I wrote quite a lengthy review which delved into the many reasons I didn't feel Habibi was designed to be offensive. I illustrated the sensitivity Thompson showed the subject and the fantastic nature of the story. I talked about authorial intent and explored each of the complaints raised against Habibi, one by one. Then I decided to scrap it and start all over again.
I do believe Thompson empathized greatly with his Arabic and female characters. I believe his intentions were largely pure and made of love. I think he was striving to write a fairy tale about the depravity of humanity; setting it in an Arabic landscape may have given the impression that Thompson was dehumanizing Arabs, but I believe he would've given the same treatment to any people regardless of the setting. I also think that the abuse he subjected Dodola to throughout this novel was not meant to glorify rape and sexual trauma. As a reader, I felt Dodola's anguish and thought her very strong and wise. Of all the characters, she was the most humanized. Yet, others read her as a weak portrayal of women, a submissive character designed to embolden male lusts.
Rather than go into all my arguments again, I've decided it doesn't matter what I believe. The fact is, this novel, wonderful and nearly perfect in so many ways, also carries with it much hurt. One may see the hurt and say, “My heart bleeds for these characters. I want to help women who suffer from this kind of abuse.” Others will justify their own feelings of hatred and say, “Finally, an accurate depiction of those nasty Muslims.” And some may respond with hurt and say, “How dare he! Thompson is a misogynist and a racist!” None of these responses can be controlled and authorial intent doesn't matter when you're the one whose emotions have been stirred.
Habibi is an emotionally engaging book, as is indicated by the huge number of both five star and one star reviews this novel has garnered since it was published in 2011. Thompson's depictions of both the Middle East and of women can be troubling, depending on which lens you're viewing them with. Personally, I saw the hurt subjected by a depraved species; I did not see an object of hatred, but rather a letter written in love. Perhaps Thompson got some things wrong. Perhaps he would've done better to have stayed out of the Middle East. I'd be happy to share my more detailed thoughts with any who might be interested, but rather than add fuel to the argument and possibly cause more pain, I'll leave those thoughts out of my review proper.
Though I only began reading graphic novels a little over a year ago, I recognize the artistry and innovation of Habibi. It is the most well constructed and intelligent graphic novel I've read. It is lush with imagery that one could spend years dissecting. It blends worlds, periods, and ideologies, and does so without the reader even noticing. Yet, there could've been more. For such a lengthy book, I didn't feel I really got to understand Dodola or Zam. Giving us more about who they were might have made it easier to view them as more than simple victims and increased the empathy readers had for them.
Habibi is an epic story that bleed in black ink all over these 670 pages. It can be viewed as a gorgeous outpouring of emotion, or an embittered tirade against justice. One cannot deny, for better or worse, Craig Thompson has ushered in a new era in graphic novels.