The book ends with a meditation on its title: in Arabic, Thompson shows us, the word habibi, beloved, flows like the surface of a river, the letters forming ripples and waves.
"The 'Haa' is a wave," Thompson writes. "The water exhales. The possessive 'my' dips into shallow — an inhalation."
And the self, Thompson writes: "It is the shore the water breaks upon."
By design: The secret structure of Habibi
Craig Thompson first drew the story of Habibi chronologically, then broke it apart and rearranged it. In doing so, he tried to create a novel that could be read in two different sequences.
The key is the magic square — a mathematical puzzle used as a talisman in the Middle East, India, and China, and a symbol that recurs throughout Habibi. The square is a three-by-three grid; each box in the grid contains a number from one to nine, ordered so that in every direction, each row adds up to 15. Each of Habibi's nine chapters correspond to a different number in the magic square. If you read the chapters in order of their number, instead of the order in which they appear, Thompson says, you'll experience an alternate book.
"I was trying to write it in a way so that if you broke the book apart and then started reading it with what is [in order of appearance] the eighth chapter, then it would be almost a more perfect or a more revealing reading of the book," Thompson says. "It doesn't necessarily function that way, but there are some things to be gained by revisiting the book in numerical order."
The number of each chapter is also meant to correspond to that chapter's themes, Thompson said. "So the chapter numbered 'One' would be the Orphan's Prayer chapter, which only has one person and only has words. And then the chapter numbered 'Two' kind of starts on this theme of a river, and a river flowing and breaking off in two directions."
Thompson on Thompson
ON HIS DRAWING SCHEDULE "I'm actually a very sort of working-class, nine-six kind of guy. I'd draw — maybe it's one page a day. And the craziest pages in Habibi took longer. The actual panels and comics would go very quickly, but I would spend days on the ornamentation pieces."
ON HIS INFLUENCES "I grew up in a household that definitely believed that the only book you needed to read was the Bible; my mom read the Bible every day. Then also my brother and I, we were farm boys, we'd use all the money we made working in the fields to buy comics, and because it was children's entertainment my parents just completely overlooked it. So the edgiest entertainment we were accessing was in comics. It makes sense that I would fuse the two forms of literature that I had growing up, which was the Bible and comic books."
ON COMICS AS E-BOOKS "I derive great pleasure from composing a page. That's the most fun part of the comic process. With e-books, you still have the page as a unit, but you don't have the spread as a unit necessarily, and it's just going to change more and more where the page will evaporate as a structure. I'm really attached to the old media and having a paper frame."
ON DRAWING MOHAMMED "I was approaching [Islam] in a more reverent and at least not insulting way. And I was consulting friends and Muslim readers. In the end, if anything, they all seemed fairly comfortable with the depiction of Mohammad."
CRAIG THOMPSON | Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St, Cambridge | September 21 @ 6 pm | $5 | Tickets available at Harvard Book Store | 617.661.1515