The author of the lauded graphic novel Blankets discusses the influences behind his new book, the effect of 9/11 on his work, and the decline of the superhero in comics.
Author photograph by Alicia J. Rose
Craig Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel Blankets was the subject of much adulation, praise—and tears. At book signings, his fans would often cry. “It can be a bit overwhelming,” Thompson says, “but it’s also moving, touching that my fans have a connection with me.” Blankets, a semi-autobiographical story of young love, is set among the snows of the Midwest and takes place within the stifling atmosphere of evangelical Christianity. The book made TIME magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels. Near the end of the book, the main character (who happens to also be named Craig Thompson) journeys away from Christianity.
Thompson fans treat the novel like a latter-day Catcher in the Rye. And while critical praise for Blankets has been near-universal, others have been left cold by what they claim is a too-simple story: they’ve called Blankets facile nostalgia.
Almost eight years later, Thompson is back with Habibi, a new graphic novel with a complex plot (to be published on September 20). Habibi and Blankets have similarities: both are propulsive stories with richly detailed drawings. They’re also about love, set against a religious background. But there the similarities end—because while Habibi is set in an Islamic country, it’s not Blankets in the desert. Habibi isn’t concerned with fundamentalism and how it can stifle love. It’s many parts Arabian Nights. It has assassins, prostitutes, eunuchs, and shady businessmen. The book is filled with musings on Arabic calligraphy. Readers should also expect a cameo by King Solomon. Habibi is part travelogue (albeit in a fairytale country). It’s also deeply empathetic to Islam, but it isn’t a religious tract.
Thompson lives in Portland, where he moved to from the Midwest. We spoke by phone—and while he seemed happy to talk about his new book, he also was understandably leery about the many publicity obligations he has—including an upcoming, extensive three-month book tour that will take him from Vermont to Italy, with stops in San Francisco, Maryland, New York, and elsewhere. His loyal fans from Blankets (and his earlier, much shorter graphic novel, Good-Bye Chunky Rice) will certainly show up in force.
When asked why his previous work is still so popular, Thompson says, “I can certainly sympathize with the folk who come from a religious or restrictive background.” He adds, “I definitely have a desire to be vulnerable on paper—and people react to that.”
—Meakin Armstrong for Guernica
Guernica: What directed you to the Middle East as a place to set a story?
Craig Thompson: I hesitate to say the setting is the Middle East, because it’s more like a fairytale landscape—
Guernica: But it’s in a Islamic country and features Arabic writing…
Craig Thompson: The characters are vaguely Muslim because of the context that they grew up in. So yes, I borrowed fast and loose from different geographies, infusing it with the elements that I wanted.
Guernica: Did your writing have anything to do with 9/11 and how the U.S. reacted to it?
Craig Thompson: I wanted to focus on the beauties of Islam while it was being vilified in the media. At the same time there was this upsurge of Islamophobia in the United States, I was reaching out, making Muslim friends for the first time and recognizing that—you know—they had far more things in common with my upbringing than differences. I was inspired by Arab calligraphy, Islamic art, geometric design, ornamentation, and architecture—all of these things that evolved because of a supposed prohibition on visual interpretation.
I felt many of the separations were coming more from our side than from theirs. I think a lot of Muslims recognize the common thread in the Abrahamic faiths.
Guernica: Anyone familiar with Blankets—which is set in the Midwest and has Christian fundamentalism as a backdrop—might be surprised by your choice to revisit the topic of religion in Habibi. Why did you go back to religion? Are you attracted to it?
Craig Thompson: I don’t know if “attracted” is the right word. It isn’t something that I can separate from my being, because I grew up in an evangelical household. It’s very difficult for me to separate from that religious worldview—even though I don’t identify as religious in any way. I saw an interview with Harry Dean Stanton and he said, “Everybody’s spiritual, regardless of whether they identify as it or not.”
Guernica: Do you feel that there was similar a feeling between [evangelical Christianity] and Islam, how both are deeply felt faiths?
Craig Thompson: Yes, I was interested in the connections between the Abrahamic faiths, the things that are similar, not different.
Before Habibi, I didn’t have any Muslim friends. It motivated me to go out and meet those folks and become their friends and start a dialogue that informed a lot of the writing.
Guernica: What did you take away from working on Habibi?
Craig Thompson: A lot of the projects I work on seem to end up extending my social circle. With Blankets, I grew far closer to my siblings. I have a sister who’s not depicted in the book. Working on Blankets really motivated me to get closer to them and have important discussions on our shared childhood experiences and our moral beliefs and whatnot. Our family is not known for that sort of intimacy, but working on the book pushed me to do that. It was similar with Habibi. Before Habibi, I didn’t have any Muslim friends. It motivated me to go out and meet those folks and become their friends and start a dialogue that informed a lot of the writing. But the very first thing that struck me was that they were the same as anyone I grew up with. There are different levels—you can be a very casual, unexamined Muslim; you can be a conservative one—the same as with Christianity. In the end, it’s the same morals, it’s the same lifestyle; it’s the same stories that shape the beliefs—and I felt many of the separations were coming more from our side than from theirs. I think a lot of Muslims recognize the common thread in the Abrahamic faiths.
