Craig Thompson, Part Two: A Celebration of the Printed Book

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks


As you saw in part one of this interview, Craig Thompson is a tremendously thoughtful and interesting creator. I had a fascinating time talking with him at Comic-Con this year, and I think that this interview will help you appreciate the excellence of his work on Habibi, a remarkable work by a remarkable creator.

Jason Sacks: I was really struck by the ornate complexity of the art in Habibi. How did you approach this so there was a balance between the artfulness of it -- or the complexity of the pages -- and the actual storytelling?

Craig Thompson: Great question. I hope I did balance it in the end. At many points, I recognized that I was sort of lost in this OCD psychedelic blur, where I just kept caking on more and more detail, and that's in contrast to Blankets, which felt very open and sort of wispy.

In this one, it's like I just kept shoveling more and more onto the pages. But I sort of relinquished myself to that at a certain point, too. [Habibi] is about this excess, and this I was also inspired a lot by the history of the printed book, you know, and engravings and that technique of just fitting in more and more detail and making it busy in a sense. Chaotic, you know. You go to a new place like Morocco or something and it's buzzing chaos all the time, so maybe I was trying to capture that visually.

Sacks: There's a particular intensity of the visuals that I thought gave it a real sense of place. I mean, not just in the village with the pollution and all that, but even in the sultan's palace where there's just this sensuous ornateness of everything. How much of that is based on photo references or from your traveling? There’s a very specific style; for example, the rug on this page [Jason was referencing a copy of Habibi he had with him] is clearly based on something.

Thompson: Actually, that rug you're pointing to is probably made up. But I did draw a lot of influence from the Blue Mosque in Constantinople and oh, man, there are a number of references throughout Turkey. I mean, I was researching the Ottoman empire a lot at that time. And the sultan in the book is sort of loosely based on, I don't know which member, he was Sultan Ibrahim III of the Ottoman Empire. He was this lecherous kind of [guy]. I mean, there's a stereotype of how people like to think of Ottoman harems. It's definitely an Orientalized sort of Western fantasy of how sexy those things are.

But it did take place in reality at certain points. Just as there are lecherous world leaders now, there were in the Ottoman Empire. And I just felt like that character was like a great caricature of male sexuality unfettered.

Sacks: And that's one thing that's very different from Blankets. This is a very sensual book. I mean, sex is not just openly discussed, but it's a big part of who these characters are. And that's obviously also a sign of evolution in yourself to be able to treat this in an adult way. Not in an adult pornographic way, but an adult way of approaching sexuality as a key part of these characters' lives. Obviously it shows growth in yourself as someone who can present that. But I liked how the sexuality isn't the core of who they are, it's just one of the components of who they are.

Thompson: Some people are bringing up the amount of nudity and stuff in the book, which to some degree I was kind of oblivious of when I was working on it. I think the history of regional art has been about the nude. So it's ironic now that there is a lot of fear of the nude in graphic novels, especially. It makes sense, too, because if you're reading something in public, like on an airplane or something--

Sacks: I was literally reading this on the airplane ride.

Thompson: And you had that experience.

Sacks: Like looking over my shoulder wondering, what's he thinking of me?

Thompson: Yeah. That's the thing. I work in isolation in my studio and it wasn't until I was reading some of my photocopies while I was taking a trip and I was on an airplane [that] I realized there is something different about graphic novels. You can have anything happen in prose literature. It's fairly hidden [there], but when it's visual it does change the dynamic. It's also ironic that comics are known for all this extreme violence and no one sort of bats an eye at that, [yet] you put a couple pages of nudity and it seems very scandalous.

Sacks: Well, it fits the characters and it fits what you're talking about. You have them at the Sultan's palace.

Thompson: And hopefully, well-adjusted individuals have a sexual life and hopefully they don't have a violent life. So, why would you not represent that side of a character?

Craig Thompson Interview - Habibi 1

Sacks: One thing I've also been talking about is how your pages all have a flow. You know how the great cartoonists, like Gil Kane or Will Eisner, make your eyes kind of progress through the book? Is this something that you consciously worked on, or is it something you kind of instinctively embraced?

Thompson: I think it's actually fairly instinctive, but it's great that you mentioned Gil Kane and Eisner because those are influences [of mine]. Eisner's Sequential Art book was one of the first, [then] I read How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Those are the three big textbooks for me. And so, yeah, right away I just started with them.

