One of the real highlights of my trip to San Diego Comic-con this year was the chance to have an in-depth conversation with the great Craig Thompson, creator of the sublime Blankets. Thompson also created what I think is the finest graphic novel of 2011 in Habibi, a wonderfully complex and intriguing book that did a brilliant job of playing with reality and other concepts. We decided to hold this epic interview until more of you had a chance to read Habibi, since Craig gets in real depth about his influences.
Jason Sacks: I'm here with Craig Thompson, to discuss his new book, Habibi, which is a really remarkable graphic novel. It's an amazing, long, interesting, very thoughtful, fascinating book, one that I've been struggling to summarize for friends. Do you have a little elevator pitch for it?
Craig Thompson: No, I feel the same. I hate that question. How do you sum up the book or how do you describe the book. Sort of an Arabian Nights epic in the sense that it takes place in a sprawling landscape of deserts and harems and camels but that's also mashed up against modern day industrial clutter. But at the core, it's a demented love story between two escaped child slaves with a very troubled history. And yeah, maybe that's it.
Sacks: I was struck by the fact that, despite the book spanning history, religion and citing other major elements, part of it is real love. It's so rich in terms of expressing thoughts about language and society and the world that they live in, but at the heart of it is a love story. Was it hard to balance the multiple threads that you were trying to address?
Thompson: Yeah, because I didn't have any agenda or message from the beginning. I didn't know how the book was going to end. And it could have ended in many bad places, and I can't give away spoilers right now, but it was easy in a way to put them through the ringer, which they [the characters] kind of experience.
In some ways, I was channeling and recycling all kinds of horrible things that were happening in the world at that time, and that was reflected in their own experience. The setup was easy, but then how to get them through that and perhaps to a place of safety or healing was the challenge.
Sacks: They really do go through hell in the book. It's a real journey, it's almost like a Dante level progression through pain in their life. You have some extremely rich characters I thought.
Thompson: Thank you.
Sacks: We all learned in high school English that there's a lot of themes in books — man versus man, etc. — but I was struck that a lot of the stuff was about these people and their relationship to the world around them and how they're kind of estranged from that. Do you see them in kind of opposition to society or in their own place comparative?
Thompson: In [mostly] all my books the environment is a character as much as any other characters, so it's always crucial to backdrop. [Though]m it's not a backdrop, it's integrated with the experience of the characters. But yeah, I also think in all my books the characters are sort of awkwardly coping with their environments. So it's a simultaneous theme.
Sacks: I think I was struck by the fact, they're not victims, but they go through a lot of pain.
Thompson: Like everyone, right? I mean, that's the experience of life.
Sacks: This book kind of did leave me a little bit speechless. Despite the modern setting, it has a really timeless feel. How did you approach this book to make it feel timeless and yet modern at the same time?
Thompson: I was channeling experiences I had with traveling to developing nations. I mean, I've been on trips to Morocco, to Vietnam, to China recently and to different rural parts of China. And in all those places you can experience the way people lived 2,300 years ago. There's a sort of archaic way of life that's grinding up against the modern localization and you can see the influence that our sort of rich imperialistic country has on the poor and smaller countries. So it was easy, I think in a sense, because I can see that reflected all over in the world, especially in terms of global trade.
Sacks: Especially the second half of the book, when the incredibly horrible run down village that's surrounded by the waters of the pollution is juxtaposed slightly later on with this much more modern town. It's really got an incredible sense of place, and almost portrays people as being dwarfed by the world they live in. So it's based on a lot of the experience you've had traveling around the world?
Thompson: To some degree. Also, the dam in the book is a mash up of the Hoover Dam with the Taj Mahal; the minarets are lifted directly from the Taj Mahal. But as I was researching dams specifically, in the entire world, [I found that] they affect so dramatically the environment and the people that live in that area. So whether it's in America, where we're draining the basins and feeding a desert that's thousands of miles away, or in India, [where] it's probably the most dramatic, or throughout Turkey, the Anatolia project, China, where the Three Gorges Dam [is], all these dams really damage the people, the culture. They hurt people. That was easy, too. I mean, it's played out all around the world.
Sacks: I was just struck by the incredible grimness of the places where they are, later in the book, with Noah, the guy who's desperately trying to hold on to happiness and continually finds himself losing it. Did you dramatize that for the book, or did you see things actually as intense as that?
Thompson: The village slums that Noah lives in were based a lot on the Mumbai slums. In fact, [when] Slumdog Millionaire came out I was like, well, this looks just like the chapter of the book I just drew, which was based on the research on the same area. I mean, there are slums like that all over in the world, like in favelas in Brazil or in Manila, wherever you go, it's there. I don't think it's another detail, I don't think it's unrealistic, it's research based. And, of course, I'm condensing it into this sort of parable or fairy tale. It's such a condensed little simplified landscape in the sense that it's just like one slum and there's one palace and, you know, it's a microcosm.
Sacks: And the slum versus palace is an interesting dichotomy, because you've got both the high and the low, but you also have the traditional versus the modern world imposing itself upon the world. And I thought that was very interesting. Obviously it's meant to be symbolic in some way I assume. But it also kind of accentuates the depth of their lives.
I thought the book was also very specifically about the characters, also highly symbolic. How much of that was intentional? How much did you really want to pull a symbolic element into it?
Thompson: When I was a kid, I grew up reading the Bible and kind of grew up reading comic books. Those are pretty much the two mediums I had access to. So I blended them in this book, but in the Bible, the stories of Jesus are all parables, so there's something sort of natural in my wiring to tell parables. And it's almost easier in comics to have all these symbols. Because you're working in a visual form, you can start sneaking them all in. An
d then also there's a sort of Arabian Nights style or there's a viable genre [that] you can spiral off on a tangent, as long as you circle back to where you began. Part of the beauty is that it's a pattern; you spiral off on tangents and come back.
