Craig Thompson was 28 years old when he released Blankets, a sweet and sad autobiographical account of the writer/artist reconciling his small-town fundamentalist Christian upbringing with falling in love for the first time. It quickly became one of the more acclaimed and popular graphic novels in the history of the medium, becoming the sort of book that comic fans forced on their non-comic reading friends to prove what the form is capable of. It won both Harvey and Eisner Awards, the comic industry’s versions of Oscars. Time named it one of the best graphic novels ever released, Paste named it one of the best books of the decade and Seth Cohen included it alongside Bright Eyes and Death Cab For Cutie albums in The Seth Cohen Starter Kit. But you can’t please everyone.
“The book was banned in a town in Missouri as pornography and pulled from public library,” the now 36-year-old Thompson recalls from his Portland home. “After a few town meetings it was returned to bookshelves, but the community was up in arms about it. I’ve gotten all kinds of strange mail, people praying for me or sending me Bible verses. I’ve even heard a story that someone was not able to get a copy of Blankets from Amazon and instead they were mailed a Bible. I don’t know if that’s a true story or not, but a fan told it to me. People are going to react the way they do.”
His new work Habibi won’t hurt for reactions. It’s an epic (672 pages, to be exact) tale centered around Dodola and Zam, two refuge child slaves who have to brave forced prostitution, depraved sultans and eunuch cults in their efforts to find each other after Dodola is kidnapped. It’s lushly illustrated, at times unbearably sad and unexpectedly erotic. It critiques environmental neglect and the exploitation of the “boundary where the old world brushes up against the new world,” and features a lengthy tone-poem of a suicide note. It’s more of a piece with Blankets than it sounds.
If his previous novel was Thompson’s examination of contemporary Christianity, Habibi is his exploration of Islamic beliefs and myths and the links between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and how all religions are fundamentally fueled by the power of storytelling.
“It definitely a post-9/11 attempt to better understand Islam and focus on the beauty of its art and culture,” Thompson says. “From a lot of my conversations with Muslims, I felt they understood the connections with the religion, and I felt like a lot of the boundaries and walls were being set up more on the Western side, around the Judeo-Christian side. In some ways I just wanted the connections to be the thing, because they didn’t really seem that different to me at all at the core.”
“After Blankets I was sick of drawing myself,” Thompson admits, adding that his stop-gap travelogue Carnet de Voyage didn’t help in this regard. His aim was to go in a less autobiographical direction for his next major work. After reading Richard Burton’s translation of the Middle Eastern folklore anthology One Thousand And One Nights (“a very Western take on Arab culture”), his characters “emerged immediately in a sort of subconscious way. Pretty much all the details of them were there from the start. I knew their ages and their city and that they were escaped child slaves.”
He began reading The Quran and talking about faith with newfound Muslim friends. He researched slavery and Middle Eastern politics and history, and points to Power Politics, Arundhati Roy’s reporting of the dangers of energy inequality, as a key influence.
Thompson approaches Islamic beliefs from a place of obvious deep respect in Habibi; Dodola telling tales from the The Quran to Zam gives them strength to survive horrendous circumstances. He’s still going to get all kinds of interesting letters. For starters, he straight-up illustrates the prophet Muhammad in this thing.
“I asked some Muslim readers and friends that I was consulting, and none of them seemed directly uncomfortable with the depiction of Muhammad, partly because I was basing that off of the tradition in Persian painting of showing him with a cloaked face, with an intent to be reverent towards him,” he says. “I think there was almost something insulting about not engaging these themes and topics, because the Muslims I know are open-minded and open to the dialogue.”
Like most of the artistic, free-thinking types you’ve met, Thompson hates labels. But he allows that you could probably accurately call him an agnostic. But he certainly put in the time when it comes to religion, and he’s aware that there’s just no pleasing some people. “I have the same attitude towards all religious fundamentalists. I grew up I a very fundamentalist Christian household where a lot of…the more conservative end of people are always going to be insulted by something, but most believers fall in a more moderate space and are pretty open-minded about it,” he says. “As much as I self-criticize while I’m working, I don’t really worry about those elements.”