Guernica: Habibi takes place in a period all its own—the past and the present exist side by side. Would you say that’s the way it is in the Middle East or is this part of Habibi’s “fairytale landscape”?
Craig Thompson: I think anywhere in the so-called “developing countries” there’s this boundary where the old and new brush up against each other. That doesn’t mean you see palaces with sultans and modern plumbing and all of that. But my experience is that being in the Global South, as they call it, you can see people living in a very medieval way—alongside Western development and globalization.
Guernica: And that aspect put forth Habibi’s appearance of taking place in multiple time periods?
Craig Thompson: The landscape is sort of like Star Wars, in a way, like how George Lucas borrowed heavily from that North African environment. And it’s science fiction, but it’s also supposed to be taking place in the far, far, past.
Guernica: On your website, you show a process gallery—the art that’s inspired you. Some of those works were Western.
Craig Thompson: Oh, there were plenty of Western influences. It all started with A Thousand and One Nights, the Richard Burton translation, so that’s a very Westernized view of the folklore. And that set me off in two trajectories: one, which was to study the Islamic and Arabic art. And the other, the Western interpretations of that part of the world. The late 19th-century French Orientalist paintings are very exploitative and sensationalistic. They’re sexist and racist and all of those things, and yet there’s a beauty to them and a charm. So, I was self-consciously proceeding with an embrace of Orientalism, the Western perception of the East.
Guernica: When you say you decided to embrace Orientalism, what do you mean? Orientalism, after all, is a form of racism that sees people in the Middle East and Asia as different or magical or … not modern or rational. (Amartya Sen wrote for us about how in Western writings Indian author Rabindranath Tagore is reduced to his ‘spiritual’ views rather than his rational ideas.) How did you hope to navigate this?
Craig Thompson: “Embrace” may not be the right choice of words. The book is borrowing self-consciously Orientalist tropes from French Orientalist paintings and the Arabian Nights. I’m aware of their sensationalism and exploitation, but wanted to juxtapose the influence of Islamic arts with this fantastical Western take. This is a constant theme in the book of juxtaposing the sacred and profane. As for the latter concern, I didn’t consider it much as I personally ascribe to a sort of “magical” worldview rather than rational. The book is concerned with the connectivity of everything.
Guernica: It took you seven years to complete Habibi. How did you approach working on Habibi? Because one would assume that you can’t just insert a scene without interrupting the sequencing.
Craig Thompson: My process might not be the most efficient: I do a hand-drawn thumbnail version of the entire book. I’m writing and drawing simultaneously, and I do it from the beginning to the end. And then edit that before starting on the final art, which I spent a lot more time on. With Blankets, I spent a year on the thumbnails, which seems like a reasonable amount of time for a graphic novel. With Habibi, I sort of got lost in that process and spent two years. The first draft was done in a year, but then it just wasn’t resonating with me; it was falling flat. And I wrestled with it for a year, trying to figure it out—especially the ending. Finally, I capitulated and resolved to start work on the final art even though I didn’t know how it ended. That was fall of 2006 that I started to actually draw the final art. I finished the final art in the fall of 2010. It was four years of solid drawing. Then I worked on the design and production work. Before that, I was just getting lost and wrestling with the thumbnail version of the book.
Guernica: The excerpt that’s in Guernica right now—are any of the details you give based on fact?
Craig Thompson: My studio is in disarray right now, but somewhere around here is an amazing book on the castrati—I read a couple books, actually. Very early on, Zam presented himself as a eunuch. He emerged fully realized from my conscious, but I had to research some context on how or why he had been castrated. So the details in the story are historical. The hijra are changing: for many years, they were a caste that was respected and acknowledged as being an almost indigenous culture of acknowledged homosexuals. Now they are a reviled caste that has had to resort to prostitution and the dingier sides of culture. But I tried to put both of those eunuch histories in the clan that Zam is associated with.
Guernica: It wasn’t easy to excerpt your work—each scene went right into the next, much like how a DJ mixes songs—one song right into the next. When one sequence ended in Habibi, something else was starting up, right away.
Craig Thompson: I was drawing inspiration from A Thousand and One Nights, so that naturally led into Scheherazade telling stories that went one into the other, and you forget where you began. But I think comics just naturally allow you to have that visual mash-up, like a DJ, because the art is sequenced. You can place drawings in a sequence and have business happen—but you can also juxtapose different stories in a way you can’t do in other media.
Guernica: Did you work on having more of that mash-up effect with Habibi? Because Blankets didn’t have as much of it, it seems.
Craig Thompson: I’m always playing with time shifts—that’s something I’m comfortable with and think comics are well suited to. But with Habibi, I didn’t shy away from getting even more tangled.
Guernica: And that’s why you got lost in writing the story?
