Craig Thompson Discusses Habibi
Minneapolis College of Art and Design
Monday, September 26, 2011
MCB has a friend. Joel is a good name. Joel had always been interested in writing, going so far as to write “novels” when he was in fourth grade. When Joel graduated high school and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, he spasmed at the opportunity to take Intro to Creative Writing—a course with a unique structure. Instead of the standard professor lecture/TA discussion dynamic, the Intro to Creative Writing Course at the University of Minnesota is structured as a series of guest lectures. Local and national writers are invited to read their work, share their creative process, and answer questions. Joel was lucky, in that regard: access to all these writers so early in his career was invaluable, not to mention extraordinary.
Joel skipped class a lot. He deeply, deeply regrets it. MCB has confirmed this.
MCB hopes the students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design are not so dismissive and unappreciative of these opportunities. MCB hopes that the students in attendance at Craig Thompson’s discussion of Habibi on Monday night soaked up everything that Thompson spilled over them. The reason for this is simple: Craig Thompson is a genius.
“Whenever I finish a book,” Thompson said to an overflowing audience1, “I’m sick of what I’m drawing.” This is what started Habibi—the graphic novel he began after the publication of his award-winning Blankets, an autobiographical account of first love and teenage repression. This desire “to move onto something bigger and outside of myself” gave way to the long (seven year), arduous (agonizing) task of writing Habibi—an epic that tells the story of two refugee child slaves whose lives are intertwined.
Habibi has been hailed by The Guardian as “an orgy of art for its own sake.” Like Thompson’s previous work, this novel is revolutionary. Thompson’s attention to detail is taken to a new level. It’s that attention to detail that harkens back to MCB’s statement that so far has gone unchallenged2.
It’s that seven year, agonizing process that Thompson discussed on Monday night—a topic that any hopeful graphic novelist or art student of any kind could not afford to miss. Thompson showed us his sketchbooks, pages of thumbnail sketches, his “secret” notes that are so poorly drawn that he admitted embarrassment as we drooled over them. “Comics are calligraphy,” he said, giving us a glimpse into his artistic philosophy. “I don’t see them as typography.” Calligraphy is one of the greatest design inspirations for Habibi. Several spreads in the book feature Arabic calligraphy worked into the background. MCB’s favorite moment—and the moment Thompson’s genius was made undeniable—was when Thompson showed the audience a poem in Arabic. This poem—on the surface about rain but between the lines about the loss of the speaker’s mother—was already beautiful, but after Thompson cut it up, overlaid it in the background of two characters embracing, and mixed it with raindrops—to clarify: the poem, the Arabic calligraphy, became rain—it was startling.
MCB would like to telescope out for a moment. We’ve called Thompson a genius. The word is often used—perhaps overused—but how exactly would we define it, in an artistic sense? The dictionary, always inept in these situations, suggests “somebody with outstanding talent.” Outstanding talent is all over the place. In a city like Minneapolis you can’t get away from it. MCB would like to suggest that genius is a specific kind of talent—an ability to synthesize and distill simultaneously, to weave multiple seemingly unrelated threads into one structure, to—as Thompson puts it—“tell a bunch of lies to arrive at the truth.” Into Habibi, Thompson put spirituality and human degradation, high art and low design, multiple cultures (including one of which he knew almost nothing when he started), the subtleties of a language he doesn’t speak, patterns and symbols that disappear into the background, and a quiet system of mathematics based on Arabic numerical philosophy. The result, according to The Guardian, is a visual feast. We can only hope the students in the room—outnumbering the rest of us four to one—took something home. “You have to keep breaking your heart if you want it to open,” Thompson said, echoing Rumi. Here he laid bare his creative process to show us that heart and its refusal to open—stubborn until the end when it finally, gently, announced a masterpiece. We can all of us—even those of us who aren’t students—learn something from him. In fact we did.
Habibi is now available at your local independent book store. Visit Thompson’s blog at http://www.dootdootgarden.com/.
1: Not only was the auditorium full, but the overflow room—into which was beamed a live feed of Thompson’s presentation—was full.
2: “Craig Thompson is a genius.” More on this later.