Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Books in 2013: #9 & #10 Blankets and Habibi by Craig Thompson

About eight or nine years ago, when I was on maternity leave with my daughter, I formed an online book club for friends of mine who were in different cities but wanted to discuss books together. This was before such things existed, before live chat blogging, etc. and so we were entirely playing it by ear. We all got AIM accounts, and then I'd open a private room and all 10 of us would go in there once a month to discuss the books. Between me working at one publisher and another friend working at HarperCollins, we managed to get the authors in there every once in a while, joining the discussion and chatting along with all of us.

When it came time for one woman to choose the next book, she suggested Blankets by Craig Thompson. I'd never heard of it. She said it was a graphic novel. I was very excited, immediately ran out and bought it that day, and began reading.

And I thought it was extraordinary.

A year ago, I was invited to come to Calvin College for their Festival of Faith and Writing as a speaker, talking about how faith informed my writing on Lost and other TV shows. One of the other authors speaking that weekend was Craig Thompson. Intrigued by how much I loved his book, I went to listen to him talk, and he discussed his methods — basically, editors don't exist for him; writing the books is a six-year process whereby he runs through about five or six versions, handing them off to friends to catch mistakes along the way, and when he hands in the book it is done and the publisher doesn't touch it. He talked about Blankets and then about Habibi. I had brought Blankets with me (along with his first book, Good-bye, Chunky Rice), and I bought Habibi and then met him so he could sign all three. And he was such a sweet and accommodating author that he invited me to sit down (no standing on the other side of the table when you meet him) and he saw my nametag and asked if I was speaking, and what kind of books did I write, and when I told him, he looked up and began asking me if I watched Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both of which were running at that point. We started discussing the previous week's Pete-centric episode of Mad Men and what a colossal dick that character is, and he was SUCH a nice guy. And then he handed me my books back, and in that five-minute conversation, this is what he'd done to the title pages of my books:

Absolutely gorgeous . . . he sketched the two female characters of his books with special brush pens he had splayed out on the table. He carries on a conversation, draws these extraordinary pictures, and gives every reader a wonderful memory of having met him. (I haven't a clue why he made these out to "Jen" but I'll take it! Ha... haha.)

Fastforward to this past January, and my graphic novel club was taking suggestions on books to do this year. I showed up with Habibi as my recommendation because I wanted to read it, and I wasn't the only one. Two other people had that book in their stacks, and a couple others had Blankets. And so, for March, it was decided we'd do one or the other: read the one you want, and we'll discuss both. Most read Blankets. One guy read Habibi. I, like a couple of others, read both.

Blankets was just as good the second time through as it had been the first. It's the true coming-of-age story of Thompson's first love, this girl he met and began a long-distance relationship with, his first sexual experience, the conversations and meetings they had... while showing how his upbringing in a rather Christian fundamentalist family affected his thoughts about sexuality and what was right and wrong. It ends, as these things always do, with some heartbreak, but the story is incredible, and if you're roughly the same age as Thompson (he was born in the mid-70s), and came of age listening to The Cure and The Pixies like I did, he weaves these bands and this era into the story as well. It's a story of pain and heartbreak and childhood brutality that ends in hope and looking forward. I adore this book, and can't recommend it highly enough.

Habibi is very different. Moving away from the Christian bible and over to the Qur'an, he writes this fairy-tale like book of the story of a little slave girl who saves a little boy, Zam, from slavery, and she gives him the pet name "Habibi." The two of them escape to the desert, where they find a boat, and on that boat she raises him (she's a child herself), and as they hit adolescence, their relationship takes on a strange aspect when confusion sets in: are they mother and son? Brother and sister? Husband and wife? When Habibi finds out how his mother/sister/lover has been obtaining the food for him, he runs away in anger and begins a new life, while she continues her. They long for each other, missing each other's company and realizing their love — parental, filial, romantic — is so great they'll move mountains to find one another. Throughout, the drawings in this book take Thompson's beautiful artwork from Blankets and move him into a new stratosphere of artist. Here is a page from Blankets, one of the more illustrious pages:

In Habibi, there are many pages devoted to the teachings of the Qur'an, of learning languages and the beauty of the letters in the Qur'an, and how they each have meaning unto themselves.

And I won't say where, but there's even a page where you can see a major artefact from Blankets hidden amongst many objects in a pile. It's a glorious moment when the reader sees it, mostly because it completely alters an event that happens in Blankets, and brings a bit of closure to something left a little open-ended.

Craig Thompson is an immensely talented artist whose books are not graphic novels you can just zip through: you must take the time to savour each part of each drawing, take in the story, and then once you finish the book, start it over again. This is not someone churning out a couple of books a year; this is an artist who takes a long time to construct a story, and then build this gorgeous orchestra of images over and around it, taking a beautiful story and making it extraordinary. I recommend both of these books, very very much.


Rebecca T. said...

I've been meaning to get to these and now I've moved them to the top of my list (after I finish the books I have out from the library of course :)
I've been on a graphic novel kick lately and this review definitely made me want to go read these!

I just read Zita the Spacegirl and I think you would like it :)

Cash Advance For Business said...

Craig Thompson's Blankets is one of my all time favorite novels, so it is not surprising that I was waiting in anticipation for this book, and it does not disappoint.

Seattle Water Main Repair Company said...

If you plan to read Habibi, I insist you to read all the way through--even if the horrible things that happen to the characters cause you to close the book--because the meaning of the story continues to stay in my thoughts. The characters who commit sins are left to poison the Earth and many other characters are forced to have horrible experiences when they deserve better. The only joyful part of the ending is when the two protagonists reunite and then begin to stray from their crumbling society. I am not a follower of religion, though I find it interesting, and Thompson seems to point out the flaws in religion and humanity. This is a one of a kind book.