When I first developed an interest in comics, I was thinking about the page as a composition. I'm always just thinking of the page, and -- actually more so -- the spreads. That's one thing I'm very hesitant with [in regard to] the whole iPad thing. I'm like, well, it's still not the spreads. I'm not ready to let that go. I think about the page as a composition and I think about the spread as a composition and them playing off each other. I don't think about panels as much as [I do] the whole.

Sacks: [Jason again referenced the book.] These two pages here are interestingly juxtaposed against each other, and you were obviously thinking of the two-dimensional space. I was also struck by the repetition of images, especially the symbolic images that recur. Even the flames around characters' heads would tend to recur. And I wonder how much of that would really come through on an iPad based device or something like that. It's a completely different paradigm, I guess.

Thompson: Yeah, yeah, and that's a different question I guess, but definitely I like to think of Habibi as a celebration of the printed book. I’m still resisting putting my books into electronic media, and, with Habibi, I wanted to go all out. I wanted it to be big, gold foil, you know. It was going to be clothbound, but we found there were some technical issues in trying to realize that. But yeah, I really want to hold on to the printed book as long as I can.

Sacks: Was this all hand drawn, too?

Thompson: Yes, everything was hand drawn.

Sacks: It seemed that way, but there did seem to be a lot of computer to it also.

Thompson: There's no actual computer. Sometimes I would sample a pattern. I'd find a little snippet or a mutation, some sort of reference, and then I would tile it in Photoshop and trace it on a lightbox and draw it with a brush. So there's an element of using computer, but the final page was still drawn with a brush on paper.

Craig Thompson Interview - Habibi 2

Sacks: You mentioned you did two years of drafts with this and eight years from your last book. Had you been working on this the entire time, more or less?

Thompson: Yeah, I started working on Habibi in the fall of 2004. And that's when all my touring with Blankets came to an end. I toured for six months with Blankets. In fall 2004, I moved back to the stateside and I hadn't had a home during that time. I found myself an apartment and just started working in earnest on it -- the first draft of Habibi. [I] finished the first draft around the fall of '05 and then spent another whole year revising that draft. And I was a little lost during that time. I thought maybe the revisions would take a month or two, [but] they ended up turning into a year. I completely threw out what I had and started from scratch in a lot of ways. And then in the fall of '06 -- always fall, I guess. It's interesting [that] it's coming out in the fall. It's out in September, and that's when my birthday is, too. [In] September 2006 I started on actually drawing the book and then finished last year, September of 2010.

Sacks: Again September.

Thompson: It comes out in September 2011.

Sacks: How are you able to devote so much time to this? I mean, everyone else on the floor is trying to put out a book a month, it seems.

Thompson: Well, that's the difference. I mean, if you don't have to put out a book a month you can really indulge in sort of taking your time. Dan Clowes or Adrian Tomine, they don't come out with a book every month or every year, for that matter.

It gives you the freedom. It's more like literature in that sense. You know, Thomas Pynchon can take 10 years to work on a book, and we're in an era where a graphic novelist can do something similar.

Sacks: Actually, the book that I've been comparing it to most is Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza.

Thompson: That was eight years you said that he worked on it?

Sacks: Something like that.

Thompson: It might have been more than [that].

Sacks: That's the book I've given to non-comics reading fans, who then say comics are amazing. There are so many scenes in there that aren't just about the Gaza Israeli thing but about history and memory and the way people live with each other and the way that stories change and evolve. It took me on a completely unexpected journey that really did change me on some level at the end. Amazing book.

Thompson: I agree. Joe Sacco, I think, is the most important cartoonist in North America. I not only say that but I sincerely believe it. He's a great inspiration.

Sacks: I was actually at lunch with my non-comic book reading friends who brought it up in conversation completely out of the blue. They were talking about the scene where the characters have their heads down in the schoolyard and everyone's telling their own different story about what happened and everyone remembers the person who comes and talks slightly differently. It’s earthshaking work.

I actually found that Habibi does the same thing in that you bring so many different elements into it that definitely change your attitude. For one thing, it cuts through a lot of the mythology around the Koran that we've developed in the Western world. Do you see that as part of your mission, perhaps, with the book? Is that what you intended, or was your intent really just to tell a story?

