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:
Habibi is in, if you can call it a genre, the Arabian Nights genre. It’s borrowing from the tradition of 1001 Nights where one story folds into another and you lose sight of where you began. I was drawing from that book as a genre as if it were superheroes or crime noir, borrowing from a lot of the tropes of Arabian Nights and the bawdiness, the sensuality, the adventure, the violence, the religious aspects, the landscapes, the deserts, the harems.
— Craig Thompson, in conversation with CBR’s Alex Dueben, on his ambitious new graphic novel Habibi, which is set in a world shaped both by actual Islamic and Arab culture and an old-school, romanticized/exoticized Western vision of the same. As I’ve written elsewhere, Habibi isn’t really a book “about Islam,” as some of its PR makes it seem — it’s a book that uses Islam and the Middle East as a vector for exploring issues and obsessions close to Thompson’s heart, from religious texts to sexuality to art and design to simply drawing sweeping panoramic views of the desert. In that sense, his use of the term “genre” makes a good deal of sense, since like any genre artist might do, he’s using preexisting tropes as building blocks for his world.