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Craig Thompson at Powell’s

October 5, 2011

Labor Pains

Portland author Craig Thompson came to Powell’s last week and brought several hundred of his most devoted fans. He was promoting Habibi, his first book since Blankets was released in 2004. His fans had complained that it was too long to wait. We soon found out, however, he wasn’t just kicking back on the beach somewhere. Habibi took six years to create.

I say create because it’s an illustrated novel. No, I don’t call it a graphic novel. It’s more like an ancient manuscript. And if you think you’re to old for this genre or that it’s not your genre of choice, then it’s time you think outside your boundaries – which is precisely what Thompson would have us all do when it comes to the themes of Habibi.

Habibi is the epic tale of Dodola and Zam who are refugee child slaves.  It chronicles their lives beginning as children and moving into young adulthood. It deftly layers the contemporary problems of child slavery, sex abuse, environmental neglect and other problems over a timeless backdrop of the fantastic and the religious in an imagined Middle East locale. Thompson said, “Blankets was meant to be sparse and breathable and sort of capture the emptiness of the Midwest, but in Habibi I was paying tribute to old book plate engravings and the Arabian Nights.”

Thompson explained, “The core of the book is the relationship between Dodola and Zam. Zam talks about the seven layers of heaven above and seven layers of hell below and a fifteenth layer in between where all human existence takes place. That’s a battleground between those two worlds. That’s how I thought about the book. This fifteenth layer – the emotional core – is the relation between Dodola and Zam, but on top of that, I was able to heap layers and layers of heaven and hell.”

Thompson was originally inspired by the fantasies of One Thousand and One Nights but eventually the Christianity that informed him as a child insinuated itself into his work and then continued for him into a broader study of Islam and the Koran. He soon realized that Christians, Jews and Muslims all have the same Gods. Since Habibi is very much influenced by Islam, Thompson was careful to consult with Muslim friends for advice.

Slide after slide demonstrated Thompson’s laborious process in creating Habibi and he talked about the various influences on his work.  He said, “Arabic calligraphy definitely excited me as a cartoonist. It’s been called music for the eyes. Another idea that resonates for me as a cartoonist, is the cursive nature of the Arabic alphabet because these cartoons at their essence are a short hand form of drawing.”

He began the arduous task by filling sketchbook after sketchbook with ideas, drawing and writing.  Thompson said, “There’s no part of the process where I separate drawing from writing or from note taking.” Next, he started drawing the first draft of the book which took six months. He said,  “I was ready. I put down the first panel and then the next, drawing in ball point pen straight into the sketch books. I finished one sketch book and then started a new one and just drew one panel after another.” Thompson said it flowed for two hundred pages and then it dried up.  At that point, he went back and reread everything and “it all felt pretty flat and lifeless.”  He said, “This was sort of a spell that this book cast on itself. There’s this theme of drought, of water crisis – environmental drought – but there’s other forms of drought for the characters. There’s emotional drought and sexual drought and spiritual drought and for myself, as author, creative drought.”  When looking back through his notes, he re-discovered symbols in his notes -the magic squares – which are like a “mystical Sudoku.” They’re pre-Islamic talismans from North Africa. These, then, became a “map for the book.”

At one point, he transformed Rumi poems into comics form. He said, “Rumi talks about this idea that you need to keep breaking your heart until it opens. I related to that. What I did with that is I took the sketchbooks and “dashed them on the floor” and pieced them back together in a new form.” Then, he started the second draft of the book and began thinking about page composition and spreads. He spent almost two years on the thumbnails of Habibi. But the ending didn’t seem right and he needed to figure out what that was. Eventually, he started the third draft and edited, redrawing the thumbnails, hoping he would realize the perfect ending when he got there. Finally, he started drawing the final art in the last two years. He said, “The final pages are always ink on paper. I work with a brush and India ink.” Thompson only uses a computer as an intermediate tool. The final pages are always hand drawn.

Thompson doesn’t claim to be an expert, although he clearly has a genius for what he does. He said, “I shouldn’t even be speaking at a bookstore, because I don’t have any college training. I grew up in a lower working class family with no academic background, so I have no authority to speak on any subject other than farming.”

Thompson did not grow up in a literary household. He was, in fact, immersed in a very religious one and grew up on a farm. He read the Bible everyday for a decade: “It was the only book you needed to read.” All the entertainment in the house was strictly censored. He said, “There were no PG-13 movies, we could only watch the most watered-down family TV shows. Only Christian music. But comics were somehow below the radar, because they were this kids medium.” He and his brother used the money they earned on the farm to buy comic books. “That’s why the medium imprinted on me.”

When asked how he finds the fortitude to keep working on a book if he’s hating it, or struggling with it, especially one that’s taken seven years to create, Thompson said, “It kind of corresponds with my attitude toward romantic relationships. Like, if you just abandon a relationship when it becomes difficult then you don’t learn anything about yourself. The point of being in a relationship is to pull some of the dark things out of your subconscious and sort of pull up your neurosis and issues. If you stick with those things and work through them, then you become a better person. So, if I gave up on the book, I guess I’d be giving up on myself.”

Is he going to continue in the same fashion? Thompson said, “I would like to try a looser format, but I also want to take on smaller projects.  I think I kind of paid my dues for a little bit with big books, and I want do some books of a couple of hundred pages.  Two hundred pages – I can do that in two years.

Pantheon, 2011

Portland author M. Allen Cunningham is pictured with Craig Thompson.

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