Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blankets & Habibi (Craig Thompson)

One of the difficult things about reviewing graphic novels is finding enough to say about them. The sort of tics I can talk about of a writer's style is harder for me to pick out of a graphic novel because I'm not an artist--I can just appreciate the way an artist strings together a narrative and maybe comment on my opinion of the art. As a terrible drawer, my understanding of art is very limited to statements like "it's nice" or "I don't like it." But I love Craig Thompson's work so much that I wanted to at least give him a little space in my reviews.

Blankets is without a doubt my favorite graphic novel, but I like it so much that I would even say it's one of my favorite books. The autobiographical account of Thompson's teenage years raised in a very strict evangelical home is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking tales I've ever read. The story of his first encounter and subsequent romance with the fragile, beautiful Raina, is one that has tattooed itself onto my bone marrow (or something) since the first time I read it three years ago.

Thompson's art is absolutely beautiful. Every page is an explosion of lush drawing; I could drool over the snow wasteland scenes for hours. There are moments where a religious image will sneak its way into the book, and these are the most savory illustrations, overflowing with an otherly life and detail that makes you feel as though you are looking upon the divine. Blankets manages to be a lot of things: it's a meditation on Christianity and growing into sexuality; it examines familial bonds, first love and first heartbreak, and most importantly, it manages to be all of these things really, really well.

Habibi is my second go-round with Thompson. Now we focus on two main characters, a boy, Zam, and a girl, Dodola, who live in a boat in the middle of the desert. The girl is (I think) 8 years older than the boy, and provides for them by sleeping with men in passing caravans in exchange for food. One day, she gets taken to become part of the harem of a powerful sultan. The boy sets off to look for her, simultaneously confronting the emerging sexual desire he feels for this girl who has basically raised him.

Thematically, it strikes a lot of the same notes as Blankets. Instead of just Christianity, Thompson draws comparisons to Biblical texts and their Koran counterparts, folding them into the narrative with elegance and ease. Sexual desire is an important part of this book, far more than in Craig and Raina's love story. The story takes place in this weird sort of fairy tale land where there is a sultan who owns this beautiful 1001 Nights palace that is surrounded by giant apartment complexes and a huge dam of water. Habibi exists on the edges of reality. The beauty of this book surpasses its predecessor--the margins of the pages are filled with beautiful Arabic calligraphy, and allowing Thompson the space to draw gorgeous, dreamlike visuals of a desert land.

Overall, however, I think I prefer Blankets. It's a tight race, and it depends on what you are looking for in your book. Something about the first-love story of Blankets resonates with me constantly, but Habibi is perhaps the more heartbreaking of the two tales. They're both massive books, hundreds of pages long, but they never feel wasteful or sprawling. That's perhaps one of the benefits of a graphic novel: it takes far longer to create a page of illustration than a page of text, so there's less wasted narrative and character development.

Please read them.

My rating: 5/5 (for both!)
Blankets and Habibi on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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