Spirituality plays a big role in the graphic novels of Craig Thompson, who was present at this year’s San Diego Comic Con to promote his new book, “Habibi.” His soft-spoken demeanor seemed out of place when surrounded by forty-foot tall posters of Batman and fans dressed as Chewbacca, but his impressive resume ensured he didn’t get lost in the crowd. Fans and interviewers were lined up to hear about his next project, and by the he sat down for the interview, his voice was almost completely gone.
In 2003, Thompson wrote and illustrated an autobiographical graphic novel titled “Blankets.” The book went on to be a phenomenal critical success, winning two Eisner awards and making it onto “Time” magazine’s list of the top ten graphic novels of all time. This September will see the release of Thompson’s next book, a love story set in ancient Arabia. However, the many fans of “Blankets” should be prepared for a different kind of narrative this time around.
“The sort of stories traditionally told in comics are these explosive fantasies full of spaceships and superheroes, and with “Blankets” I wanted to slow it down and make it intimate. With “Habibi,” I have to admit that I had a little bit more of an epic intent,” Thompson said.
“Habibi,” an Arabic word that means “my beloved,” is a love story between a prostitute and a eunuch. Thompson said that he uses those archetypes to show both sides of human sexuality.
“I always think of stories in terms of parables and metaphors and I imagine that most people can relate to both roles at different times of their lives,” Thompson explained. “It’s all about finding a balance between feeling cut off from your sexuality and feeling promiscuous. You need to find that place of healing in between.”
Just like “Blankets,” “Habibi” is a love story that also delves deeply into religion, spiritual ecstasy, and mysticism. In “Blankets,” Thompson used the motifs of paisleys and quilt designs to express intense feelings of devotion and spirituality. This time around, he drew inspiration from traditional Arabic art.
“Arabic geometric patterns do a great job of expressing those mystical sensations in spirituality. What resonates most with me is the esoteric, ecstatic take on spirituality present in Gnosticism and Sufi Islam, and that it naturally erupts into these sparkling symbols and patterns.”
He also wanted to humanize Islamic culture, which he says is often vilified in the media. He feels that Islam and Christianity are very similar at the core, and identifies sociopolitical inequalities as a cause for the tension between the two cultures.
“There are so many similarities. The morals, the lifestyles, and especially the stories that united the two faiths. Islam is not really against Christianity or Judaism at all and it encompasses and accepts those faiths,” Thompson said.
While “Blankets” moved away from the action and world-sweeping melodrama of most comic book titles, at over 600 pages, it was certainly epic in length. “Habibi” is even longer, at almost 700 pages. Thompson attributed the length of the story to his primary inspiration, “Arabian Nights.”
“I was borrowing this Scheherazade storytelling style of folding one story into another, and letting the story spiral off in different tangents, which is the genre of “Arabian Nights.” That’s my favorite thing about art, both visually and narratively, when you let things wander and swirl back in on themselves.”
Most comic books are released on a monthly basis, but when asked if he would ever consider switching to that format, Thompson admitted that he thinks the internet has effectively killed the monthly pamphlet format, and that “Blankets” might have helped put a few nails in the coffin by helping popularize the graphic novel format.
“The reason I work on large, self-contained books is because that’s what I’m interested in. That, and I didn’t want to have those long boxes full of comics on my bookshelves anymore.”
However, the author expressed a desire to create smaller books in the future. “Habibi” is the result of six long years of hard work, and Thompson admits that such a long development time can be stressful. He would like to create several shorter stories instead of rolling up all his ideas into one big story.
“I have a goal to release four books over the next four years. That might be a little unrealistic, but I love setting myself up for these unrealistic expectations,” he laughed.
After such a long time in development, Thompson is very happy to be putting “Habibi” out into the world.
“It’s a relief when a story can finally go off into the world and do its own thing. It’s grown up enough to be able to take care of itself.”
“Habibi” will be available in bookstores this September.