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Craig Thompson Talks Art and Inspiration in Habibi

Arts & Culture | October 10, 2011

No one has described Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel Habibi better than The Boston Phoenix: “Habibi is a masterpiece. This isn’t an opinion…Thompson apparently covered himself in honey and rolled around in a thousand years of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, and the result is breathtaking.”

The Phoenix hit the nail on the head; Craig Thompson came to the Brattle Street Theater on September 21 and talked about the creative process of writing and illustrating his new, almost 700-page epic, a process so long, so arduous and deep-reaching into Islamic art and culture that it is as breathtaking as the book itself.

Craig Thompson first saw critical acclaim for his 2003 graphic novel Blankets, a beautifully crafted autobiographical tale of adolescence, sexuality, and fundamental Christianity in the snowy Midwest. Habibi tells the story of a love affair between a prostitute and a eunuch that centers on themes of religion, sexuality, and water crisis.

“I got tired of drawing snowscapes,” Thompson said. “I either wanted to write a fantastical epic or political non-fiction, and the final product was a mix of the two.”

Habibi moves away from the vast swaths of white space in Blankets to more intricately designed backdrops and complex story lines.

“The fantastical I was craving was an environmental epic. A planet in peril,” Thompson said.

Habibi is indeed a masterpiece, but even more amazing is how much Islamic art Thompson had to consume to give his novel its genuine 1001 Nights feel.

“Comics used to be this immediate medium. Now it’s akin to novel-making. You go into a cave and come out seven years later, crazed,” Thompson said, as he showed slide upon slide of Islamic art he had used for inspiration over those seven years.

Thompson’s inspirations ranged from paintings to pottery to tapestries to stories by Islamic authors. In one slide, Thompson showed an Arabic poem called “Rain Song” by Badir Shakir al-Sayab. He had put it on a light box and painstakingly traced every Arabic letter, simply for the background of a single panel.

Thompson’s presentation illustrated the patience and hard work that goes into great art. When he started work on Habibi in 2004, the artist spent months just copying Arabic calligraphy and paintings to get a feel for the Islamic style. Then he wrote 200 pages, felt unsatisfied, and scrapped all of them to restructure the book around nine chapters, each one based on the shape of its corresponding number to the Arabic numeral system. After finishing the first draft of thumbnails in the fall of 2005, he was unsatisfied with the ending. He wrote, illustrated, and subsequently discarded hundreds of pages until he got it just right two years later. As he showed examples of these discarded pages, the audience was astounded at how much beauty Thompson, the perfectionist, had abandoned.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Habibi is that it doesn’t take place in a specific time or era. Instead, Habibi takes place in an unnamed Islamic village some time in the past. “It’s like Star Wars…you don’t know where it is exactly, but you know it started ‘a long long time ago, in a galaxy far away.’” Thompson said he did this so he could focus more on the style of 1001 Nights rather than the socio-cultural specifics of a country or village. He looked at the Arabic fairytale as a complex series of tropes, like a Western, rather than a genre with a distinct time and place.

Thompson is truly a master of his craft. He has won many Eisner and Harvey awards for his past works and Habibi will surely gain equal decoration. Definitely a book worth picking up, and an artist to keep an eye on.