My husband grew up reading comic books and later became addicted to graphic novels. Me? Not so much. The first graphic novel I read was "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang at the urging of my writing institute professor. I loved it, so by the time I taught "Maus 1" and "Maus 2" a few years later to my 10 Honors English class and took my students to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I felt like we were getting an intimate look at the horrors of the Holocaust even if the characters were mice and cats. When I read "The Complete Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi I didn't want it to end, and I felt like I gained an understanding of life for a modern woman in Iran. When my cousin recommended the graphic novel, "Habibi" by Craig Thompson to me, I couldn't wait to read it. My husband read it first, and finished it in a day. His only comment was, "This book has a lot of rape in it." I know he liked it though, not the rape parts specifically, but the book for the artistic value and for the story.
"Habibi" (which means "my beloved") centers around the story of two children born into slavery who find each other. Dodola's parents sell her into marriage when she is only 9 years old to a man who translated sacred texts. After her husband is killed she meets Cham (who she renames Zam "the water finder"). Cham's mother does not want to care for him, so Dodola rescues him and herself from a life of slavery. They live on an abandoned boat in the middle of the desert and Dodola prostitutes herself to men in caravans to get food for survival. Dodola becomes a mother figure to Zam, and he falls in love with her in an Oedipal complex sort of way. The story turns even more painful and thrives on sexual repression and the castration of desires as Zam gets older and then sees Dodola being raped by the caravan men.
Through seasons of separation and one disaster after another from literal castration to pregnancy and possible beheadings, Zam and Dodola search for each other only to be further tormented and torn apart when they eventually reconcile. The story fluctuates between an ancient Arab society, parallelism to biblical stories, and eventually a modern society. Thompson shows the all too real horrors of modern man which are the same as those of ancient societies and focuses in very heavy handed way on the pitfalls of sexual desire.
The pictures are a veritable eye orgy on each page. Thompson's beautiful artwork helps the story almost dance, but the story itself is a painful and often horrific tale of too much brutality in the face of innocence and survival. Why the castration? Why the repression of sexual desires? Why does Dodola constantly need to survive by selling her body and soul to others?
The story pained me. The pictures pleased me.
Coming from someone who never wanted to read graphic novels because I didn't think I could get into an adult book with pictures, I think that having the pictures stir me up is a good thing. I just wish the story could have given me the same thrill.