Dreadful angels knew,
if all men were magicians,
devils had their due.
There are two main things to say about Habibi: one, this book is incredibly gorgeous, just astonishingly beautiful. Two, does Craig Thompson know that he's a white cisgendered man? I mean, the book is an alternating litany of really wonderful myths & alchemical musings...intercut with extremely problematic sequences. I mean, like, one ill-considered or inappropriate trope after another, presented totally obliviously. I'm certainly not implying that a white guy can't write non-white, non-male characters, but do it with a little more...consideration? There are times when Thompson seems to be condemning rape culture & the male gaze...but he does it by commodifying the female character, Dodola? & there are moments where he seems almost about to address the racism that the black character, Zam faces...but then he undermines it with some slapstick "Black Power!" humor? There is an arc devoted to some intersex & transgender characters-- tied up with the court eunuchs-- which is just sort of dropped in, a sort of "incidentally queer" cul-de-sac that isn't mentioned again. It isn't even an offensive portrayal-- but it is problematic, & Thompson seems unwilling or unable to look deeper, to acknowledge the problem & deal with it. It never edges outright to a point where it demands condemnation...but there are just lots of problems with it.
I honestly can't quite grok it; it seems like Thompson wants to have his cake & eat it to. No, that is a terrible metaphor, because I don't think he wants sexism & racism...I just think there is a sort of hipster irony at work here, & it utterly fails. Like Thompson thought to himself, "oh, I get it, I'm down, so that means that I can totally use it, I'll take it back!" You know, like one step above a "I like rap music, so I can use the n-word" sort of attitude. & no, no you can't, Craig Thompson. You needed to be wary of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, but instead you ignored them, at your peril, & it compromises your whole book. I mean, the nearest comparison to Habibi-- an unavoidable comparison, I'd say-- is Neil Gaiman's Sandman story "Ramadan," which is very much in a similar vein...but then, Gaiman doesn't indulge himself in stereotypes the way Thompson does. Thompson walks a tight rope between the mythology of the Middle East & the mythology of the West about the Middle East, & all too often he falls, he fails, & it becomes an exercise in...well, psycho-sexual torture & exoticism. He doesn't always fail, but it is surprisingly in the the human moments that he does; the frame story is the most questionable aspect, while the bits of story adapted from the Koran or the Hadith are just phenomenal. I mean, look at this stuff!