"Comic book creators are really trying to create a visual music"

Author and artist Craig Thompson discusses religion, French Orientalism, and his long-anticipated ne

Craig Thompson is a comic book artist and writer who found success and huge critical acclaim in 2003 with his poignant and sensitive coming-of-age story "Blankets". Now Thompson is ready to release his new comic, "Habibi", which was seven years in the making. A fantastical love story set in a 'landscape outside of time', echoing the work of Arundhati Roy, Karen Armstrong, and Vladimir Nabokov, "Habibi" promises to be one of the unexpected highlights of the year.

First, could you talk a bit about Habibi?

That's a big question! Let's see...I guess for lack of a better description, Habibi is an Arabian Nights-esque epic about two escaped child slaves fighting for survival and growing up in the desert. It's a fairy tale of sorts, but it draws from a lot of contemporary themes around religion, sex, and politics. That's the short of it!

Could you elaborate a bit more on the themes?

It was born out of 9/11 in the sense that Islam was being vilified in the media, and I wanted to humanise it a bit and understand it, and focus on the beauty of Arabic and Islamic culture. My experience of speaking to Muslims was that they weren't any different to the Christian communities I grew up in -- they had the same morals and the same lifestyles, and the same stories that shaped their religions. Then also I got really inspired by the Islamic arts -- Arabic calligraphy, geometric pattern and design, architecture, and a lot of those details infused the book.

How did you go about incorporating the Arabic calligraphy and geometric art into the comic book form?

More than anything I used ornamental pattern borders through the book, inspired by illuminated manuscripts. But also in comics the standard building block is a rectangle of the panelled frame, so I was experimenting with using different geometric shapes to see how that effected composition and the rhythm and movement of the pages. Arabic calligraphy is throughout the book too. There's a description of it being like 'music for the eyes' and that was an idea that as a cartoonist really resonated because I think comic book creators are really trying to create a sort of visual music. It's based so much on rhythm and beats and pacing.

From the advance pages I've seen, Habibi seems to be infused with some very interesting imagery - triangles interlocking into a star shape as two characters kiss for example. Is that something that runs throughout the book?

The structure of the book is based on a North African Arabic talisman which is the magic squares symbol. It's essentially like Sudoku -- it's a three by three magic square with nine Arabic letters within the squares. So, that's reflected in the structure of the book as there's nine chapters, and each chapter is thematically based around an Arabic letter which also has a numerological component, and with that number is also a geometric component. The page you mentioned was from a chapter entitled 'Ring of Solomon' which is structured around a six-pointed star -- a Star of David, or Solomon's Seal. Every theme in that chapter also focuses on the prophet Solomon and the number six on that six-pointed star.

That's really interesting as the comic is about Arabic and Islamic culture, yet the Star of David is a Jewish symbol, as well as having undertones of the Biblical Old Testament. Were you trying to draw the three religions together?

Oh definitely. A big part of it was to explore the connections between the three Abrahamic faiths, starting obviously with Abraham, being the connecting father of all three. Each chapter is also based on a prophet of Islam. There are 124,000 prophets in Islam, but the most important ones are the same Judeo-Christian characters we grow up with like Abraham, Moses, Noah, Solomon, and even Jesus. Jesus is the second most important prophet in Islam after Mohammed. So I focus on those characters. And when I say that, they're just supplemental, the main narrative is a fractured love story between these two child slaves, Dodola and Zam, and all those other things are almost like decoration or extra layers of ornamentation.

What kind of artists were you looking at besides the Arab and Islamic influences for Habibi? You've mentioned in previous interviews that the impressionists inspire you. Was that a continuing influence, or were there others this time?

I love impressionists, but I was drawn to the era right before that of French Orientalist painting. That stuff, to me, is very self-aware of the racist and sexist quality of the paintings, which came out in the 1860s, by, say, Jean-Léon Gérôme. All that stuff is sort of bawdy and sensual. I look at it like you might look at an exploitation film. At least now we're more self-aware and it seems very deliberately sensationalistic and fantastical, but there are still pleasures to have in it.

Edward Saïd talks about Orientalism in very negative terms because it reflects the prejudices of the west towards the exotic east. But I was also having fun thinking of Orientalism as a genre like Cowboys and Indians is a genre -- they're not an accurate representation of the American west, they're like a fairy tale genre. The main influences and inspirations though were Arabic calligraphy, geometric patterns, and ornamentation though.

Are comics being accepted in the literary world? There are still big prejudices against them, yet there's this huge oeuvre of great comic literature which many people don't know about, or aren't interested in.

I think it's changed a little bit, certainly because it seems like the publishing world has warmed up to the idea of graphic novels if only for crass commercial reasons. I don't know if cartoonists are too worried about being canonised in some sort of academic fashion because I think we embrace being a bastardised art form. It's like rock music or something like that -- I think there's a pride in the rawness and non-stuffiness of the medium.

Blankets is one of the comics which has helped begin to establish the comics medium as a literary force. What was it like having Time and the New York Times Book Review praise it so much?

It was amazing. It was overwhelming, and validating I suppose. I think it's a different landscape now, seven years later. It's not uncommon to see comics reviewed in Time Magazine and the New York Times Book Review.

What makes storytelling in comics unique?

There's too many things to think of! Hopefully I illustrate some of them on the page. There's definitely something you can do with time travelling, and leaps in narrative. If you can see those things side by side, you can do it more gracefully in comics than in prose or in film. In film it can be jarring because you can't just take one step back to see it, although I guess you could rewind the DVD. In prose you don't have the obvious visual cues that can make that jump more fluid. There's a fluidity in having juxtaposed images on a page right next to each other.

Habibi is available for pre-order (£14.99) on Faber and Faber. A new hardcover edition of Blankets is out now (£29.99) on Top Shelf Productions. A fuller version of this interview is available here.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era