Robot 6

Eddie Campbell, Leela Corman defend Craig Thompson’s Habibi

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.

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28 Comments

Great post Sean. Looking forward to reading Habibi.

I’m still waiting for Habibi to become available at my library, but I’ve been kind of idly wondering how much the sexual politics of this work are due to Thompson working with Orientalism or if they are more a result of Thompson’s issues with sexuality more generally.

Islam is stuck in the middle ages. What else is new?

I loved the book and review it here: http://www.comicbooknerdsarehot.com/blog/files/4eac9a3d58d695b1fe755ad3ebae5a40-92.html.

I’m a white Australian, but reading the book made me want to delve further into the Arabic culture.

The most widely cited image of orientalism is that dodola throws off her headscarf. No one seems to mention she puts in back on on the very next page…

Sigh.

I don’t know why this is so hard to understand.

Nobody is saying that white people aren’t allowed to make comics outside their own cultural experience. What people (me, other critics) are saying is that when you make comics outside your own cultural experience, you have a responsibility to get beyond the cliches and stereotypes (even positive cliches!), otherwise it is bad art. And that unlike, say, Greek mythology, there are actual people who are still alive whose culture you are fucking around in as your playground to construct a story out of, and you owe those people some accountability. And specifically that in certain power relations that exist in the world, the depiction of cultures foreign to Europe and North America has been used as a pretext for domination and imperialism, which is real, and the artist risks contributing to that continuing problem.

There are plenty of examples of white, nonmuslim artists depicting Islamic and Arab cultures in ways which AREN’T absurdly orientalist and can deal with these problems in intelligent ways (I would point to Joann Sfar and David B. right off the bat, or Joe Sacco). Many people seem to believe that Craig Thompson is failing at that, tho.

Here is an actual Muslim woman from an actual Arab country:
http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/25/from_tahrir_to_wall_street_egyptian

To try to make a fictional character that represents her reality, complicated and not fitting into the standard stereotypes, would be the accomplishment of an artist who could overcome orientalism.

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.

Leaving aside everything that human rights researchers have documented regarding the status of women in middle eastern countries, when has a Western nation taken action against Arab or Islamic nations over the status of women? What were these actions?

Let us note that Iran, Iraq, and Libya all sit on the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Seems to me that Damluji is perpetuating some mythology as well.

Ethan:

There are plenty of examples of white, nonmuslim artists depicting Islamic and Arab cultures in ways which AREN’T absurdly orientalist [...] I would point to Joann Sfar

In what work does Sfar depict Islamic and Arab culture? The Rabbi’s Cat is primarily about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. There are only a few Muslim characters who aren’t incidental to the story– in fact, it’s explicitly a fictitious take on his own family history, which also makes your choice to label Sfar as “white” rather arbitrary.

Do you mean to say that Algerians are non-white except when they’re Jews?

I personally loved Habibi. I found the most challenging parts of it were those that dealt with love and sexuality, and I think that those issues were the main thrust of the story. I agree that the clearly fantasized Muslim society that it uses as a setting is just that: a fantasy setting. It never seemed to be trying to make any statement about real world Islam to me. It seemed to be taking inspiration both in narrative structure and in setting from Arabian Nights, which is a work of fiction, just as this is. With those things in mind, I have a hard time seeing how people can take offense to the book.

To think that anyone would need to defend Habibi at all is hilarious. It’s a masterpiece.

Your excerpt from Campbell’s comments struck me as the weakest part of his post. It’s a common point of critique of Orientalism that it functions as a highly abstracted basis for narrative that has little or no actual basis in reality. There is something off about using the Orient simply as a pretty backdrop for the artist-writer: the point is to be realistic, informed and aware of people’s actual lives. It’s like saying you’re going to tell a great, human story using stock cliches about Native Americans drawn from 1950’s Westerns, without any research into the actual history and conditions of real Native Americans. Why in the world would you do that? I don’t want to set up a commission to oversee PC representations of Native Americans–or the Arabs or anyone else. It just seems shallow intellectually and aesthetically.

And Ian: since at least the 19th century, when the British were slowly conquering the Indian sub-continent, the conditions of women have been at least a rhetorical ploy for why “we” must conquer “them.” It’s pretty well documented historically; I’d tell you to start with Gayatri Spivak if you want evidence, but she’s nigh unreadable.

