"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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times