Craig Thompson Discusses "Habibi"

Craig Thompson's career as a cartoonist can be broken down into two stages: before "Blankets" and after "Blankets." Before that book, Thompson was a talented young cartoonist who had created a number of excellent minicomics and the graphic novel "Goodbye, Chunky Rice," which was published by Top Shelf. Thompson's 2003 book "Blankets" is one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of the decade and Thompson received multiple Eisner, Ignatz and Harvey Awards for the book.

Since then, Thompson released "Carnet de Voyage" a combination sketchbook and travelogue, but fans have been waiting for years for the release of his next book. "Habibi" is out in stores this week from Pantheon and it is a longer, more detailed, more layered book than anything he has ever created, not to mention one of the most visually stunning comics of the year. At the start of a lengthy book tour, we spoke with Thompson about the long wait, the lengthy process and what comes next.

CBR News: "Habibi" has been many years in the making. Is it a relief to see the book printed and out there after all this time?

Craig Thompson: Definitely. I first saw a printed version of the book at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and that marked a shift in my own relationship with the book. Finally I'd given birth and it was outside of me. [Laughs] That's always the day you're working towards as a creator, when you can finally get all of the mess and chaos out of you and hopefully out into a more graceful, tangible form than the way it feels within.

We joke about how it's been a while since your previous book, but did "Habibi" take a lot longer than you had planned?

Definitely. I initially wanted to do a two year, maybe three year, project. For it to be like two hundred pages and to be done in two years. [Laughs] I didn't intend it to outweigh "Blankets" in page length and size or scope. I felt like "Blankets" was my big book and now I can take on a smaller project, but in fact it just sort of spiraled off on tangents and became more complex than "Blankets," but it wasn't my original intent.

In some ways you can see how the core of the book, the relationship between Dodola and Zam, might lend itself to a story more along the length of, say, "Goodbye, Chunky Rice."

Zam, one of the characters in the book, refers to seven layers of heaven above and seven layers of hell below and a fifteenth layer in the center, which is a battlefield where all human existence takes place. That's kind of how the book works. There's this single layer which is the core, the relationship between Dodola and Zam, and yeah, if you stripped everything else away it could be a "Chunky Rice" length book, but then there's these layers of heaven and hell above and below.

Did you place pressure on yourself? After "Blankets," you're obviously in a much different place as an as cartoonist.

Yeah, there was certainly a self-consciousness. When I worked on "Blankets," I was working in a pretty sheltered bubble. I'd only had a readership of "Chunky," about two thousand readers, so that was the audience that I foresaw. I didn't think many people would see the book. I did want to follow "Blankets" with something that was fulfilling for the readers. Also it was the first time in my career that I was actually making a living making comics. In some ways it became more intimidating. Before, I'd never really made any money so I could do whatever I wanted because it was just me playing around. When it shifted into being a career, essentially, with that came this sense of responsibility. I'm getting paid to do this, it has to be necessary. I do think that's a core of what makes art important. It has to be borne out of necessity.

Did that self-consciousness on your part factor into the fact that what might have been a simple, shorter tale became something bigger and more layered?

Not exactly. "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.

Where did the story begin for you? Was it with the two central characters?

The two of them emerged from within me from my subconscious. They were delivered to me almost fully realized as personalities. Then I just had to figure out what kind of world they inhabited. A lot of the details were born out of research and just the slow plodding work of actually making the book.

Reading "Habibi," one can see a lot of your style, but you also incorporated Arabic calligraphy and design in some very interesting ways.

That was the visual fuel that ignited the book. Arabic calligraphy and all the Islamic arts of geometric design and ornamentation and architecture. All of those things slowed down the pace of drawing. What was taking place was in panels was drawn very quickly and then the layers of ornament could take two three days to draw. It was really important for how I thought of the book. This mashup between holy book and comic book.

Many pages are stunningly beautiful but it's interesting to hear you talk about composing the pages like that because you make a point of telling the story in a way that could only work as a comic.

Thank you. That's good to hear. I don't think of myself as a storyteller in the sense that any medium would suit me as long as I could communicate my stories. I'm more devoted to comics as a medium, so I feel like all my work is, on some level, formalistic in a way. Where the medium is the message and I'm writing as much about the container [as the] story being told within.

