I am struck breathless at how horribly offensive, ignorant and wrong-headed something so beautiful can be, by which I mean I am awestruck at how horri...moreI am struck breathless at how horribly offensive, ignorant and wrong-headed something so beautiful can be, by which I mean I am awestruck at how horrible Habibi is.
I adored Craig Thomson's Blankets; I adored the fluid structure and the slight hint of magical realism and the emotional honesty and discussion of religion and the art was stunning. The art sees improvement in Habibi - the book was certainly no rush job - but the plot structure is so poorly crafted, the world-building is a mishmash of impossibly offensive orientalist stereotypes, and the characters lack any distinguishing characteristics.
The plot in Habibi is characterized by the same slipperiness as the plot in Blankets - time is not reliable and stories intertwine haphazardly. In Blankets it worked, because the work was autobiographical but also because there was only one character to keep tabs on. In Habibi the plot meanders, focusing too much on Dodola and then too much on Zam, to the point that at any given time one or the other has faded entirely into the background.
The book also suffers from a lack of place. It takes place in no particular place during no particular time and uses crude stereotypes to set up what others have praised as a "fairy tale landscape" based on middle eastern culture and Islamic faith but really seems to just be cultural appropriation. The book later on reveals to be set during something like "modern times" but this is 2/3 of the way through the book, and the revelation is jarring; I had the distinct feeling that I might be being trolled by the author. The fact that the book is ostensibly set during modern times further problematizes already orientalist elements, implying a level of cruelty in a group of humans that is unfair even for a dated piece, let alone a modern one.
The book could, arguably, be thought of as satire, and therefore as a critique of orientalist thinking, but Thompson takes himself far too seriously to accomplish any sort of satire very well. True, Dodola and Zam are presented as sympathetic, but only because nearly ever other character is so improbably morally bankrupt that it's impossible to think well of anyone else other than them, and perhaps Nadidah and Hyacinth. Furthermore nearly all other character are portrayed as selfish, ugly, perverse, fat, or any combination of the four.
The portrayal of both Arab men and black men is repulsive, Arab men because they are represented nearly universally as hideous rapists, and black men because they are all relegation to the positions of sexless slaves. Visually, the way black people are drawn throughout the book is disturbing; they are often given over-exaggerated features that look so similar to racist caricatures of the early 20th century that it is incredibly disconcerting (not that every black person in the text is drawn in such a way, but enough are that it is worth noting).
Also visually problematic is how Dodola is drawn. It isn't that she is constantly drawn naked -- people can be drawn naked with dignity and grace. It isn't even, really, that she is drawn sexually, but rather that she is drawn in awkward, back-arching positions more reminiscent of pornography than anything else. Her body is constantly filtered through the male gaze, constantly contorted and twisted and made into something strange and excessively sexualized.
Furthermore, Dodola's constant sexual abuse pervades the narrative. She rarely spends a page in the book not being groped or raped or molested, and the scenes in which these things do happen are often drawn-out and lovingly-rendered in a very uncomfortable and male-gaze-y way. Even Zam is overcome by lust for her, his dreams often consisting of imagining himself raping her or of her being rent by demons in a very sexual manner. Her abuse seems to prove no tangible point other than to illustrate just how wretched her life is (as if her large, doe-like eyes that look constantly bruised were not indicative enough). Mainstream cape comics are rife with women being sexually abused, usually raped but sometimes molested and harassed, in order to be motivated. Thompson provides nothing new to the genre other than heaping portions of gratuitous nudity, brutality, and sex.
The fact that, at the very end, Dodola makes a note of the man she marries when she was nine as beholden to and frustrated by sexual denial he can't control adds a further layer of rape apologism.
Additionally the book is transphobic, Zam constantly viewing his castration as a mutilation, referring to the hijra as perverts, and more or less being repulsed by any degree of gender uncertainty. The individuals who do not conform to strict gender norms in the book are nearly completely portrayed as the "ugly male transvestite" stereotype. These individuals are money-grubbing and uncaring and selfish. The eunuchs Zam finds himself with later in life are no better - his companion among them seems to only have one thing in mind - sex. Zam's blurring of gender lines is barely addressed in the text at all, and at the end Dodola and Zam seem to fall easily into a normal weak female/strong male dichotomy.
The book could've been good, in theory, and it is certainly ambitious, but despite Thompson's beautiful are and his lyrical prose, the book falls flat out of thoughtlessness and laziness and lack of research.(less)
Beautiful, varied art, sub-par writing, and messy continuity combine into something that's kind of good in some ways but mostly bad. The book was lent...moreBeautiful, varied art, sub-par writing, and messy continuity combine into something that's kind of good in some ways but mostly bad. The book was lent to me from a friend (who left a much more kind review) but even having some amazingly talented artists couldn't really make up for the rest of the not-so-good package.(less)