I just read: Sharaz-de

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.

Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.

His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.

I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)

Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!

I just read: Habibi

img_1514 Habibi is easily the thickest graphic novel I’ve ever read. The blurbs on the back of this 670-page hardcover do a pretty good job summarizing some of my impressions. A ‘Orientalist fairy tale.’ ‘A modern Dickensian saga.’ ‘A parable about the divide between the first and third worlds.’ If any of that sounds interesting to you I’d say Habibi might be worth trying.

Here are some of my other thoughts:

Despite the book’s length, it is not a dense or a difficult read. In fact the story flies by, flitting between time jumps and Biblical allegories. If anything, I lingered on pages to savor the beautiful art. Craig Thompson fills each page with sinuous, flowing inks or intricately tight hand-drawn patterns. On an art level, the book is truly a black-and-white masterpiece.

img_1515Mostly, we’re following the story of a beautiful young Arabian woman, Dodola, and a younger African slave, Zam, that she takes in and cares for. Both Dodola and Zam have brutal backstories. They’ve both been born into impoverished, third-world cultures that marginalize women and blacks. They essentially have no one else in the world to care for them, and after Dodola escapes from a slave market with Zam, they become each others’ only family. Mother and son. Sister and brother. As Zam reaches puberty, his feelings toward Dodola grow more complicated, and that is the catalyst for the major conflict of the story. That and Zam’s discovery that Dodola has resorted to prostitution to bring them food.

The story is definitely not afraid to ‘go there’ when it shows the readers the brutality of Dodola and Zam’s world. In the first few pages, we are shown the aftermath of the consummation of a child-bride’s marriage. Then we’re seeing white slavery, a medieval attempt at abortion, rape, castration, infanticide, and a harem where women are callously murdered once they’ve lost the interest of the Sultan. Later in the book, Thompson spends a chapter explaining the horrors inflicted on a shantytown when their water supply is tainted by industrial pollution, sewage run-off, and even floating corpses.

img_1516Apparently Thompson chose to set Habibi in an anachronistic, allegorical sort of Arabian world, where skyscrapers and Western tourist co-exist with slave markets straight out of Roots or Game of Thrones. This to me was one of my biggest disconnects from the story. “Wait, was that guy driving a motorcycle? Now he’s throat slit by a nomadic tribesman?” I felt like it cartoonized the book’s depiction of the third-world. Surely there’s enough going on there to be frustrated or shocked by, without adding halberd-bearing assassins or pedophiliac slave traders.

But there are other parts of the book where its epic, allegorical vibe works well, especially when Thompson digresses into explorations of Arabic calligraphy, geometry, and ancient science. I found a lot of this stuff fascinating, in a numerology/astrology sort of way. And it’s always cool when comic artists find ways to work visual concepts or symbolism into their storytelling.

Overall, Habibi is a magnetic, beautiful, if sometimes confusing experience. The strong arc of Dodola and Zam’s relationship throughout the book (and as they come of age) helps to keep the story on track. I haven’t read Craig Thompson’s other graphic novel ’Blankets,’ but I’m looking forward to checking it out in the near future.

 

habibi_2

Save