In another interview you spoke about your fascination with Orientalist art from the 19th century and I'm curious what you found interesting about it and the challenge of re-contextualizing that imagery.

The version of "1001 Nights" I was reading I thought of as an Orientalist narrative because I was reading the Richard Burton [translation] and so there is a British colonialist viewpoint. It's hard to know if all the elements of the stories are ones that he imposed on them. I like those Orientalist paintings in the same way that people like exploitation films. There is an awareness that they are cheesy and sensationalistic and have negative connotations. In those Orientalist paintings there are certainly prejudices and there's eroticizing of other cultures. That worked its way into the desire to juxtapose the sacred and the profane. In the same way I was mentioning it's a mashup of holy book and comic book and words and pictures. I wanted to mix these. It's a fairy tale world, but I wanted to draw from Orientalist tropes in the same way that "cowboys and indians" is this exploitative and fantastical representation of our American history in the west.

What was the challenge of creating this book, being an outsider to the culture and the place you're writing about?

That's the nature of all fiction. I know Elif Shafak, the Turkish writer, talks about how her personal experience has a limited range, but in her fiction, she draws a wide, sweeping circle that can encompass all kinds of worlds and experiences. It's sort of like tapping into the collective unconscious. A bit of a psychedelic experience where you have some access to hopefully a universal story. You just trust it. You don't think too much about your own definition of the person. You're lost in the world of the characters.

So yeah, the characters are a black man and a woman, which if I thought too hard about it, I would feel insecure as a white man writing those characters. You start to lose some sense of ego because the characters do write themselves, as authors say. They don't do the work of putting everything down on paper for you but they sort of emerge and act the way they do in spite of you.

Having read "Blankets" as many comic readers did, we know a little about your upbringing. Having grown up in Evangelical background as you did, did it help you as far as knowing that these people and this culture wasn't this monolithic thing?

That's a good question. One thing about Evangelical Christianity, I grew up in a very uneducated, working class version of it -- a lower class version. I think the first association [with Evangelical Christianity] is sort of Bush culture, more of a middle class or even privileged part of society and a really unexamined spirituality. I do think looking back at my childhood that it had more integrity than that.

Muslim is a very broad term, but right away there was a connecting thread in our backgrounds. I found the muslims I was talking to came from very similar background as I. All the same morals and values and stories that shaped those beliefs.

In some ways, each book is a reaction to your previous book. How is "Habibi" a response to "Blankets?"

I've said it before that after finishing "Blankets" I was sick of drawing myself and these mundane midwestern landscapes. I wanted to draw something outside myself and bigger than myself. That's the most obvious. Also, I'm a big fan of the late Aristophane. He's a French cartoonist. His "Zabime Sisters" just came out from First Second a year or two ago. That book is known as his heaven book. It's this very sweet, whimsical, very summer vacation read. He also did this book called "Conte Demoniaque." It looks like a collaboration between Kirby and Dante and it's this massive terrifying descent into hell. On some level I was copying him in crafting a hell book to balance out some of the airiness of "Blankets." "Blankets" was about innocent awakenings of sexuality and this is more of a dive into darkness and exploration of sexual trauma.

I did want to bring that up because it's a very rough book in terms of sexual trauma. I would imagine that it's not the easiest thing to write or draw but why was it essential part of the story?

I don't know. Depicting those things is a juggling act because you don't want to sensationalize them and you don't want to skirt over them either. There has to be a balance between communicating the horror of those experiences without sensationalizing them and making them a caricature because that's it's own unfairness. It had to be there. That was the core of the book. That these characters had experienced sexual traumas and also the reader is sort of in the shoes of Zam witnessing the horrible act because, for all the horrible things that happen to Dodola, she's really not a victim sort of character. Zam takes on that role and it starts from what he's witnessed. So the reader stands in his sandals for a moment and is witness to the horror.

It's very rough and in a story like this, which has a lot of fairy tale elements, there needs to be realistic elements that ground the story and make it clear that for all the other elements in this sweeping story, at its heart, it's about people. Their trauma and their pain are what ground it.

Exactly. I'd agree. I don't know if I have anything to add to that.

I'm a huge fan of your travel book, "Carnet de Voyage," and flipping through it again I was curious how much that trip played into what the book became and felt like?