Sometime before his tenth birthday, Thompson’s parents gave him and his brother a dollar each to buy comic books at a souvenir shop. They were hooked. “It kind of overlapped with the time in our lives when we starting to do farm work. We were little country boys that would go work out in the field for a dollar an hour, which translated in to exactly one comic book an hour for us.”
By high school he started distancing himself from comics in an attempt to pursue girls and skateboarding. For a while he wanted to work in animation, until he realized that “at best you could only be a cog in the machine of that industry.”
Around the time he became a fan of Guided By Voices, Built To Spill and The Flaming Lips, he began rediscovering comics “and seeing that one person could have creative control of all the different elements—the story, the character design, the background, the drawing, all the texture. And it sort of overlapped with the indie rock, punk rock, DIY zine scene of the ’90s. It was like, ‘I can come make stories and print them at Kinkos and be part of this community,’ and it was sort of a nerdy, ink and paper version of the punk scene.”
He made his debut in 1999 with Good-bye, Chunky Rice, a bittersweet anthropomorphic tale of a sad turtle leaving home. In case you’ve always wondered, the whole sack of drowned puppies thing was the most autobiographical part. (“There was a lot of animal drowning going on in the household. Gotta work that out somehow.”) In 2003 he followed Rice up with Blankets. It got immediately out of hand from there.
“The first comics show I attended was in New York, and that was June 2003, and it was an insane signing session,” he says. “Eight hours straight, 500 copies of Blankets solid that I drew in, but there were 800 that I autographed. I kind of destroyed my hand after that signing session, because that’s when I was drawing full illustrations inside of each book, too,” he recalls. “Then it continued in Europe when I did a five-month stint in early 2004. And French media was very strange; if you’re a cartoonist in France you’re like a rock star. I was getting interviewed by media there and having to be on television and have people powder my face with make-up, and certainly coming back from that sort of experience, everything is sort of rearranged for you.
“It was very surreal, because I really created it in a vacuum. The comics market was so tiny at the time, and my fanbase was even smaller than the regular market, so I didn’t think many people would see the book, so it gave me a freedom to be able to expose whatever I wanted to about myself and not worry about people seeing it.”
Thompson mentions obliquely that he had health problems following Blankets, “and in some of my more intimate circle of family and friends there was some backlash when it came out.”
There were also plenty of business headaches, from pressure to release something while he was still hot to his French publisher trying to force him to release his next work in serial installments. “I definitely felt like there were people who were financially benefiting from the sales of the book, but it wasn’t me. Daniel Johnston talks about feeling like a monkey in a zoo, and that’s kind of how you feel during that process.”
The emotional sacrifices began seeming like too much, and he thought about quitting comics. “I’m always fighting with wanting to reject the indulgent pursuit of being an artist. I’m always like, ‘I need to work with the developmentally disabled or go to Africa and volunteer my time.”
Despite his turmoil, he dedicated six years to completing Habibi, spending two years revising thumbnail drafts of the script and another four years on final art, with an additional six months thrown in for production and design. The process seems to have reinvigorated him. He already has three more books planned, about which he will only say that they’re in three different genres and one will be a children’s book. “It does have some social-political themes in it, but it’s also an adventurous book.”
Though his current publisher Pantheon is more used to working in the traditional literary world, Thompson is making sure to visit as many comic stores as possible on his upcoming book tour. He wants to do what he can to help his medium reach new readers while still keeping a close tie to the comics world, even if the sentiment isn’t completely mutual. He accepts that, thematic connections aside, Habibi is quite different from the book that made him famous and, well, there’s just no pleasing people.
“I’m sure it will lose some fans and then gain others. There were a lot of people that found Blankets too sentimental or mushy, and this might appeal to them,” he says. “And then there’s other readers that really connected with the sweetness in Blankets and might not like the darker elements in Habibi. But I think a lot of my readers, like myself, are growing up. I hope that the work I’m producing will grow up alongside them.”