Sacks: Patterns are a big thing that you discuss in the book, too, from the specific patterns in a lot of the pages and also language and the way the letters, specifically, are patterns. So you really get this kind of multifaceted layer of the way that we all deal with the world.
Thompson: I drew heavily from Arabic art and particularly calligraphy and the geometric design [and] some of the architecture, all these ways of expressing a divinity and spirituality and beauty in the pattern and abstraction and ornamentation… I think that a lot of the details of the book, not just the literal patterns that I drew but a lot of the visual clutter, were like ornamentation. I kept heaping up and layering on top of the core of the two of them.
Sacks: So you mentioned religion, which, of course, is one of the first things most people think of when they think of Blankets, and anyone who's read Blankets knows it's about your Christian upbringing and how you came into conflict with the real world. At the same time, you're exploring a completely different religion and a whole different lifestyle based on that religion in this book. How do you think your approaches evolved in the years since you created Blankets?
Thompson: I definitely changed and matured in myriad of ways. But religiously, everything about Blankets was very insular and inward. I mean, it was about my experience, it was navel gazing — hopefully not in the bad sense — but that was part of the intent of the book and once it was finished I really wanted to do something that extended beyond me. And, ironically, I still took some of the same themes and just extended them in different directions, but religiously there's a certain post 9/11 element. I just wanted to understand Islam better and humanize it. And one of the things I noticed right away is the extreme connections between Islam and Christianity and Judaism, and then [I] just wanted to explore those connections. They have a lot more in common than they [have differences].
Sacks: I learned so much from you in reading this book, just about the life and the complex culture of it. I'm Jewish, and I was struck by especially the way you used words, letters and languages on a symbolic level. It brought a greater sense of depth to it. You seem to really have a very deep appreciation of the religious culture the characters live in. How did you get to the level of knowledge that allowed you to do a book as rich as this?
Thompson: Dialogue with friends was a part of it, but I also had two years to work on the rough draft. I went through two rough drafts, [and] I had two years of just purely writing the book and researching. I got pretty in-depth. I was really inspired by Karen Armstrong. I don't know if you've read any of her writing, but she did an incredible mammoth book called A History of God which just begins with the whole foundation of monotheism, where the whole idea developed in human culture to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and then all the esoteric takes on those faiths — the Gnostics, the Cabalistic studies, Sufis. It's a pretty broad spectrum. You know, there's a number of books like that that I was reading.
And then the dialogue with friends. I have great friends who are religious Jews and Muslims and I had my own knowledge [that] I grew up with. I [have] read the Bible at least 10 times in my life, and I was reading the Koran a lot when I was working on this book and appreciating the poetry of it.
Sacks: Something that really came through is that you obviously really do appreciate the poetry. The quotes that you pulled out are so interesting. It's been a few years since I read Blankets, but part of what I remember about Blankets is that there were a lot of very direct biblical references, and you did the same thing with the Koran here. They're an interesting counterpoint to each other.
Thompson: Yeah, thank you. I think a lot of Westerners sort of shy away from talking about the Koran or the prophet Mohammad because it can be so loaded. But I think, in a way, not talking about it is sort of disrespectful, too. Like to tiptoe on eggshells around any kind of topic to me is a little bit disrespectful or condescending, so I feel like the dialogue is important.
Sacks: Interesting point. The best books are a dialogue between the reader and the work. And you definitely bring up a lot of interesting perspectives in here. It kind of works on multiple levels, again, because you have the characters' relationship with their world. I guess I'm struck in part by the fact that, although these people are clearly not holy on any level, they're also all striving to do good. I don't want to give it away or spoil it too much, but the bit that happens to the boy — which is really him trying to transcend his own physical limitations — is really him trying to get closer to God. I was struck by how the themes kind of all interrelate to each other.
Thompson: It's interesting. I don't think of the characters as religious. You don't really ever see them engaged in a ritual per se. I was talking with a friend who identifies as Muslim, but when I was trying to pressure him for information, he didn't really have any knowledge [about the religion], or anything. He was like, well, honestly I'm more of like a cultural Muslim. He didn't know his shit, just like a lot of [people] in any other faith, [who are] sort of just like status quo religious folks. And the characters Zam and Dodola in the book are not necessarily status quo, but I feel like they are geographically Muslim, and I don't even know if it's important what anybody's faith is in the book. The vibe is sort of a vaguely geographical Muslim landscape.
Sacks: At the same time, they're striving to do better.
Thompson: Most people do. Most people are striving to be better people. And I think whether people identify as religious or not, [they] have some sort of moral or spiritual course.
Sacks: The ship in the desert was an especially powerful image to me. Is that based on anything in reality?
Thompson: I think I may have lifted that from a photo I had seen of the Aral Sea, which drives up and leaves all these stranded boats on cracked, drought land. I can't remember which came first, but I'm sure I saw a photo of that and it lit up my imagination, so I'm like ok, that [would] be the place to live.
Sacks: It just struck me, the ship is something that should be moving but it's trapped in its environment. And it seems like a lot of what these characters are trying to do is transcend their environment. So there's a certain kind of striving that these characters have that's very interesting throughout the book. Not so great people, but they're trying to be good people. Which is something you explore in Blankets too.
Thompson: I'm going to go further with that theme in my coming books too. I know that sort of class warfare, at least the strugg
le of transcending one's social class is something that interests me a lot.
Check back tomorrow for part two of Jason's interview!
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.