'Habibi' and 'Holy Terror': Two new graphic novels display stark differences
'Habibi' is a 'breathtaking visual and intellectual experience' by a young auteur; 'Holy Terror' is a nasty rant by one of the legends of the form
November 20, 2011 5:00 AM
Frank Miller illustration
Craig Thompson illustration
By Tony Norman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It should be every graphic novelist's mission to be an ink-stained version of Scheherazade. Thirty-three years after cartoonist Will Eisner kick-started the form with "Contract With God," most graphic novels either dwell on trite autobiographical details or adult-themed superhero narratives.
Despite the fact that there's no shortage of genuinely talented artists and writers working in the field, there's an appalling lack of ambition on display at the graphics novel section of the average bookstore chain.
Most graphic artists appear to be allergic to taking on big themes or exploring the potential of the art form to forge a new understanding of the world. That's a pity because all the tools are in place for a mind-blowing ride if the desire was there. Contrary to the spirit of the late Will Eisner, the tiny story reigns in the graphic novel universe like never before.
Two recent graphic novels are more ambitious than most in plumbing the visual and narrative potential of the art form. One is a masterpiece by an artist who has only been on the scene for a decade while the other is, arguably, the worst thing a three-decade veteran and innovator of the graphic novel form has ever done.
By Craig Thompson Pantheon Books, $35
Eight years ago, artist/writer Craig Thompson released "Blankets," a 600-page take on Christian fundamentalism, sex and the agony of first love. It was haunting, beautiful and revelatory. Fast-forward almost a decade to "Habibi," Mr. Thompson's far more magisterial follow-up.
"Habibi" is a surreal tale about the persistence of love and the centrality of narrative storytelling in all of our lives. It takes place in an unspecified, often dream-like desert kingdom that is both medieval and depressingly modern. It features bedouin killers, minarets, mad fishermen, arabesques, Islamic numerology, pollution and Bible stories.
"Habibi" is a sprawling chronicle of a beautiful and resourceful woman named Dodola who begins her life as a child bride. Her companion is Zam, the boy she rescues from the indignity of slavery to raise as her own. They are inseparable in spirit even as the chaotic circumstances of their lives conspire to keep them apart, sometimes years at a time during their sojourn in Wanatolia.
"Habibi" is a deeply moving meditation on their decades long friendship and how it gave way to an inevitable, but not always welcome passion. Relentlessly brutal at times, "Habibi" is a fascinating exploration of a foreign cultural tradition by an American cartooning auteur at the height of his powers.
Mr. Thompson will inevitably be accused of engaging in what the late Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said defined as "Orientalism," a Western fascination with Eastern ideas that only scratches its exotic surface. There may be something to that charge, but for this reader, "Habibi" is never anything less than a breathtaking visual and intellectual experience.
Because it looks to Eastern mysticism and exotic imagery for its narrative momentum, "Habibi" isn't as steeped in the conflicts of the author's own religious traumas as "Blankets," though its obsessive struggle with faith, fate and the pursuit of love echoes across many spiritual traditions. It is syncretism with a human face.
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By contrast, Frank Miller's "Holy Terror" is a nasty, though visually arresting expression of xenophobic rage against Muslims. It conflates all Muslims with terrorists with a racist gusto that undermines what could have otherwise been an interesting workshop on sequential narrative. The reader has no choice but to hold one's nose while turning the pages.
"Holy Terror" features the Fixer, a Batman-like vigilante and his temporary sidekick Natalie Stack, a talented cat burglar obviously based on the Catwoman. While fighting and making out on a rooftop in Empire City, a series of nail and razor bombs engulf the city in a cloud of death and mutilation.
By Frank Miller Legendary Books, $29.95
The Fixer and Stack put aside their complicated relationship to team up to find the terrorists. Along the way, they engage in torture and acts of sadism to foil an apocalyptic-sized terror plot centered beneath Empire City's looming mosque.
Mr. Miller depicts al-Qaida as a high-tech militia that uses fighter jets to take out symbols of American democracy. Unflattering caricatures of past and present American political leaders abound in this book, as well. What Mr. Miller is saying with these gestures is anyone's guess.
Even as a revenge pamphlet against al-Qaida, "Holy Terror" isn't very interesting. If former Vice President Dick Cheney ever authored a graphic novel, it couldn't be worse than what Mr. Miller has done here.
Mr. Miller originally conceived "Holy Terror" as an extension of the groundbreaking work he did in "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One" two decades ago. Fortunately, DC Comics wasn't interested in letting Mr. Miller drag its marquee character into the stygian abyss of low-brow propaganda and anti-Muslim hysteria.
One of the last projects Will Eisner published just before he died was "The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a major feat of graphic novel magic that eviscerated one of the most persistent anti-Semitic libels of the past 200 years.
Mr. Eisner and Mr. Miller were friends, but one can't help but wonder how the late, great comic book legend would have reacted to "Holy Terror," a graphic novel as morally incoherent as the nonsense he satirized in "The Plot."
Mr. Miller has been one of the giants of the comic book industry since the late 1970s, but he has stumbled badly with this morally tone-deaf narrative jumble.
Mr. Thompson and Mr. Miller spent a nearly equal number of years working on their projects, but only one has produced a read worthy of his powers.