September 29, 2011 | Interviews
Craig Thompson couldn’t seem to find a way to get out from under Blankets.
The cartoonist’s award-winning 2003 graphic novel was a seismic event. The touching autobiographical tale of his adolescence and first love dramatically changed the landscape of how people view this type of visual storytelling — and it shook Thompson’s life to the core.
After getting swept up in a media frenzy and with legions of new fans and a sprawling book tour that crossed oceans and took more than a year, Thompson was left physically and creatively exhausted.
He needed time to heal the constant pain in his drawing arm and to let the ideas for his next story blossom. He retreated to his home in Portland, Ore., and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.
“I’ve been in almost a (J.D) Salinger mode for the last six, seven years,” Thompson told the Star during an interview prior to a speaking engagement in Toronto last week to promote his new book, Habibi.
And the longer he was gone, the more pressure he put on himself to deliver a novel that could rival Blankets.
“It was paralyzing at times,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessarily a method I would recommend to another cartoonist.”
Not that taking this long was planned.
“Certainly, in the beginning, I was completely naïve to how long it would take,” he said. “I did have modest goals in the beginning — I thought it would be a 200-page book that I finished in two years (instead of 665 pages and almost eight years).
“There were these marked moments along the way where I was just lost in the labyrinthine tangle of it all and didn’t know if I’d ever make it out.”
On the surface, Habibi, released last week, appears to be a departure for Thompson, a work of fiction featuring Arabian palaces, desert landscapes and far-flung fantasy. But it is sure to have a familiar tone for many of his longtime fans.
“There’s a theme in a lot of my books of two people finding shelter within each other in the middle of a lonely and ugly world,” he said. “That happens again here, but hopefully it delves deeper in Habibi.”
Following the lives of two slaves, Dodola and Zam, from childhood to adulthood, Habibi is filled with metaphor and intricate art that highlights the ties that bind us.
“Definitely, the thematic focus was to zoom in on the connections — the connecting threads between faiths and people and cultures,” Thompson said.
“I (also) definitely wanted to juxtapose ugliness and beauty — or at least the sacred and the profane.
“It was deliberate to create a mash-up between the sacred medium of holy books and the vulgar, pulp form of comic books.”
The new graphic novel was inspired, in no small part, by the desire to work on something visually different, the creator admits.
“After Blankets, I was definitely sick of drawing myself and sick of drawing these mundane mid-western snowscapes,” he said.
“I wanted to craft something bigger and outside of myself and was considering two trajectories: either a fantastical epic that might be typical of the comic book form — but playful and fun — or something non-fiction and journalistic like Joe Sacco’s work.
“Habibi ended up meeting in the middle.”
As for how his readers will respond to his latest effort, Thompson said he’s hopeful they’ll embrace it just as strongly as they did Blankets.
“It’s been seven years and that’s how long it takes for every cell in your body to regenerate, so I’m a new person and I expect a lot of my readers to be new people,” he said.
“I’m hoping my fans have also grown up in a way that this might speak to them more for where they are in their lives.”
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)