This month sees the publication of two graphic works by respected artists at the top of their game each of which display an interest in the relationship between Christianity and Islam and are made more interesting when examined side by side.
Craig Thompson’s Habibi is perhaps the most significant of the two, clocking in at a whopping 672 pages. Thompson fans have been reading about progress on his website for the last six or so years and we’ve always known it was going to be something that was going to fall happily into the ‘epic’ category. Now that it’s here, it is safe to say that Habibi does for the Muslim world what Blankets did for Christianity. Told in the black-and-white, Habibi concerns a young woman, sold into marriage as a child and then subsequently abducted here, there and everywhere, and a small black boy she rescues from a slaver’s market and attempts to bring up as her own. Except, of course, attempts at ‘saying what Habibi is about’ feel hopelessly reductive. Thompson has obviously been studying language this last few years because the world of Habibi is constructed, at times, from Arabic itself, whether it’s rivers that meander like letters until they become stories, snake djinns conjured from the world to help in moments of dire need or the characters themselves (a beautiful frame sees Zem, as the young black is sometimes named, reunited with his Dodola, a silhouette constructed of Arabic). Like Rushdie, Thompson weaves religious stories from the Bible and the Qu’ran alongside out-takes from 1001 Arabian Nights, stunning slapstick comedy (there is a great chase through the palace relatively early on) and passionate story-telling (you genuinely care about what happens to the two central characters).
Meanwhile, Epileptic author David B, himself a huge influence on Thompson, issues The Armed Garden and Other Stories, three stories which are themselves set either in the world of 1001 Arabian Nights or are drawn from the annals of stories recorded as taking place during the Crusades. Where Habibi takes place during a world that changes over the course of the story becoming more and more recognisably ‘modern’, The Armed Garden feels more like the postcard from a period. Unlike the recent The Littlest Pirate King, which felt like a high-spirited jape, The Armed Garden feels closer to David B’s heart. This is a more personal work even as it is distant and foreign. Told in a muted duotone, The Armed Garden is more fantastical than Habibi (this is a world in which the trees will come to life and fight, brandishing swords, a world in which the spirit of a man can be transferred to a drum used to inspire soldiers to go on fighting), even as it is less involving (this isn’t as much of a criticism as it would seem, a 600+ page book is inevitably more involving than a much slimmer tome). Where David B comes into his own is in the clarity of his story-telling (Thompson can, at times, become something of the instructor, as if he feels himself to be writing a graphic Ulysses, albeit a Ulysses in which the author takes time out to explain just how complex the world he is fashioning is): three stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, each of which culminate with a beautiful, poignant, resonant thought, word or image, allows a greater focus to be brought to bear. The first story is my particular favourite, concerning as it does a veiled prophet who is cast down a well at the climax – or is he? We gaze into an abyss that gazes back at us.
The author note at the back of The Armed Garden instructs us that David B is at the moment writing his own magnum opus on ‘the often tempestuous relationship between the Muslim world and the Western world over the centuries’ so it may be he’ll weigh in with a rival to Thompson’s Habibi before too long. Until then, we have two works each of which are of value and each of which will find themselves read and discussed, perhaps in relation to one another, for a good long time to come.
Any Cop?: If forced to pick between them and recommend one, I’d urge you to track down Habibi first – but not to leave too long a time before you pick up The Armed Garden as well.