ComicsAlliance’s 11 Best Comics of 2011: #4-3
Despite seven Eisner Award nominations, Finder has long been one of the most under-recognized masterpieces in comics, a triumph of world-building with roots that spread wide and deep beneath the surface of the page into the realms of anthropology, science fiction, and aboriginal myth. In the massive, domed metropolis of Anvard, Carla Speed McNeil has created a world where the tribal and futuristic mingle together freely in a vast, complex society so fully-formed that its stories feel like tourism as much as escapism.
But do not be deceived. A visit to the world of Finder is not a guided tour of popular attractions, peppered with helpful loudspeaker narration and carefully marked trails. Finder is like stepping off a bus in a foreign city with nothing but a cringled wad of cash and an old map in a language you don’t completely understand. It leads you down the untended alleys of bad neighborhoods where bio-organic viruses make televisions grow wild as ivy. It pushes you into the back rooms of empty supermarkets where nomadic tribes summon death gods to dance and bleed at funerals. It does not hold your hand.While each volume locates itself in a slightly different area of McNeil’s rich, layered world, most have revolved around Jaeger, a charming, infuriating bad boy with a strange (titular) gift for finding what people have lost. As a half-blood Ascian with no social standing, Jaeger survives thanks to a talent for slipping effortlessly in and out of every culture he encounters while belonging to none of them. Although compulsive nomads make excellent adventurers, they also tend to be fairly sh*tty friends, and for the first time Voice gives us a glimpse not just at the fantastic experiences Jaeger has when he pulls his disappearing act, but what happens to the people he leaves behind.
One of them is Rachel, a teenaged candidate for membership in the Llaverac clan, who has watched Jaeger wander in and out of her life — and her mother’s bed — since she was a small child. Rachel is in the midst of a clan conformation trial, a fantastic, horrifying event that resembles an unholy mixture of a ruthless beauty pageant and a reality TV spectacle. In a society where power lies solely in the hands of homogenous clans, the pressure to conform to their exacting physical, social and psychological standards is staggering, particularly when membership can mean the difference between a life of affluence and power and ending up in poverty or at best, someone’s mistress.
Each clan in Anvard values different physical and mental traits, and while some select for mathematical talent or scientific aptitude, the Llaverac clan is made up entirely of tall, impossibly thin blond girls with a flair for cattiness and drama. Which is to say that Rachel’s entire future will be determined by whether or not she can fit in with the mean girls at school. After a lifetime of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, Rachel has learned to go along to get along, and why wouldn’t she? Like pretty girls throughout the ages, Rachel has realized that her future is virtually assured so long as she keeps her mouth shut, goes through the motions and doesn’t cause any problems.
It is the lie of Betty Draper, the lie of the magazines and the movies: that if you can find a way to do a flawless impression of the person you are expected to be, then you will finally be happy. And conversely, that if you tell people who you are and what is in your heart, that you will look foolish and no one will ever love you. Rachel finds herself locked in that moment of paralysis, the one where you know you should speak or act, but the words catch on a hook of fear inside your throat. Inaction defines the entire arc of her life, as though she has always been standing in the middle of the road waiting to get hit by a car because it’s the only way she can imagine moving.
The inevitable accident comes in the form of a mugging, where Rachel loses the irreplaceable hereditary ring that grants her access to the conformation trial. This assault is also apparently viewed as her fault in the eyes of everyone she asks for help, and she can’t help but feel that they’re a little bit right. After all, she has always let everything in her life happen to her, so why should this be any different?
Her brother thinks she’s worthless, her two-faced peers think she’s a graceless interloper, and her mother spends all her time lost in digital dreams, cords spilling like curls from the infojacks in her skull. One short, but telling scene hints at the deeper psychological scars that make Rachel’s confidence buckle beneath her like a trap door: “When I was eight,” says Rachel in an internal monologue, “I went into the laundry room with Lester the molester because he said he’d tell me what some bad words meant… I knew he was bad. I knew he would hurt me. I didn’t run. Kid or not, I knew. I did. I just didn’t act.”
Failed by her social connections, her family, and her friends, Rachel goes looking for the one man who could always find anything: Jaeger. A kinetic, swaggering ne’er do well who always made every misstep look like something he meant to do all along, Jaeger is “just a magic man,” says Rachel. “He rose above the bullsh*t. And I need some magic.” It is worth noting that Rachel goes looking for someone she believes can save her, instead of searching for the ring and a way to save herself.