Julian: That’s what I think.

mckracken: I keep that post up only to illustrate the mindset people are concerned about with regards to depictions of Arab and Islamic culture. Please keep the sweeping generalizations about an entire religion to yourself.

Andrew: Good point.

Ethan: I hear what you’re saying; my bit about how squeamish I get about automatically affording ANY culture “respect” is sort of a preemptive response to it. You’re right, of course, that (as I say in the post) context matters, and given the real-world dynamics between the West and the Middle East, these issues take on extra charge.

As for the woman you link to, I guess I would say that I don’t think any given work of art owes any specific person or group of people anything. It’s a good thing not to be gratuitously insulting, but I don’t think Habibi is that anyway. This isn’t Holy Terror. Moreover, I’m sure Blankets would fail to convince many evangelicals that it “represents [their] reality, complicated and not fitting into the standard stereotypes,” but I don’t think that makes it anti-Christian per se.

Ian: By pretext I didn’t mean an explicit causus belli. I was thinking more of things like this Time magazine cover, designed to inflame a sense that we Men of the West are the only thing standing between Muslim women and utter brutality. This is not to deny that the Taliban, for instance, really are utterly brutal — they obviously are. But presenting the issue in this fashion elides a lot of complicating factors, not least among them being the fact that while the headline leaves “What happens if we leave Afghanistan,” the brutality it depicts happened while we were there. It looks like Nick can probably point you in the direction of more examples if you’re really looking for them.

Nick: Based on your response you seem to be saying that Thompson did no research “into the actual history and conditions of real” Muslims and Arabs, but it seems to be Corman’s point that he did. Regardless, I cited the passage of Campbell’s that I did because it drew from specific experiences he had as an artist, which I felt grounded the comparison.

Here are actual Muslim women and children from many actual Arab countries:
http://www.middle-east-info.org/gateway/womenchildabuse/ (warning: very graphic and not safe for work)

Not depictions but reality Mr. Collins.

And Ian: since at least the 19th century, when the British were slowly conquering the Indian sub-continent, the conditions of women have been at least a rhetorical ploy for why “we” must conquer “them.”

So the only actual example that comes to mind is 18th and 19th century conquest of a region that has a Muslim minority? Even if one argues that within the Mughal Empire, this minority amounted to being the political elite, it makes Damluji’s claim rather vacuous when one also takes in account that the Indian subcontinent is not in the middle east, and the Mughals are neither ethnically, linguistically, nor culturally Arab.

Secondly, dismissing contemporary criticism of the status of women in Muslim societies as merely a pretext for colonialist, neo-colonialist, imperialist, or neo-imperialist intervention (when nothing of the sort has ever occurred) is not merely paranoid, but a refusal to address (if not an outright defense of) systemic violations of the human rights of women and girls in the region.

Thirdly, anyone who has read Thompson’s source material, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment (the name it goes by in the edition on my bookshelf) knows that a.) the stories are primarily Arab in origin; and b.) are filled with misogynistic content. So this would be like complaining about a writer, who uses Shakespeare and Marlowe for inspiration, is being racially insensitive towards the English by portraying racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, or classist attitudes that come up in those works. Point being that Thompson is drawing upon Arab culture’s portrayal of itself in its own folklore and literature.

In case folks are interested, Nadim’s critique at HU prompted several responses, including this discussion by Kailyn Kent about Habibi’s relationship to melodrama, particularly Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and this blistering dismissal of Habibi by Ng Suat Tong.

Thanks for continuing this conversation, Sean.

That said, anyone with a cursory understanding of the history of the Indian subcontinent knows that the Mughal Empire was just as much an imperialist, colonialist venture as the British Empire.

I’m going to come out in front by saying I haven’t read the whole of Habibi, and that my comments are mostly about the points of conversation, and those so inclined can ignore me at their pleasure. This feels like an familiar conversation, and with that, it’s going pretty well, the only thing I mind so far in the discussion is the notion that people who find the work problematic or offensive are crazy. That’s possibly the least helpful sort of comment possible.

