Thursday, 1 September 2011

Interview with Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson by Alicia J. Rose
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'. The comic, set largely in Thompson's native Wisconsin during the winter, addresses themes ranging from religion, to love, to identity in a startling and refreshingly honest way. His unique artwork, full of impressionistic brush-strokes and stream-of-conscious patterns, along with his beautifully poetic narration, created a wonderful, heart-breaking tale that is widely considered to be among the best comics ever written. Now, seven years in the making, Thompson is ready to release his new work, “Habibi”. A fantastical love story set in a "landscape outside of time", and 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 your new comic '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!
In terms of the political themes, were you trying to consciously comment on the war on terror, or the Israel-Palestine conflict? Or was it just a wider theme of Islam in general?
Yeah, it’s wider and more general. 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. At least in that sense, with 'Habibi' I wanted to focus on the connections in those stories, the myths if you will, that shape those cultures. 

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. Beyond that, it’s not historical or factual. It doesn’t take place in any specific location or time – it’s a fairy tale. 

After finishing 'Blankets' I was sick of drawing myself and these Midwestern mundane landscapes, and I just wanted to draw something outside of myself, and something bigger than myself. I was leaning in two directions – either something fantastical and epic in a classic comic book fantasy way, or something more socially and politically relevant like Joe Sacco’s comic book work (N.B. Joe Sacco is the author of the excellent 'Palestine', 'Footnotes in Gaza' and 'Safe Area Gorazde'). 'Habibi' ended up meeting in the middle of those two ideas. 

How did you go about incorporating the Arabic calligraphy and geometric art into the comic book form? 

I definitely had fun playing around with it. 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. I know that Chris Ware (N.B. author of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth) talks about comics as sheet-music, so the reader has to know how to read the symbols to unlock all that movement and rhythm. 

From the advance pages I’ve seen, 'Habibi' seems to be infused with some very interesting and multilayered imagery – triangles interlocking into a star shape as two characters kiss. 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 as it’s also known. Every theme in that chapter also focuses on the prophet Solomon and the number six on that six-pointed star. 

That’s obviously really interesting as the comic is about Arabic and Islamic culture, yet the Star of David is a Jewish symbol, as well as the undertones of the Biblical Old Testament. Were you trying to draw the three religions together? 

Oh definitely. That was a big part of it – to explore the connections between the three Abrahamic faiths, starting obviously with Abraham, being the connecting father of all three faiths. 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, and Moses, and Noah, and 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. 

Have you travelled in the Middle East at all? 

Not really. For the most part I was just holed up in my studio as cartoonists tend to do. I did go to Morocco in 2004, I was on a book tour in Europe and I had to salvage a little time for myself, so I wanted to go to an accessible Islamic country. Travelling from Europe, Turkey and Morocco were the natural choices. I was just lured in by the scenes of medieval medinas in Morocco. It wasn’t really a research trip, I wasn’t doing documentary work like Joe Sacco does, but it was a great opportunity to see all the beauty, have crazy experiences like riding camels in the Sahara desert, and also having conversations with Muslims. 

The first book I read of yours was 'Blankets' which took a very humanistic, autobiographical, and sensitive approach to the comics medium. With 'Habibi', have you taken this approach again, and how have you done it in a genre which is largely known in the mainstream for being about superheroes and science fiction? 

One thing I was saying is that it isn’t documentary or historical, but I was able to draw fast and loose from all kinds of research. It takes place in this landscape outside of time. It could be a medieval landscape or it could be modern. It captures that boundary where the old world and the new world mash up. But I got to pick and choose, and so there are things like guns and television sets which I chose not to draw. There are these Ottoman harems and desert-scapes, but there’s also factories and industrial clutter and motorised vehicles and plumbing. I was allowed that freedom. 

I call it an epic because it follows these characters through a couple of decades in the lives of these characters and across several different backdrops of both old world and modern. But it is essentially a story of the relationship between two characters, so it’s not about war – it’s not like a Kurosawa epic. It really focuses on the relationship between two people. 

It almost reminds me of 'Ada, or Ardour' by Vladimir Nabokov with the parallel universe and the love story between two people… 

I love that book! Thank you for referencing that, that’s my favourite Nabokov book! 

Were you consciously influenced by it when writing 'Habibi'? 

It wasn’t conscious. Ironically I think Nabokov was more of an influence while I was writing 'Blankets'. There’s nothing really obvious there but I was really loving a lot of his books back then. I think 'Habibi' was more informed by non-fiction books. The first authors I’d cite would be Arundhati Roy, and I was really inspired by her book 'Power Politics' which is an exciting read. Then Karen Armstrong who wrote 'A History of God'. Those were my two biggest influences. 

In 'Blankets' there was a strong religious element too. I actually wondered when I read it, are you still a Christian? 

No, I’m not religious per se, I’m just agnostic, or open-endedly spiritual. 

What kind of artists were you looking at besides the Arab and Islamic stuff? You’ve mentioned in previous interviews – and it’s clear from your comics – that you like the impressionists. Was that a continuing influence, or were there others this time? 

I love impressionists, I love turn of the century French artists, 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 those paintings that came out in the 1860s, like 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. 

What would you say is special about the medium of comics? 

One thing I was thinking about recently was for a visual medium, one of the most creatively pure and efficient, for instance like cinema, requires so many people, time and resources to communicate ideas, and comics are the pure form where one person can realise it all. They can be the story teller, and the actor, and the set designer with just ink and paper. It’s very direct in that way. In a way with the death of the print industry happening, some of the last footing in print might belong to graphic literature since it’s still more pleasurable to consume visual literature – ink on paper. I can understand why people want their novels and reading material on Kindle, but it’s still not at a point where you’d want to read comics that way. I think there’s something very primal since we all grow up drawing, there’s something interesting about pursuing story telling through drawing throughout your adult life. 

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 but 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. 

What would you say is the most unique aspect of the comics medium in terms of its possibilities with story telling and the like? 

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. 

I agree - there’s a part at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral where the narrative is moving between multiple times, and I always thought it could have been done so well as a comic. 

Another book I think of is Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, because it’s so extremely visual. It would’ve been a perfect book as a graphic novel! 

Do you have any words for those who may have written off comics as a valid medium? 

It seems funny because you guys (N.B. - the UK) have Alan Moore, and that seems a crucial launching point for reading comics – there’s just a political message infused in every single panel he writes. It’s hard sometimes being a cartoonist because I don’t think a writer has to explain why they work in prose, whereas cartoonists have a sort of apologetic attitude to what they do. 

We live in a visual culture, everything we consume these days is visual and yet comics still reflect a pure individual vision and they’re a slower more intimate old-world, old-fashioned homage to the original Gutenberg press or illuminated manuscripts where it’s just ink on paper and there’s a pure communication between the writer and the audience. The cartoonist is working in a cursive shorthand form of drawing where the drawings are written and the words are drawn, and there’s something profound about that. 

Blankets is one of the comics which has helped established the comics medium as a true literary force. What was it like having Time and the New York Times Book Review laud 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.

(Originally published by New Statesman)


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