I'd already started to work on the written draft of the book before leaving for that trip. I started work on a written draft or a thumbnail draft of "Habibi" in January 2004 and then had nine months that I was apart from the book. During that time I was on tour and homeless, so it took a while before I was able to get back to the studio. The Morocco trip was really just about carving out a little space for myself in the midst of a busy hectic book tour in Europe and visiting a very geographically and politically accessible Islamic country. It wasn't research, really. I took no photos on the trip, for instance. The drawings you see in "Carnet" are the only research I had. It was the first dialogue that I was having with Muslims about religion. There were experiential notes that happened. Riding a camel in the Sahara desert couldn't help but shape my writing of those moments. But beyond that, the book was already in place. I had an outline already down on paper. I can't think of a dramatic way that [the trip] affected it. I'm sure there were subtle ways, though.

As I said, I really enjoyed "Carnet de Voyage." Do you have any plans to do a similar book?

Thank you. It was exciting for me too as an artist because one, it took me out of my comfort zone. Instead of working in a sheltered studio environment, I had to draw on the spot in real life in all these uncomfortable locations standing in the sun and on trains and planes and almost getting run over and interacting with lots of people. Also, I did it in three months time, and that includes getting it off to press, so there's an immediacy to it that was really satisfying artistically. Some of the more personal aspects, I don't think I would disclose as much now as I did then. I had less boundaries about that back then, so I probably wouldn't reveal that much of my private life in comics form. I would probably do a "Carnet" again but it would be under different circumstances. I wouldn't go on book tour and simultaneously craft a "Carnet." it would be good if it were actually a trip where I could make it a primary focus so I'd also have time to sleep.

On the subject of work that's more raw and immediate, do you sketch a lot?

I go through phases. When I was writing "Habibi" -- and when I say writing I'm also drawing because I draw and write simultaneously in a thumbnail form -- but when I was writing the book, I was keeping pretty meticulous sketchbooks. I had to keep my drawing chops, so I was always drawing from life, figure drawing, and full-on brainstorming on paper and doodling. When I was drawing the actual book, any drawing I did was in service of the pages. I might do figure drawings but they were figure drawings to work into that day's page. They were preliminary sketches. And then now that I'm on tour, I'm not really sketching at all. I don't have the time. I have to shift into a different mode and have to turn off that impulse, but I'm really excited for that moment when I can get back from tour and just start working on new books. There's that super exciting phase of drawing in sketchbooks as brainstorming for the upcoming books.

Do you have a next book in mind?

I have three in mind and I'll probably juggle them all simultaneously. David B., the French cartoonist, told me that he always works on at least two books simultaneously, so that it's always fresh. After being monogamous to one giant project for so many years, I want to have more of a flexibility to switch up between books day by day. And there will be smaller projects, too. At least that's what I say.

Do you still have the previously announced collection of your minicomics and short stories coming out from Top Shelf soon?

I know there's been lots of dates proposed for that. If we include that [book], that makes four books that are in mind. There are still some pages [for that book] that I'm trying to chase down or at least clean photocopies I'm trying to chase down for that book. I also want to do at least one hundred pages of new material, to make it special. Who knows. That might be the next project as far as release. I think I'll have a clearer sense a year from now.

To end things here, how hard was it to craft the ending of the "Habibi?"

Definitely difficult. I wrote at least ten variations on it. I work on a thumbnail draft of the book and in the case of "Habibi" it was almost two years of working and editing that draft and never figuring out the ending. I finally resolved to just start drawing the book, the final art, and then worked on that for three years. I had resolved [to do this] assuming that in the process of drawing, the ending would reveal itself, but that wasn't the case. Three years later, when I reached the final chapters of the book, I still didn't know how the book ended. I had to disrupt my flow and spent months working on drafts again and just writing. During that time there was probably ten variations on the ending that I sketched out and discarded. I was looking for the ending that felt truthful for the book and the characters. Sometimes it's hard to spy that because I'm not writing with a deliberate message, otherwise I'd be more writing a sermon. It's more about questions than answers. You're just looking for the moment when you can pull away from the characters that feels honest and maybe a good point where the reader can continue the narrative for themselves. Because there aren't official endings in real life.

"Habibi" is on sale now.

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