so rather than relieving tension, for me, it fell flat. And the farting dwarf was just weird.

Charles Hatfield:

Katie, I agree both about appreciating Thompson’s devotion to his craft but also his very uncertain way with dialogue and, on reflection, his terribly self-conscious treatment of race. The book doesn’t earn the authority that it seeks to assume in those passages—though I don’t think Thompson should have retreated from the issues; rather I think he should have followed them more doggedly. Honestly, I don’t think one has to be a “pointy-headed liberal” to find things in the book to object to.

Joe McCulloch:

I don’t have much of a problem with virtuosity so much as the book’s studied content becoming ungainly enough that its probably unwitting implications and clusters of internal contradictions become too much to float over. Then again, Tucker Stone linked to a nice Economist piece the other day where the artist Grayson Perry declared it a male tendency to cloak aesthetic preference in the guise of function, so maybe I’m being a total boy here and wishing for a perfect-humming comics machine when the very act of processing Thompson’s inquiries can be a unique pleasure of its own.

Still, I love Chris’ notion of all this mystic electricity as power for the romantic trials facing this most unhappy couple. He calls it pulp romanticism, and I’ll cartwheel my way toward a sheer cliff by declaring it Bollywood as fuck. And while India might not spring to mind as primarily where Habibi is casting its gaze—to the extent it’s gazing anywhere with much specificity, which is part of the problem—the country does contain about a tenth of the world’s Muslims, and, crucially, many popular and exportable Muslim performers in quite a few complication-laden melodramatic love stories which share not a little common ground with melodramatic tenants long-active in American fiction, as recently detailed by Kailyn Kent. Many of these works also sprinkle broad and seemingly jarring bits of humor in with the blend—as, admittedly, did manga à la Tezuka, who totally would throw in weird comedy basically whenever he felt like it, even in seemingly totally serious works. I actually thought the slapstick, antic aspect of Habibi wound up as one of its more successful invocations of a distant, if faintly rendered cultural space, though maybe an accidental one; there’s a grand tradition of humor in American comics too, of course, but little that sprinkles humor so liberally throughout so grand a singular narrative.

Likewise, I’m hesitant to declare notions of the book’s setting as ancient-yet-modern to be specifically Orientalist, in that (again, per Kent) the dichotomy between “rural” and “urban” settings is a melodramatic trope, frankly active today in popular entertainments consumed by millions of actual, diverse foreign peoples; the bits with Zam and Dodola staring out over the city from their terribly profound unfinished skyscraper squatting ground might look like something straight out of Slumdog Millionaire, but Danny Boyle bit that from actual regional stuff. Ah, but then we’re faced again with the globular “Arabia” that is the Habibi setting, as opposed to the particularities of “global” tropes active in a particular nation-of-diversities; if a recent Hindi-language feature like Mausam (just to name the latest to hit my city multiplex) tracks its lovey-dovey couple from an old-timey village in Punjab to the modern, national scene of military jets and international aid—with some attention paid to handwritten notes luxuriously dissolving into water, I must say—it’s because the filmmakers are in part selling a familiar brand of nationalized identity narrative hailing traditional roots while acknowledging no small effect of globalization. It’s the lack of such specificity that troubles Habibi, emphasizing Thompson’s status as an outsider with cultural baggage to carry, if one intent on keeping his head up.

Charles Hatfield once more:

Agreed. The fantasy Arabia that gives Habibi its setting is the heart of the problem, I think. This setting, which, Thompson’s research notwithstanding, is a generic rather than historic one, is the very warrant of his story, the ground without which he could not invent so freely or range so widely—but, still, the book implicitly makes claims on our knowledge of the real world, of Islam, Islamophobia, East-West relations post-9/11, environmental racism, and the ecological traumas and challenges of our time. The book bids for relevance in specific ways, some allegorical, many overt, and that makes its reckless deployment of the Oriental tale—what Thompson himself has identified, accurately, as a genre—seem like an essential dodge. We can’t quite critique the setting because, as Tom points out, the book freely explores and riffs on several disparate cultures, the result being a synthetic storybook version of Islamic empire in some (despite the skyscrapers) premodern age. This seriously complicates both the book’s virtues and its attempts at social and political relevance.

It may be, as both Chris and Joe argue, that Habibi uses Orientalist set dressing to lend grandeur and pathos to a generic story of star-crossed lovers. Joe rightly points out that this kind of story is greedily consumed by diverse peoples worldwide; it’s not simply an imposition from without (notably, there are florid examples of the genre in the 1001 Nights itself). But Thompson strikes me as trying to do something else; the freightedness of Zam and Dodola’s final consummation is not simply emotional and sensual, but, implicitly, political: symbolically, the crossing of a cultural divide. Habibi, though, for all its artfulness, doesn’t quite earn that. The problem is one of treating disparate cultures interchangeably. Helen Bannerman did this in Little Black Sambo (1899), a book that has inspired diametrically opposed readings—degrading, empowering; positive, negative—because of its fundamental instability. Bannerman lived in India, a setting that Sambo hints at, but the pictorial depiction of the characters courts the stereotypic Blackamoor in ways that blur African and other racial meanings. That Bannerman could get away with this is itself a symptom of the imperialism under which she lived. I am convinced that she meant well—Sambo has a sweet, well meant, funny story at its core—but her readers’ very indifference to the mixed-up racial signifiers in the book (Indian, African, African-American, etc.) was an imperial indulgence. (Elizabeth Hays’ book Sambo Sahib [Harris, 1981] well covers this topic.) Despite many smart attempts to update the story, Sambo remains notoriously dated, mired in a particular time, and it has the defects of its virtues. Will we say the same about Habibi if and when we are able to view East-West relations from a different, less traumatized perspective?

What I’m gleaning from our discussion—not to say we’re all in entire agreement, which we clearly aren’t, but there are threads in the above that are shared—what I’m gleaning is that Habibi inspires awe for its thoroughness and devotion, but that its willed coherence, i.e. its painstaking scaffolding, comes at the cost of great effort for Thompson and readers alike. This is either because its myriad explorations dilute its power, or, on the other hand, because its overdetermined pattern of associations denies readers a longed-for role in teasing out and contributing to that power. Habibi is, undeniably, massively, the result of a heroic effort of will. It is the Eisnerian graphic novel writ large. For every reader who admires its elaborate construction, though, others will find it elephantine and unwieldy, or simply too rigidly formed and airtight to grant a way in. (Speaking personally, I’d love to see Thompson put aside the graphic novel for a while and put his ravishing artistry to work in sundry shorter forms.)

Most troublingly, Habibi is a haunted exercise in exoticization that traffics in images that, on some level, it cannot help but disapprove—but that Thompson the artist cannot help but love. Thompson, after a long, deep plunge into risky waters, has come to the surface with a work that resolves little and provokes much, one we’ll be wrangling about for some time—perhaps the ultimate irony for a book that so avidly does the work of what Eisner called reader discipline, that is, tugging on the chain, seeking to affirm and cement its own self-interpretation, its own thoroughly crafted meanings. Habibi, in the end, will have done something if its provocations goad readers into thinking and investigating the issues on their own, beyond the suasive envelope of Thompson’s beguiling artistry.

Thanks to everyone here for pushing the conversation forward.