Hasib & The Queen of Serpents

Hasib & The Queen of Serpents

The most significant observation I can make about David B. after reading his work for fifteen years is that the man knows precisely where and how to place every line on the page. That to me is extraordinary: every single line completely and perfectly allotted with meticulous rigor.

You could blow up a page of Hasib and the Queen of Serpents – any page, it really doesn’t matter – on an overhead projector and conduct a line-by-line audit if you so desired. What does this line do? Is everything in order? Ah, I see, it is precisely this width for exactly this length, everything appears to be in order. What a wonderful index finger!

The sensation carries through the whole book, page after page of, What a wonderful index finger! What a wonderful profile! What a wonderfully bit of shading! What a wonderful fish! Etc, etc. It can tend towards otiose. But that’s what reading David B. actually feels like, the page-by-page and panel-by-panel sensation is one of complete oversaturation, an abundance of virtuosity that threatens at any moment to carom over bounds and onto oppressiveness – but never quite tips over.

Hasib is an adaptation of a sequence from the later Arabian Nights – not one of the stories you know. As with the rest of the Arabian Nights, it’s less single saga than a series of stories nested one inside of the other, with every level echoing and reframing the events of the surrounding stories. With that in mind the pace of the adaption manages a rather nice approximation of the brisk pace of much medieval literature. It can seem arbitrary if you aren’t paying attention. Actually, it often is arbitrary – one damn thing happens after another for a while and then they stop. But pay attention to the structure of events. Read the book as if the second half was a mirror image of the first.

It’s intimidating to write about cartoonists like David B. For me, at least. It’s not always very obvious what there is to say about someone who knows who already knows how to place every line on the page. Let’s look at an example right off the top: page four. Six panels, two vertical rows one on top of the other. The first five panels feature the death of the sage Daniel, elderly father of Hasib, at the feet of his young and pregnant wife. David B.’s Daniel is ancient and emaciated, a very fragile figure who seems in the first two panels almost to be imparting his remaining vitality to his blessed offspring. Then in the subsequent three panels the expression on his face grows weaker as Daniel prepares to die.

Look at the expression on Daniel’s young bride – the mother of the story’s framing protagonist, Hasib Karim al-Din, in the fourth panel. In the space of just a few lines David B. switches between a more stylized and severe ninety-degree profile an a softer three-quarters angle – a switch which amplifies the character’s genuine grief at the loss of her husband. Look at the hands: the characters are holding hands in every panel, and the change in their body language is reflected in the ways they hold each other’s hands: What a wonderful index finger!

To suggest a gesture that suggests an emotion with a single line on a piece of paper? That’s magic. The elasticity and expressiveness of the figure work make certain passages seem strikingly modern. The sequence where Prince Bulukiya and the scheming wizard Affan (there’s always a scheming wizard in these stories) explore the tomb of King Solomon is staged and paced like a scene on Adventure Time. David B. uses every inch of the page without ever seeming to overpack it with extraneous or unnecessary detail. Every page is unique. Every line is sound. The audit reveals not a hair out of place.

Something else about Hasib’s story, interesting to note in terms of the context of this specific adaption, is that the story (as with, it must be said, must of the rest of the Arabian Nights) is steeped in religion. Characters like King Solomon appear directly from scripture. Demons and angels and talking snakes appear throughout to bring divine counsel or communicate messages. It’s a story with both Jewish and Muslim characters, spanning the length of the continent from India and Afghanistan through to Egypt and Greece. This is the product of a very cosmopolitan literary and religious culture that consciously drew from the folk tale traditions of peoples separated across the medieval world by many thousands of miles.

Stories don’t exist outside of their context. Sometimes – well, often, the Arabian Nights stories and framework doesn’t work well in adaptation, particularly in comics. Even well-intentioned treatments struggle with the usual challenges of adapting Middle Eastern texts for Western audiences. I do think Hasib sidesteps most of the orientalist tropes that can sink and have sunk such treatments in the past. David B. isn’t drawing any kind of romanticized or objectified version of a storybook Arabia, but rather a very cluttered multicultural space which touches throughout on various influences from multiple traditions of medieval representational art. It’s a very amenable group of visual sources in the hands of as canny a cartoonist as David B. Sometimes the wine-dark sea is crawling with beasts that look fresh out of a medieval bestiary, sometimes it looks like a Michael Kupperman drawing.

The result is something that reflects a stylized version of age of the stories without indulging in stereotype or essentialist fantasy. If there’s an alternative argument, I’m open to hearing it. His faces are usually highly distorted and even grotesque – thankfully he restrains his instincts and, I believe, errs on the side of caution in terms of caricature. He knows how to make very old things seem perfectly in synch with his native style, and to do so in such a way as to make a crowded and stylistically jumbled group of disparate sources seem more or less like a single cohesive unit. That also describes the original composition process of the Arabian Nights, come to think of it, so he’s doing alright as far as that goes.