Craig Thompson’s 2003 graphic memoir, Blankets, a 600-page story of teen romance and old-time religion in the Wisconsin woods, won its Portland, Oregon, author just about every cartooning award there is. Eight years on, his next, even longer epic goes from the Midwest to the Middle East: Habibi is a fantastical love story of a harem girl and the slave boy she rescues, inspired by the Arabian Nights, ancient calligraphy, and modern environmental catastrophe. Thompson spoke with Dan Kois.
What got you interested in the Arab world?
I had this desire to understand Islam better and then focus on the beauty of Arabic and Islamic cultures. And one of the first things to emerge was Arabic calligraphy, which was instantly inspiring. I’m really interested in making a mark on a paper and letting that be cursive shorthand for an idea—that’s the origin of cartooning.
Does the book take place in the present?
It’s set in some other now. I knew I wanted the old world clashing with the new, but there were things I wanted to not draw. I didn’t want guns, I didn’t want it to be about warfare; it’s hard to talk about the real now without that. I wanted a sprawling fairy tale that took place in an imaginary Orientalist landscape but absorbed a lot of contemporary things.
And ancient things—the book includes Bible and Koran verses, and all your work revolves around issues of faith.
I grew up in a very fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian household. Both my parents were born-again—their faith infused every aspect of my childhood. I’ll probably spend most of my life working through that.
In its willingness to address the world, Habibi reminds me of work by the great European cartoonists, rather than your American peers.
Thank you! For a while I cut off going to American comics shows because of the atmosphere—so much about pop culture, video games, and toys. European shows seemed a little more dignified.
But you went to San Diego Comic-Con this summer.
Yup! Did you?
I’ve only been to New York Comic-Con.
They’re both kind of like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Except with actual storm troopers everywhere.
And thankfully they aren’t, like, playing trumpets with their asses.
Illustration courtesy of Pantheon Books