A graphic novelist reveals his tricks

By Ben Sigrist

Seeing the creation of a cartoonist’s art is like the opposite of learning the secrets behind a magician’s tricks: it is more mystifying than it is disappointing. The difference between Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets (2003), an autobiographical novel telling of his die-hard Christian upbringing in frigid Wisconsin, and his latest work Habibi (released in September) is considerable. Habibi takes us out of the Midwestern cold and into the desert heat where a sprawling adventure, heavily inspired by the Koran, unfolds. This journey was not as seamless as it appears to be at first glance. Thompson drew over 100 endings before deciding on the one that would actually make it into Habibi and borrowed heavily from traditional Islamic graphic ornamentation. Thompson by no mean practices sleights of hand, but his work sure does look effortless.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to find out everything that goes into a magician’s (or a cartoonist’s) tricks, but what about that crazy green mannequin in the corner? Well, okay, that last question is a bit more specific to the venue where I saw Thompson speak, the venerable Quimby’s comics/bookstore of Wicker Park, than to his oeuvre, though it’s not totally irrelevant. While Thompson has hit the big time (about as much as a cartoonist can) with his gig at the Random House imprint Pantheon, he likes to tell the story of his underground roots as a little-known cartoonist honing his skills in his spare time. Quimby’s occupies a similarly ambiguous place between the mainstream and the alternative. You won’t find it on many tourist guides, but you also won’t find too many art enthusiasts, especially here in Chicago, who don’t know about it. On one hand, you can find the ubiquitous Maus, Persepolis, or Neil Gaimain stories on Quimby’s shelves. On the other, you can also find the self-published doodles your 12-year-old cousin drew—the store will sell almost anything on consignment.

Mannequin obsessions aside, Quimby’s eclectic mix of everything in print culture, from poetry chap books to steampunk erotica, actually does suggest something about Thompson’s essential process for making Habibi. Originally seeking inspiration from the fantastical tales of Arabian Nights, he eventually took plot points from its frame narration—where telling stories each night is a means of survival—and combined it with stories from the Koran, modern poetry in Arabic, and the aforementioned tracings from ornamental Islamic graphics. He showed the audience at Quimby’s a few slides of the same drawing with a different form of ornamentation in each slide, leftovers from when he was looking for the ones that fit best.

A similarly eclectic style emerges in his approach to plotting. “I’m not interested in plot. I’m not interested in endings,” he said. Rather, he uses what he calls a “Melville method” of digressions and tangents. This focus definitely shows in Habibi. While some of the major story lines are sometimes explicitly formulaic, digressions into the lives of minor characters often produce intriguing subplots. In one of the later chapters, for example, an unemployed fisherman rescues the main characters. At first he seems admirably selfless, cheerfully paddling into horridly polluted waters to drudge up old boots or large fish bones and proudly displaying these around the slums. Later, his selfless nature and attitude of blissful ignorance is put to the test and, tragically, he comes to seem like much less of a savior.

As Thompson creates these striking juxtapositions, in both graphics and narrative, between the fictions of storytelling and the realities of a brutal world, it becomes clear that Habibi tries, on some level, to engage the resonance of weighty social issues. Among the systemic ills recurring throughout the narrative are economic exploitation, viciously abusive gender politics, and violent military rule. With my limited knowledge of political and social conditions in the Middle East, it seems that none of these can be pinned down to a specific place or people. At worst, one might say that this lack of specificity is a clear symptom of orientalism, the upshot of a simplistic narrative that relies too heavily on stereotypes to populate its fictional world.

But, to be fair, at its core Habibi doesn’t look very similar to the personal history that Marjane Satrapi creates from her time in and away from Iran, nor is it analogous to the rigorous journalism that structures Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. Then again, at Pantheon, Thompson worked for a time with editor Anjali Singh, who brought Persepolis to the United States. He also freely admits great admiration for Sacco, whom Thompson described as “the most important comic artist in North America—maybe the world.” So, from another perspective entirely, it is superficial to characterize Thompson’s work as fundamentally different from Satrapi’s or Sacco’s because one author works with the tropes of fiction and the other two draw from real experience. Maybe a more interesting comparison would look at what all three share––the problems and triumphs of representation, intensified by the graphic medium––which invests a story before it can be classified as autobiographic, journalistic, or fictional.

Practical issues of graphic representation were certainly an important theme of the questions that followed Thompson’s talk. Someone asked him what paper he draws on (regular printing paper for doodles and planning phases, 500 Series for the more finished products). Then, after another person asked him what brush he uses, he replied, “I can tell that I’m at a comics store tonight.”