Craig Thompson: [Laughs.] It wasn’t easy.
Guernica: Keeping in mind the Prophet Muhammad cartoons fiasco of a few years ago, did you feel there was anything you had to self-censor? Was there anything you wanted to do, but felt you couldn’t?
Craig Thompson: I did have these Muslim friends and readers that I was consulting while I was working on the book. I also trusted that my intent would show through—and because I was depicting the Prophet’s ascension into heaven in a reverent way, that that intent would show through. The Danish cartoons, though, were much more provocative and insulting—maybe not all of them were, but a few of them were, for sure. I trusted my dialogue with my Muslim friends. And I think there’s also something insulting about tiptoeing around these subjects. The Muslims I know are really open-minded and like the dialogue. I felt that that was an artistic responsibility, too.
Guernica: What sort of specific reactions or advice did you get from the friends who you said advised you?
Craig Thompson: Often I would be concerned with the sensitivity of the scene and my Muslim readers would respond that some people might be upset, but they personally weren’t. If it touched a nerve that personally bothered them, I generally reconsidered, but I can’t think of any such examples at the moment. A big one was the depiction of the prophets. I was especially concerned with depicting Muhammad, but found that my Muslim readers found it as respectful/reverent. A couple friends were more bothered by the levity used in Noah’s depiction. In Islam, all the prophets are sacred. But I felt that Noah had a playful energy in his story that warranted a dash of humor compared to the others.
Other notable advice was the particular piece of Arabic calligraphy that graced the Solomon and Bilqis story. My friend found it and pointed out how it references the only sura in the Quran that uses the Bismillah twice, balancing out the missing Bismillah in sura nine.
Guernica: Do you feel vulnerable as an outsider writing this?
Craig Thompson: I don’t know if “vulnerable” is the right word. Maybe. I’m aware that I’m a white-trash kid from the country, the Midwest. And I don’t have any authority in terms of academic studies or my cultural background to write this. It is a fairytale, though.
Guernica: You said the early impetus to write this was from 9/11. Was it a reaction to America’s behavior in the world?
Craig Thompson: Definitely. It wasn’t directly started after 9/11, like, “this is something I want to do,” but in the wake of the tragedy, I felt a stronger sense of American guilt and awareness of our tacit participation in exploiting cultures elsewhere in the world.
Comics can now embrace their natural tendencies to be quiet. They’re like letters.
Guernica: Do you have any opinion of what Americans ought to do? Or do you not have a political agenda?
Craig Thompson: I don’t really have a political goal or agenda. I’m not an enthusiast for global capitalism, that’s for sure. But these problems existed throughout the history of the world. I don’t know if there’s a way to fix them. I don’t really have a good answer for that. I wish I did.
Guernica: What do you think of the perception that graphic novels are always about superheroes?
Craig Thompson: Before I started Blankets, I was sort of reacting against the tradition in comics of doing adolescent male fantasies. I definitely felt at that time that the medium was better suited to quieter, more intimate stories, rather than fast-paced, sci-fi action comics. That niche has been replaced by video games and Hollywood blockbusters. Comics can now embrace their natural tendencies to be quiet. They’re like letters. No one writes letters anymore, but they’re actually written by hand. And graphic novels are like that. One person draws every picture. The drawing turns into writing and the writing turns into something visual. It’s something readers consume on their own. It’s not like when you go to your local theater and have a movie sort of wash over you. You take it in intimately at your own pace—like a handwritten letter.
Guernica: Have people in the industry still missed the point and tried to get you to write a superhero story because some corporate type thought they could make more money that way?
Craig Thompson: Yes, but that might have finally shifted. During Blankets and for a while after, I’d occasionally do a mainstream project—it’d be a short piece where someone else wrote it and I’d illustrate it. And there’s always a miserable process when someone else has done the writing—I don’t know, a lot of the personal satisfaction comes from the writing, maybe more than the drawing. Even more so, there’s the composing of the page—choosing how you’re going to tell the story. But if someone else has done all that work, then it’s the tedious mechanics of drawing. If you’re writing, you can choose what you’re going to draw. I’ve resisted so many stereotypical forms of the comics like the pamphlet, and even color—I think black and white is the most pure way to express yourself.
Guernica: How do you work? Do you wait for inspiration? Do you write every day?
Craig Thompson: When I was working on the thumbnails for Habibi, I was definitely good at keeping a sketchbook practice and I was filling up a visual sketchbook, doing figure drawing, which then I sort of neglected when I started actually drawing the book. All of my drawing energy was poured into just working on the pages.
Guernica: And from there you would flesh it out?
Craig Thompson: Once it’s written, my creative concerns are all about composing a page. My drawings are toward composing a page. Then my writing gets neglected. I didn’t work on writing new projects while drawing Habibi. It became all-consuming and daunting. All my energies went into that.
Guernica: What does it feel like now that it’s done?
Craig Thompson: I’m still committed to Habibi, working on the foreign translations and providing promotional graphics. There are three projects I want to get started on. I’m really restless.
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