by Craig Thompson
Winner of the 2012 Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist
This incredibly beautiful graphic novel from writer/artist Craig Thompson demonstrates how powerful the graphic format can be for storytelling. The novel takes place in a fictional Middle Eastern country, sweeping from the barren reaches of the desert to the decadence of the sultan's palace to the filthy slums and sleek urban streets of a modern city. Dodola and Zam are orphans struggling to survive in this brutal world. Sold into marriage to a calligrapher, Dodola learns the power and beauty of written words and the tenets of Islamic mysticism. She tells Zam stories from the Quran as a way of explaining and understanding the circumstances in which they find themselves. As the pair grow up and live through increasingly horrific adventures, Thompson weaves in themes related to environmentalism, class inequality, sexual trauma, love, and religion. He makes a special effort to find parallels between Christianity and Islam.
Thompson's artwork is masterful. I was impressed by the extremely detailed geometric borders and the Arabic calligraphy that often flows across the page and merges with the images. Habibi took several years to complete, and it shows in the amount of detail on each page. Thompson also renders the human form in amazing detail, which makes scenes of rape and other violence especially difficult to read. For some reviewers, the troublesome aspect of this novel lies in Thompson's intentional use of Orientalist tropes to tell the story. I can understand why some readers might be offended by the use of such stereotypes, and at times I found myself troubled as well. But after reading G. Willow Wilson's thoughtful review, I am inclined to give Thompson the benefit of the doubt on this point. Spend some time with this book and see what conclusions you draw.