Thompson: No, there was [an intent to do that] at least initially. I mean, there's a certain post 9/11 quality about struggling to just understand a different culture and also to humanize it. At the core it's a fairy tale, so I don't know. It's different from Joe's work in the sense that Joe's work is journalistic and is painstakingly researched and captures these specific times and places. Habibi takes place out of time; it takes place out of place. I definitely wanted to shy away from people thinking that it takes place here or here. It's about the characters, about their struggles. Did I avoid the question there?

Craig Thompson Interview - Habibi 3

Sacks: That's a good answer. Is there symbolism to Dodola and Zam's names?

Thompson: Actually, Dodola is like the least Arabic name in the entire world. It's a Serbian reference, which when I realized that I was actually thinking of Joe Sacco's book, I was thinking of Safe Area GoraĹžde about the Serbian-Bosnian conflict, which is probably his most disturbing book in a sense. There's some cruelty in that book that's really disturbing. And so I was like, no, I'll take that. I'll take that Serbian name and just throw it in the mix. And it refers to -- as she describes in the book -- a rain goddess, the Serbian rain goddess. I felt like she needed to be named that. And she needs to have a name that seems out of place from the region. She's growing up in a drought, but she has a name from a different land that evokes the rain.

Sacks: You mentioned before you didn't know how the book was going to end. But I thought the ending was very satisfying. How did you work through the ending?

Thompson: That's a long story. I described the fall anniversaries I had with each landmark in [creating] the book. In fall of 2009, I was approaching the last chapters of the book and I had been drawing steadily for three years when suddenly I reached a block. I thought by the time I got to the ending I would know what it would be and, in fact, I didn't. So I had to take six or seven months off. It was the beginning of July 2009 that I reached that block and I took six or seven months off. It was near Christmas, actually, that I got back to drawing. I did probably 1,000 pages of drafts. I wrote 10 different endings for the book, all entirely different from what came [before]. The endings are, for me, the most important part of the book.

You can enjoy the entire ride, but if the ending doesn't pay off for you it can destroy the experience. And there's the reverse, too. [In] Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, there are definitely a lot of parts where I was really frustrated and wanted to toss the book aside, but the ending was so satisfying that it made the entire ride worth it. So that's kind of the space I was in. I had to find the right thing and it took me a while. There were six or seven months that disappeared [in] trying to find the ending.

Sacks: You could take the ending as either literal or figurative, also. I'm sure that was an intention, as well. It kind of fit the whole parable nature of the story.

Thompson: Yeah. It's hard to talk about these things without giving spoilers. It's not a French ending that I strive for by any means -- because I think there's something very unsatisfying about the traditional French ending -- but I like an ending to have a certain open-ended quality where the reader imposes their own experience. [With my] previous books, too, people were like, either this is the most beautiful happy ending or this is the most depressing bleak ending, and I love that people bring their own baggage to what's there.

Sacks: Not just their own baggage, but everything we have accumulated through the book in our interpretation of it.

Thompson: And in your own lives, I think.

Sacks: You're not judging your characters, though. They go through a lot of complicated, unbelievably intense events. Both the two main characters have incredible traumas in their lives, but they come back to just their wish to do better in their lives. They're striving to improve themselves. And when they finally get some sort of closure -- I think maybe that's a non-spoiler way of saying it -- it feels like there's a peace.

Thompson: Yes. The book is a lot about just learning to be in relationship. I think that's a process everyone goes through no matter how good a person you are. Rrelationships force you to turn up your issues and you either confront them and break through or you get more stuck in those issues for the rest of your life.

Sacks: You just hit something I thought it's very interesting. This is very much a work of fiction, but how much do you think it reflects your own life?

Thompson: A lot, actually. And I'm hesitant to say that because I know people are going to read into that literally and that's not the case at all. In fact, I felt like I was deliberately conjuring, like I said, a sort of fantastical work of fiction, but the deeper I got into it -- especially the core of the characters -- I realized that I was dredging up things from my subconscious about my own experiences. In a way, as they say, they say fiction is more truthful than nonfiction, a lot of times, and I've found that, definitely, at different points in the book.

Sacks: You had to live with these people for all those years, and they've been in your head for longer than that, too.

Thompson: I felt very responsible towards them, like a parent. There were times when I wanted to abandon the project and the only thing that kept it going was a sense of responsibility towards the characters and their lives. It's like, yeah, this is outside of me and my own comforts. This is about giving them their voice and ending.

Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.

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