Habibi My Beloved

2012-02-24 07:43

In the imagined graphic world of superheroes, mutants and immortals, the meaning of existence is measured in their valiant, wild and lovely will to glory.

The exploits by these Üermenschen are limited only by the sketch works that conjure them into existence. These characters go from professing undying love, to blazing canons and wielding lightning rods.

Some have dared to rush into heaven and fight the gods for a piece of the action at the stroke of a pen.

However, if indeed as Russian comic activist Pavel Sukhikh contends, graphic novelists operate like “gangsters trampling on the sacred name of art, that their works are little pictures for morons and their muse is a mad radioactive mutant”, then Craig Thompson’s latest graphic novel, Habibi, is a will to redemptive gracefulness for the medium.

Thompson’s epic tale takes us across a vast land of barren deserts and villages, Arabian palaces and harems, industrial clusters and privatised oases.

It’s a story of two children, a boy and a girl who are brought together by chance to share an intense life journey.

They go through harrowing encounters of being sold into slavery, the discovery of love, its loss and the irrevocability of lost time and love.

The girl child, named Dodola, and the boy, called Zam, are refugee children lost in Thompson’s desert lands. Bound by circumstances beyond their control, they learn to rely on each other for survival.

We see them struggle to hold on to their innocence in the land of exploitative adults, sex and an unforgiving drought.

Dodola learns early. She’s nine years older than Zam and was sold into marriage by her father before her 12th birthday.

Her apparently well-meaning husband, who’s old enough to be her father, is murdered by bandits who invade their home in the darkness of the Arabian night. Dodola is branded and sold into slavery.

While packed at market, waiting for a potential buyer, fate brings her and a three-year-old negroid boy, Zam, together. They escape their captors, launching a series of events that reveal Thompson’s genius.

The spectacle of their daring flight is the first clue of what’s to come in this 665-page thick journey.

This escape is juxtaposed with that of biblical Moses, who when the Egyptian Pharaoh had ordered that all boy children be killed, was set adrift in a floating basket on the Nile River.

Only Dodola and Zam set themselves adrift in a basket floating atop a flush of sewage.

Here then, Thompson takes us over the wealth of heritage shared by the Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, or the people of the book as Muslims refer to the other duo in the Abrahamic trio of faiths.

Thompson follows up with the Qur’anic story of how Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, the bond servant who bore Abraham a son when Sarah couldn’t, found water in the desert.

Ishmael’s father, Abraham, had received a revelation from God to take them away to a remote place in the desert. So here, baby Zam becomes Ishmael and Dodola a Hagar of sorts.

She teaches Zam like a mother to a child. First she affirms him with a beautiful name, Habibi. It’s an Arabic word meaning “my beloved” for a male object of affection. The first lesson Dodola imparts is in the beauty of Islam.

She starts her lesson by introducing the nine letters that form the basis of the Arabic alphabet. Then she demonstrates how they proceed to spell Bismillah, which means “In the name of Allah”.

It’s the first phrase of every chapter in the Qur’an’s 114 chapters, or Suras except the ninth.

Thompson cleverly takes us through an appreciation of Islamic calligraphy and the religion’s concepts of science and order, plus its mystique tradition, Sufism – though he always finds ways to show how these relate to Christian understanding, its sister culture.

This is not without implications for his approach to drawing his new comic book. He borrows heavily from Islamic decorative motifs.

These include the unmistakable geometric designs and gracious calligraphy.

The layout of Habibi’s pages and its panel arrangements are heavily stylised for good measure.

So that picture frames that divide scenes are not just unavoidable architectural requirement that all comics rely on.

This multicultural stylistic freedom and thematic daring puts Thompson’s fourth graphic novel on the path to winning awards.

The book can’t have been timelier, with the Western world’s curiosities focused on the Islamic world.
But comics have always pushed the envelope hard on these sort of things.

At the hands of a graphic novelist, the world has taken on many different shapes. To put it differently, existence has taken on a number of alternative realities.

From the infernal world of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman to the charmed and murky shrub lands of Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore, whose deep love of history and science gave the horrors of Swamp Thing a multilayered edge.

It was also surprisingly sensual for critics’ expectations. As Alisa Kwitney notes in Vertigo Visions: “It was the first ongoing monthly comic from a major label that was clearly and unequivocally not for children.”

Of course other titles like DC Comics’ Camelot 3000 illustrated by Brian Boland and Ronin, written by the incredible Frank Miller, had also dipped into the grown-up market, albeit in slightly different formats.
Comics, because they are easily taken lightly – for sharing an appearance with children’s colouring books – have always surpassed critical expectations.

The medium’s beginnings in the doodle and scribble pastime of “serious” cultural production are, however, way behind it.

Comics have been co-shaping the direction of the world for sometime now. Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes said it best: “They are great!”

There’s now a more than impressive catalogue of titles credited with shifting the way human beings think about themselves or at least how they experience the world they live in.

Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta has provided standard iconography for anti-state or ­anti-capitalist protest for citizens in the ­postmodern age.

In fact, wearing the Guy Fawkes mask during the Occupy Wall Street and other related demonstrations was a normal thing to do. The comic series enlisted the popular power of another medium, cinema, to augment its own reach.

If you ever doubted whether screen and comic writer Kevin Smith was right when he contended that reading graphic novels was “more fun than going to the movies”, then you also have to do the body count on creations co-opted by Hollywood.

Think about the big screen without the whole X-Men catalogue, The Fantastic Four, Sin City, Stardust, Priest and many more.

This genre is so omnipresent that we shouldn’t be surprised to see a cartoon character running for public office in the near postmodern future of digital simulation.

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