Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Habibi by Craig Thompson (Dystopian graphic novel)

The center of this beautiful book is the love story between Dodola, an Arab slave girl/courtesan and Cham/Zam, an African slave boy. "Love" begins as caretaker and charge and becomes one between partners- but not without a lot of sacrifice and heartache.

These are my observations of what worked for me and what didn't:

-The relationship- and much of the imagery- is reminiscent of the Mother Goddess and her eternal son/lover.

-Dodola, older than Zam by nine years, is taught at an early age that her body is a commodity, and she learns quickly to separate her soul from her body. Even before she is sold into marriage at the age of nine, her parents use her as a fill in for a fertility/water goddess. In this story, her body- and women's bodies- symbolizes not only the trampled earth but the majority of its people who can't enjoy the earth or what it produces.



-When the story begins, we think we're seeing an alternate take on Medieval Middle Eastern history. It is very quickly apparent that this story is actually set in a dystopian future in which many people have been thrown back to a period in which basic human rights are once again up for grabs. (If the observation is that this isn't different from what many live through now, I believe that is part of the author's point.) Toward the end of the story we learn that there are many who live a "civilized" existence...but how civilized can it be when it's in such close proximity to those who literally live in garbage?

-As others have noted, "industry" hangs over this dystopia, as does "apocalypse", but it ends on a hopeful note in which there remain oases that our heroes can take advantage of...or can they?

-The artist is willing to show graphic, adult situations...as long as they involve women's bodies. Dodola is unclothed and graphically exposed for more than half of the book. There are also multiple- innumerable?- renderings of the bodies of women in the sultan's harem and even women serving as wetnurses. I don't object because this is a story with mature themes, but there are very few comparable renderings of men's bodies. Generously, one might think that this highlights the dignity men are afforded in this world, but 300 pages in, the disparity feels exploitative.

-By the end of the book, Dodola and Zam have earned happiness and a family. To the extent that the love story is a parable for the fate of the larger world, it ends on the hopeful note that love can redeem those who open themselves to it and in a way that is wide open to the dangers that surround them. It's enjoyable to imagine how they might be able to help redeem the world at large.

Recommended with caveats for fans of dystopian graphic novels.