HABIBI is definitely one of the year’s most puzzling books — despite being the followup to a beloved classic from a favorite creator, the reception has been quite mixed. Matthias Wivel is one of a trio of reviewers — Domingos Isabelinho and Ng Suat Tong are the other two — known for applying the most stringent possible personal standards to comics in their criticism. Thus, seeing Wivel come to the defense of HABIBI at The Hooded Utilitarian is a bit of a surprise — but he makes an unexpected point. Running down a host of critical beatdowns administered on that site over stereotypes and gender issues, he says that “parts of the comics intelligentsia seem to be developing an unhealthy obsession with ideological readings of comics.”:
I am not necessarily denying that the works in question, or indeed comics history more broadly, are haunted by such issues, nor am I arguing against choosing them as an avenue of criticism — Nadim Damluji’s examination of Habibi is a good example of a considerate approach, while Noah’s obliteration of certain recent DC books offers righteous polemic. The problem, rather, is that such criticism is often informed by a kind of ideological Puritanism that has gained traction in our current culture of taking offense — a Puritanism often blind to aesthetic quality, resistant to uncomfortable discourse, and prone to censorious action.
In the case of Habibi, it seems to me facile and unproductive to harp for too long on its sexism and Orientalism. Yes, it offers both and it suffers from it, but why does that have to be the full story? It is simultaneously, and obviously, a book so generous in intent and so voracious of ambition, that such criticism risks coming off as petty and, more importantly, ends up lacking in resonance.
But that’s as far as the defense goes, as he also takes HABIBI to task for the one thing that everyone seemed to like: even though the tropes were irksome and the storytelling was labored at times…GODDAM IT WAS BEAUTIUFLLY DRAWN — at least in the sense of Craig Thompson’s incredible mastery of line and pacing.
That isn’t enough for Wivel for the book to overcome its inherent melodrama:
The implied complexity of her emotion as she finally proposes a sexual union with her former charge Zam, after many years of separation, is for example undermined entirely by a banal progression from surprise to pity and doubt that simultaneously overstates and flattens the plea for redemption we are supposed to feel. Doughboy Zam’s evasive maneuvers and flitting baby eyes — supposedly a reckoning after years of denying his sexuality to the extent of self-castration — is not any more persuasive.
I would throw back at Wivel that an artist who is able to draw a succession of emotions like surprise, pity and doubt has something on the ball, but I get his argument. I found HABIBI amazing but flawed — the doubling back in time and space felt more like slack plotting. But the visual splendor — and emotional resonance from this splendor — has an undeniable power. as I read the book, almost every panel seemed to be the very incarnation of the things shown — as if there were no other way to draw it. Thompson is the master of the sympathetic line.
I’m not certain how much Wivel wanders from the path of comics intelligentsia into the forest of comics blogs and newssites, but should he ever decide to go pick some flowers on the way to his grandmother’s house, he’ll find that ideological criticism growing like kudzu. Is this an obsession or focus? The best comics are no longer looked at just as “junk entertainment.” They’re expected to contribute to the cultural dialogue—and sometimes they do. Telling the story of HABIBI with crappy drawing would have made it slow going, indeed. It’s the art that elevated it to be worthy of higher discussion.