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Okay, now I’m picturing the authors of Alec and Subway Series standing shoulder to shoulder, swords in hand, fending off the critical Ringwraiths as Craig Thompson cowers Frodo-style in the background. So yeah, the headline’s a bit dramatic. But in light of critic and scholar Nadim Damluji’s thoughtful and widely linked critique of Thompson’s massive new book Habibi, I thought it worthwhile to direct you to a pair of acclaimed cartoonists’ responses.
Damluji argued that in treating the Orientalist art and literature of the past as just another genre to play with, Thompson ended up perpetuating some of the very stereotypes he presumably set out to subvert when he decided to set his near-future fantasy in a fictional but still recognizably Arab/Islamic culture — particularly where sexuality and male-female relationships, often used by Western nations as a pretext for action against Middle Eastern ones, are concerned. Eddie Campbell responds that Thompson’s interest in these topics, or more generally Love, are consistent; the Middle Eastern trappings of the tale are just the vehicle Thompson selected to get where he’s going:
Thompson’s need was not to tell us all about the geographical or political Middle East, either of today or yesteryear, but to find a narrative body that would carry him through the next stage of his development as an artist. For me, many years ago, Greek mythology served a similar purpose; I had no special interest in the subject prior to that. I just needed an engine that came ready built with all its interconnecting parts in place, that enabled me to encase stories within other stories right from the kick-off.
Critiques of the book that focus on the sociopolitical make-up of Thompson’s made-up land of Wanatolia are overly literal, Campbell says, because the book’s true purpose is in all its meticulously constructed narrative and visual diversions, digressions, and filigrees. “It’s all in ideaspace, to refer to Alan Moore’s concept, where one thing and its opposite tend to exist in immediate juxtaposition.”
In the comments for Campbell’s post, Leela Corman contributes a further defense of Thompson’s book: For all his ahistorical mixing-and-matching of Arab and Islamic imagery, his specific points of interest are depicted with a great deal of accuracy:
Thompson did his research. I’m thinking specifically of the harem setting, which is pretty much the quickest way to get the finger of Orientalism pointed and wagging at you. His portrayal is a very well-researched depiction of the Ottoman harem, specifically, down to the Mimar Sinan architecture and the fact that “harem” really only means “women’s quarters”. Some of the girls were there as concubines, but many were there in palace service, or had been born there. And, yes, there were abducted or sold girls from all over the Empire there. And African female servants. And African eunuchs. These are historical facts. So you can get pissed off when someone mentions them, or you can simply understand them in their context. He even got the style of head covering right when the girls go out into the garden. I appreciated his level of research in this area, and elsewhere, because I’m a student of that time and place, myself.
Corman, who teaches and performs as an Arabic folkloric dancer, goes on to warn against a too-rigorous patrolling of the cultural borders when it comes to members of one culture making art about another:
It’s hard to represent another culture, but it’s very important to try….The message underlying so much of the queasiness around it is, “Stick to your own kind”. If Craig did that, all you’d get year after year would be comics about contemporary Wisconsin and Portland. That sounds pretty deadly to me.
I’m on the record as liking Habibi quite a bit. It’s an enormously ambitious and complex work that has evoked comparisons to Alan Moore’s similarly baroque books from Campbell, Joe “Jog” McCulloch, and myself; as such, it’s frequently dazzling and always interesting, even in its weaknesses. I will also add that I did not find it to be a work that either demonizes or patronizes Muslim, Arab, or African men and women. I think this is important because at this point, that’s a low-to-medium priority project of one of this country’s two major political parties, and given the “some say/others say” structure of political reporting, that viewpoint is given plenty of airtime already.
That said, I’m far too lapsed a Catholic to be comfortable with demands that any culture or religion be afforded respect automatically. So I can abhor bigotry against Muslims but still find some Muslim attitudes towards women benighted and wrong, for example — just as I do such attitudes among Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, orthodox Judaism, and so on, to varying degrees depending on the severity of the ideas and practices.
But I don’t think any of this is really on Thompson’s agenda anyway. To the extent that Habibi investigates the unseemly side of Islamic doctrines, they are always just a uniquely Islamic variant on universal human foibles and failings. The scene that’s most singled out as Orientalist by commentators is the one in which Thompson’s character Dodola throws away her headscarf, but she could just as easily be throwing away a wig, a yarmulke, a clerical collar — hell, a bikini.
Now, presentation matters, context matters, and if a depiction of another culture singles that culture out as uniquely repellent compared to the nobility of one’s own, then by all means decry that attitude. But it’s so easy to see the continuity of ideas and execution between Thompson’s take on American evangelical Christianity in Blankets and his phantasmagorical Islam in Habibi that I lean toward Campbell and Corman’s read of things here. The pastors, jocks, and Bible-camp beauties have been replaced by sultans, eununchs, and harem girls, but the song remains the same.