It is generally a very satisfying feeling to finish a book and then answer the question, “what did you think?” But after reading Craig Thompson’s newest graphic novel Habibi, I felt unable to really form a solid opinion about whether or not I liked it. This is almost certainly due, in part, to the hype the book received leading up to its release. Thompson is best known for his graphic novel Blankets which received buckets of praise when it was released and continues to be a core item in the genre. So sure, there’s the hype. But there were other things holding me back.
On the plus side, it is beautiful. Incredibly ornate illustrations literally fill every page of the book. Thompson clearly dislikes any white space in his work and has painstakingly filled his pages with beautiful, flowing images. There are entire pages comprised of repeating, hand-drawn designs that make me marvel at his skill (he’s often described as virtuosic). This impressive feat and my complete inability to fathom dedicating six years of my life to one project make me want to fall in love with everything about the book. But it doesn’t quite get me to love. Instead, I felt uncomfortable by the sexual violence and arguably gratuitous female nudity. And I felt overwhelmed by the number of agendas Thompson seemed to be pushing. Among other themes, Habibi addresses the similarities between Islam and Christianity, the lasting effect of sexual trauma, the shame of a sexual awakening, the ways in which First World nations exploit the resources of developing states, the importance of clean drinking water for health and prosperity, and very complex themes of love and motherhood. Trust me, very complex.
I was even lucky enough to discuss this book on Wednesday night with the Graphic Novel Book Club and I am still trying to answer the simple question: did I like it? In this case I think I’ll have to settle for not knowing. For appreciating the book for what it is and wishing it could have been more. If nothing else, it’s good to encounter a labor of love.
Take a look at Thompson’s books for yourself and see what you think.