If the term 'magnum opus' would not have been coined by now, well ... Craig Thompson's Habibi certainly would be a good reason to come up with it now.
Thompson's latest novel is impressive on many levels. There is of course the sheer quantity: Seven years of meticulous research, sketching, drawing ... 672 pages of beautifully rendered, stunningly detailed ink opulence. The books weighs heavy on every shelf and makes even its predecessor "Blankets" pale in comparison. But that's not the point: what Thompson's whips up in Habibi is much more than a graphic novel, a term that sort sounds like comic's dead-serious but unpresentable cousin anyway. This ... well, it's a master piece. There, I said it.
From its gold-embossed cover to it's beautifully rendered ornaments the books seems flawless. This is of course because Thompson's drawing style - concise yet specific, detailed but still very energetic - makes every single panel so real, so astonishingly believable that you can practically smell the fumes & dust of an oriental bazar. Everything is in motion, everybody displayed has emotion, it feels like a world of its own ... strange (for me as a Central European at least), yet very very familiar. THIS is what the author spend weeks in the Orient and endless brushpens & sketchbooks for: translating the Islamic world into pictures. Pictures that are able to actually grasp what life in this world is like. And he succeeds.
But Habibi has much more to offer that beautiful portraits of the Orient: Thompson's story of Dodola and Zam plays with religious imagery much like Blankets did: Thompson gives his readers insight into the fascinating art & culture in and behind the Quran and the people who live by it. And whereas Blankets always portrayed its Christian imagery and the miracles depicted in the Bible with a lot of question marks, Thompson's approaches the Quran via its fascinating stories ... and the people who tell these stories.
Another aspect that plays right into that is Thompson's sudden display of (Arabian!) typographic skills beyond words. It would be really hard to describe how he interweaves typography, imagery, story & emotion into one narrative of epic proportions ... and it would be hard to pick out another author / artist who is able to write, draw and conceive such complex, yet perceptive & sensitive imagery. Besides the usual rectangular panels telling the story, there is always a rich, more or less abstract depiction of the story BEHIND the story next to it. This begins with super-detailed ornaments slowly morphing into letters and ends with nearly surrealistic depictions of Quran suras.
So ... that's very nice. BUT: does the story live up to all that? In short: yes, it does. It's poignant, it's emotional, it's thrilling ... and it has its laughs. Again, Thompson's tells his story in varying time frames, creating a structure that lets his narrative live up to the beautiful artwork telling it. And then there is of course Thompson and his love for the characters, which are deep, complex yet comprehensible human beings the reader can easily connect to, because the author approaches them from such a deeply rooted emotionally charged basis that one simply has to love, loathe and feel with them.
All in all this makes Habibi one of the most important graphic novels so far ... on my shelf anyway, but in general. Thompson manages to give insight into a strange world he depicts and describes so well that one could believe that he was there, lived that, and never was that skinny, Christian white boy from Michigan ... it's as convincing as Blankets was (which in fact was at least semi-autobiographical) and that tells a lot about Thompson as a storyteller.
You like graphic novels? Real graphic novels, not just book-versions of the next superhero comic on the shelf, but actual illustrated literature for the thinking man and woman?
Buy this book ... it's brilliant.