I will voice agreement with Nick, that I too found the Eddie Campbell quote weak. Greek mythology is divorced from our understanding of modern Greek identity that it wasn’t nearly the same thing to my mind. It is not difficult for one to see Wanatolia as something of a comment even if not intended, even if Eddie Campbell and many others won’t see it as such, but Campbell even prefaces his post with the fact that Thompson creates work with an earnestness that he has to places his approach in context before going in. He does things that work from other creators would hesitate at. And I’m not charging Thompson with doing it unconsidered, or even thinking that anyone needs to change how they work, but that this is a complication–a predictable one–that affects how large chunks of the audience may interact with the work. Whether culture as a piece of a toolkit for that was half utilized is a half success or a half failure is up to individuals in the audience, but that the large chunk that will not be engage with it as a story about love are those whose identity encompasses the culture Thompson is exploring as a tool.

The discussion reminds me of Gene Luen Yang’s early reaction to criticism of the Christian theme that was in American Born Chinese being a kind of befuddlement, that on top of a traditional often read for pure adventure kicks the Monkey King is ultimately Buddhist story and making him visit baby Jesus in a story asserting identity would strike some folks as off. At least in the early interviews I read, maybe he was just trying to play it down. It reminds of Alan Moore’s use of the Golliwog too. “He didn’t mean it that way” is a weak sauce argument to the people who deal with those ideas daily.

And this is probably unfair, but since depictions of Islam or what else is thin on the ground, even without an agenda like Holy Terror, Habibi is going to face more criticism from this direction than that of a literature with a deeper bookshelf in comics. Say white-male-nerd angst, to use an old example for effect. I fall generally on the plane of anyone is welcome to do what they like, but that that is a luxurious pov to take without complication.

“Secondly, dismissing contemporary criticism of the status of women in Muslim societies as merely a pretext for colonialist, neo-colonialist, imperialist, or neo-imperialist intervention (when nothing of the sort has ever occurred) is not merely paranoid, but a refusal to address (if not an outright defense of) systemic violations of the human rights of women and girls in the region.”

Nobody’s dismissing it. But women’s rights were used to justify (and continue to be used to justify) the Afghan invasion. They’re used to justify claims that Islam is innately evil and barbaric. It happens all the time. Just because you’re not paying attention doesn’t mean people are paranoid for seeing it. Here, for example. She notes that the war in Afghanistan was justified as a war to liberate women, and goes on to argue that the occupation should continue on those same grounds.

You could try reading this too if you felt like it. They’re adamantly opposed to fundamentalism in Afghanistan as it relates to women’s rights, and feel equally strongly that the US is hurting those rights, not helping them. You could make an analogy to American authors expressing sympathy for women’s plight in the Muslim world by indulging in elaborate rape fantasies centering on Muslim women, perhaps.

It reminds of Alan Moore’s use of the Golliwog too. “He didn’t mean it that way” is a weak sauce argument to the people who deal with those ideas daily.

Except that Moore’s use of the Golliwog, and other racially charged characters like Nemo in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is also meant to critique the racial ideology of the popular culture of earlier eras– not to celebrate it– and perhaps encourage readers to think critically about our current pop-culture. There’s a rather strong anti-racist current through his works, not just appearing in the League books but in From Hell.

The racist and misogynist elements of the “1001 Arabian nights genre” are not the invention of European-culture, but of Persian (yes, not Arab, in this case), Iraqi, and Egyptian origin. If Thompson’s appropriation of those stories lays bare the racism and the misogyny, the only question is whether he does so well. This reminds me of English people who complain when somebody raises the issue of antisemitism in the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickens, or Elliot.

Nobody’s dismissing it. But women’s rights were used to justify (and continue to be used to justify) the Afghan invasion. They’re used to justify claims that Islam is innately evil and barbaric. It happens all the time. Just because you’re not paying attention doesn’t mean people are paranoid for seeing it.

Nice bit of revisionist history. NATO forces entered into combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 in response to al Qaeda’s attack on a NATO member country in 9/11 and the Taliban regime’s refusal to surrender the al Qaeda leadership based in their territory. If the Taliban were content only to oppress women in their own country and not give sanctuary to a terrorist organization, then they might have been subject to sanctions, but not to NATO military intervention.

