"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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge