CRAIG THOMPSON, who is appearing at Lee's Comics this week and also at the Alternative Press Exposition in San Francisco is a major talent of the graphic-novel field.
Thompson's Good-bye Chunky Rice (1999) mixes tales of funny animals with seriousness that keeps it from being precious. As for Blankets (2003)—it's not cute, it's acute. A pious, sickly rural kid of the 1990s named Craig Thompson meets Raina, a fellow attendee at Bible Camp. With scarcely bearable tension, the author builds to a three-week vacation in snowbound Michigan, where the two teenaged lovers are alone at last.
Here, Thompson writes and draws pictures about the kind of thing we all end up belittling as mere adolescent love—if only in order to keep our hearts sturdy, right at the fissure where they first broke. Thompson is able to recall the majesty of a boy's first sighting of ... well, the presence of the goddess, as they'd say in Santa Cruz.
One pities the young lover, but one can recognize Blankets as mature work because we have sympathy for Raina, too. She can't handle Craig's sad intensity: "You know, sometimes you look at me with longing even though I'm here with you."
Seven years later, Thompson has created a work of the highest ambition, and it too is about longing. Habibi ($35, Pantheon) means "beloved" in Arabic. In an imaginary sultanate called Wanatolia, a child bride and slave named Dodola, grows into the favorite of the harem. When she was kidnapped, she lost her only real companion, Zamzam, an orphan boy. Zam's own confused feelings toward Dodola contribute to his decision to join a sect of holy eunuchs.
Thompson's goddess worship returns in a new form. He supposes a way that an underage prostitute might survive—if she had a mystique that might save her from violence, based on the menfolk's superstitious fear of women.
Dodola and Zam get outside of time and arrive in the new Arabia, with its oil pipelines and skyscrapers. In between, they're stuck in a waterfront town surrounded by a slough of polluted water. There, they are the honored guests of the book's most comical character: a blithe mad fisherman named Noah.
Telling of the harem, Thompson has the chance to nod at Ingres, Manet and the other artists of the odalisques. The sultan's guards seem to include the goggled Tusken raiders from Star Wars.
The captivating and compelling Habibi also delves into the deeper realms of Islam: alchemy, charms, numerology and Sufi riddles. The ambience includes the 1001 Nights, the Hadith and that most Eastern of love poems, the Song of Solomon.
Blankets and Habibi are protests against the wedge some of our larger religions drive between the body and the soul. In one chapter of Habibi, Thompson even plays by the rules of the strictly religious Muslim. He tells some of his story with calligraphy, arabesques and negative space.
A sura in the Koran says that Allah will punish artists who depict the human figure. In Blankets, Craig received a similar warning from his pastor in Wisconsin: Those artists who study life drawing can end up homosexual or helpless porn addicts.
There was a time when Western artists felt safer borrowing from Islamic culture. They were unconcerned about how much was the exclusive property of the Faithful and what portion was the heritage of all earthlings. So Thompson is brave to sprawl out where others tiptoe.
Will Eisner was Will Eisner. There's a discernable influence by the master of the graphic novel on Thompson, in the shapes of the characters, in his command of sequential storytelling and in the joke that recalls Eisner's fondness for ornate typefaces: Thompson uses the Arabic letter "zayn" for a snorer's "Z." But did Eisner ever envision stories like this, so far outside of his own world or any world? Did he take these risks?
Meet Craig Thompson
Lee's Comics, Mountain View