If one have to falsify history to make one’s point, then, yes, my criticism stands.

Moore’s history doesn’t render him incapable of writing poorly, regardless of his intent… and the thing is, with the Golliwog, I think he did it rather badly. It doesn’t feel like an “Except” situation to me. Reading in good faith, I found it lacking as some are finding Habibi lacking. Neither here nor there, I’m not sure where I stand on Thompson’s book yet, though I lean toward “Ah well, I don’t think that worked out” camp. Anyway, I read the word “respect” as consideration as opposed to the more stridently taken view that it means “not showing a thing this way” that it is sometimes taken, and in this way I just find the “artist need not respect anyone” line both something I believe in and dispiriting at the same time, mostly that it feels like a point deflection rather then a discussion of criticism, as it often reads as a “you read it wrong” critique of critics.

“NATO forces entered into combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 in response to al Qaeda’s attack on a NATO member country in 9/11 and the Taliban regime’s refusal to surrender the al Qaeda leadership based in their territory. ”

Yes. But it was also justified, and continues to be justified, on the basis of the treatment of women. Did you look at the article I linked? It’s the NYT. That’s a fairly major venue; if someone in there is promoting that version of events, it seems to me that it’s reasonable to say that it was a reason presented in the media for our going in (and staying there.)

Gigantic military endeavors are always justified in multiple ways. Thus we went into Iraq because they had WMDs, and because of Saddam’s mistreatment of his own people, and probably for other reasons I’m forgetting.

Noah:

Did NATO’s mandate to enter Afghanistan (note: Afghanistan is not in the middle east) cite women’s rights as causa belli? Did the UN Security Council mandate for either Afghanistan or Iraq cite women’s rights?

Sorry, but it just didn’t happen in any case. It doesn’t matter if a New York Times editorial writer cites women’s rights: the NYT is not the National Security Council, NATO, the White House, the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street, or the British Parliament.

All you are doing cherry picking evidence in order to tell the story you want to tell– sort of like what Bush and Blair did with that whole WMD story.

Moore’s history doesn’t render him incapable of writing poorly, regardless of his intent… and the thing is, with the Golliwog, I think he did it rather badly.

Not an unfair criticism. Given that Moore has consistently treated racism and racially charged iconography in a critical manner (especially with regards to English attitudes) I interpreted the Golliwog’s appearance in a manner consistent with the rest of his ouvre. If you want to make the case that he did so ineptly, that’s another issue entirely.

Ian, like I said, large scale wars happen and are justified for multiple reasons. I provided you with evidence that women’s rights were and remain a live issue in the public debate about occupation. You choose to ignore that evidence because you don’t like it. And then you accuse me of cherry picking.

But what the hey; here’s more. An academic researcher noting that Laura Bush and Condaleeza Rice were specifically deployed by the Bush Administration to make the case that invasion of Iraq would help women’s rights.

And here’s Bush suggesting that the occupation is justified by improvements in women’s rights:

Securing democracy in Iraq is the work of many hands. American and coalition forces are sacrificing for the peace of Iraq and for the security of free nations. Aid workers from many countries are facing danger to help the Iraqi people. The National Endowment for Democracy is promoting women’s rights, and training Iraqi journalists, and teaching the skills of political participation. Iraqis, themselves — police and borders guards and local officials — are joining in the work and they are sharing in the sacrifice.

Note I’m not saying women’s rights was the only reason, or the chief reason, or even anything but a fairly flimsy excuse after the fact. But it was used as such an excuse.

And I’m aware Afghanistan is not in the middle east, thanks. Thompson avowedly intended to address Western attitudes towards Islam, though. Afghanistan seems quite relevant in that context.

Whatta Loadacrap

December 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm

is anyone gonna discuss the fact that the inking is DEPLORABLE?

Probably not. That would be akin to discussing what actually makes for a good comic or graphic novel.

I still don’t get why to this day “Orientalism” refers to more than one area…  most people today think of “Oriental” as Asian, but it was originally referring to the Middle East, as this book does.

There’s no point in using a label if it’s too broad to be useful.

Anyway, your review was great, people would rather play the race card rather than listen and learn.  I’m glad at least a few people decided to read the book more openly.

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