Habibi by Craig Thompson is a stunning work that exhibits his talents in much the same manner as its predecessor, Blankets. Both are long (approaching 600 pages) and dense, but he has a truly poetic style that makes even intensely awkward/uncomfortable scenes (like his um… spilt man-juice in Blankets or childbirth in Habibi) a little more bearable. Still, story-wise I felt that Habibi fell a little flat.
The premise of Habibi focuses on a girl, Dodola, sold as a child bride, then later as a slave – who at the age of nine saves a three-year-old fellow slave and their attempts to survive in the desert.
Up until that point, Thompson had me. The near-mythological narrative coupled with the fantastic aesthetic held me captive. But as one bad decision by the main characters lead to another; as they are subjected to more and more forms of brutality in a modern world; as the uncomfortable situations amplify, I was eventually turned off of my initial infatuation. While I still really enjoyed the book and would rate it at 8/10, it did not live up to the hopes I had at the outset.
Probably my biggest issue is just the relationship between Dodola and Zam. It’s very strange to me that two people who regarded themselves (and indeed brought themselves up) as siblings or even mother/child would fall in love. The decision to sexualize such a relationship is not one that feels natural or organic. On the other hand, I do try to remind myself that Zam had not met any other women from the time he was three years old, until his separation from Dodola at the age of twelve. But it seems to suggest that love can morph between familial and amorous – for whether they are related by family lines or not, they are as much family as any other – which, as a sister and daughter, I find rather inconceivable (See: Westermarck Effect)
Another aspect that brings its rating down in my eyes is the portrayal of women. Dodola is subjected to sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult. While she is the protagonist and so obviously is the intended recipient of sympathy (as well as Zam), the scenes of rape are depicted so elegantly and even erotically, that the message (if any) may be lost in translation. They must have been conceived in condemnation, but they are relished in. She is exotified and her naked image, like her body in the book, sold as a commodity. Thompson clearly loves the female body, and he draws it beautifully, but beyond a certain point, it begins to feel like mere fan service, diminishing the poetic tone of the work.
Now this is a minor point, but one that eats at me a bit: the book maintains that full-figured women are coveted in this desert culture. That is realistic, as in many societies – especially those scarce of food – this is the case. We are told this in direct contrast, though, to Dodola, who is both drawn as a Western ideal and coveted for it: slim, to the point of angular pelvic bones thrusting out from her hips with visible ribs. While told that voluptuous women are the ideal, we are shown that the waifish body types of Western super-models are irresistible. Moreover, virtually all males (including transvestite eunuchs save for one notable exception who is pointedly feminine) are robust, large men with rolls upon rolls of fat. Men are free of the same object-status; they are free to be fat or thin or dwarfish, though none are really handsome. Although Dodola’s body is shown to all, when she asks to see the scars of a eunuch, he does so in privacy from the reader, creating an arbitrary gender divide between whose body needs to be on display and whose can be kept private.
Lastly, the end was a sad read, despite containing some reality. While the story as a whole is a larger-than life near-myth, the characters are still rendered powerless. I was rooting for them to destroy the dam that led to the social divide between the world’s inhabitants. Rather, they opt to save one child (while simultaneously and rather ironically supporting the child slavery system) and flee. There is no great no revolt, no call to the simple man to fight back. Just hopeless abdication and flight.
Back to our own game, though, a question for me: if I feel so strongly about the objectification of women in this work, why is there obvious fan service (in the form of Taya, Arinnel, and the other cases of cleavage you’ll likely see in The Lotus War) present in our game? What’s the difference?
I supposed it’s partly the recognition of our respective roles: The Lotus War is a game solely for entertainment purposes. While I strive for an engaging story and an artful (if cartoony) aesthetic, we make no attempts to elevate this beyond what it so admittedly is. If there’s fan service, it’s because the game overall is a piece of fluff for fans. While it touches on themes such as war, cultural guilt and racism, it’s not intended to change anyone’s mind or make condemnations. It’s intended to engage an audience.
Habibi, on the other hand, does take itself seriously. It tackles large themes and hopes to make statements about them, but does so with half the grace of the art the book contains. And I feel that when making a statement about something as sensitive as sexual abuse – especially when enacted against a child – grace is one thing that cannot be in short supply.