But as her chances at clan membership (and all hope of finding Jaeger) slowly dissolve, desperation trumps inertia and Rachel begins crossing her former boundaries with alarming speed. She soon finds herself chased by dead-eyed sociopaths with fingers bent at 90 degree angles, dragged to police stations where a lack of clan affiliation means you may well leave through the morgue, and swallowed by night neighborhoods where the “moon” is a cold rectangle of light streaming down from a broken panel in a higher level of the city wealthy enough to afford the sun. These are places where good girls are not supposed to go, of course, but once you’ve lost everything, what is there to be afraid of?
In the end, what saves Rachel is not Jaeger, but rather the realization that nobody ever really gets saved, not by rings, and not by heroes, and not by being perfect. And finally, in her proudest and most defining moment, discovering the magic of knowing the right thing to say in the right moment, and being both brave enough to say it and wise enough to know when silence is the most powerful magic word of all.
There are so few virtuosos in comics. Artists who can not only draw the hell out of anything (and there’s few enough of those!) and who put their talents to smart use (a smaller pool, still!) but those who do so with a staggering grandness of ambition, a startling certainty of purpose, and the swagger and flair of a great braggart. Craig Thompson fits the bill on all counts, and so his latest book, Habibi, so full of ambition and flair (not to mention heartbreaking exhibitions of skill with brush and pen) has established him as chief representative of a very small group indeed.
Trying to unpack everything from Habibi in a single, short piece is nigh-impossible. Simply put: It’s a big book, and it’s chock full o’stuff. Thompson crams every nook and cranny of the book with ideas, and the themes around which he weaves his intellectual tapestry are not lightweight: love, sex, god, race, man’s inhumanity to man, man’s further inhumanity to woman, religion, motherhood, the nature of stories, and the nature of time.
Yet Habibi is also a clear and poignant narrative, told through a deft merging of naturalist drama and fairy tale traditions. The core of the book is the tale of Dodora, a young girl who grows to a woman through the adversity of slavery, poverty, and cruel sexual politics, and of Zam, the young boy she adopts first as a child, but who, as he grows to a man, sees her more and more through the lens of his sex, and is wracked with guilt and fear. They each navigate Thompson’s world of fantastic metaphor and harsh danger, sometimes together, sometimes torn apart, but neither losing their complex love for the other. That Thompson so ably manages to create both a dense thicket of thought, and a story that flows through that thicket as smoothly as running water is a constant source of awe.
The dual nature of Habibi‘s structure is captured in the very fabric of Thompson’s art – his lines are as thick and sumptuous as Habibi‘s narrative is dense and full. But those same lines flow with a graceful lightness, and so does the reader move through the world of Habibi as if weightlessly blown across a desert breeze.
Habibi is not a perfect book — and how boring it would be if it were! If Thompson’s chief virtue is his willingness to plunge headlong into a web of ideas and capture them with as much baroque flourish as he can muster, it is perhaps inevitable that many of those ideas will be confrontational or contradictory. The most transgressive and problematic element of Habibi, as has been much discussed and debated, is the Orientalist setting of the book.
For Habibi, Thompson has sewn together fragments of folk tales, myths, and personal observations of the Arab world into an unreal fantasy landscape, unstuck in time and unbeholden to reality (though Thompson does draw on a tremendous amount of research to get many details historically correct). The result is a beautifully strange setting in which Thompson can flit back and forth from naturalism and fantasy without violating any diagetic reality.
Thompson’s strangeness, however, is not completely removed from the exotic titillation Western artists have been drawing from the East for centuries, and it is hard not to see much of that historical exoticism as harmful, alienating, and dehumanizing. That the book chooses to place itself anywhere inside that tradition raises eyebrows indeed. But unlike a less confident artist, who might back and fill away from problematic elements, Thompson embraces them. Through interviews he’s left no doubt that the invocation of Orientalism was purposeful, and purposefully aggressive. Thompson wants you to be unsure about his work, to be taken out of your safe zone, and to be forced to engage the book on more levels than as a mere entertainment.
Habibi is the work of a cartoonist with a rare combination of talents and proclivities. Eager to tackle weighty themes and unafraid to wallow in controversial exploitation, he also has the intelligence, empathy, and technical chops to match his ambition and perversity. For all of this he deserves to be scrutinized, criticized, argued with, and also loudly celebrated.
Buy Habibi online or at your local comic shop.