Gutter Space #2 by Leslie Salas
Thompson’s Narrative Braiding in Habibi
In the graphic novel Habibi, Craig Thompson uses the theme of willing- versus forced-sacrifice to effectively braid narratives from the Bible and the Qur’an with the coming of age stories of orphans Dodola and Zam. This juxtaposition of stories and images emphasizes influences the novel’s pacing and tone. To focus more readily on Thompson’s style in Habibi, this discussion is limited to a close reading analysis of pages 46 through 49.
Thompson’s braided narrative structure is perhaps the most obvious in this selection—there are clearly two separate conflicts: 1) Dodola and Zam’s quest to “provide for [them]selves,” and 2) the dilemma of “which son was it?”—Ishmael or Isaac—that Abraham sacrificed when God asked him to sacrifice a son (Thompson 46, 48). While the selection begins and ends with Dodola and Zam, Thompson’s introduction of the sons dilemma as a bedtime story innocuously implants the idea of sacrifice as a potential solution for Dodola and Zam’s plight. The main component of the story of Abraham and his sons is bookended with Dodola’s refrain asking how she and Zam would “provide for ourselves” (Thompson 46, 48). In addition to the story being framed by her question, a single panel amidst Dodola’s journey to meet the caravan and acquire food implies sacrifice with the image of Abraham’s arm raised, knife in hand, over the crouching body of one of his sons. The reader may not yet know that Dodola has chosen to prostitute herself for food and supplies, but Thompson heightens the tension with the simple reminder of Abraham’s plight through the juxtaposition of images.
As Habibi is a graphic novel, notions of images are quite literal and focus on line of sight and effective use of light and dark shading. Thompson makes great use of his images, choosing to invoke patters in the borders of panels to help distinguish between Zam and Dodola’s narrative and Dodola’s Biblical bedtime tale. The panels surrounding the stories from either holy book, the Qur’an or the Bible, are rich and vibrant with intricate detail, all in line with the aesthetic of art as illumination. In terms of panel real estate, almost half of the selection is devoted to the story of Abraham and his sons, and the other half belongs to Dodola and Zam. Thompson’s choice to equally distribute the space on the page to both narratives emphasizes his stylistic preference to the braided narrative and the power of suggestion.
Another strong aspect of the selection is Thompson’s use of repeated images. These images, when repeated with slight changes, can affect perceptions of time or character development. For instance, the camels in caravan progressively become more indistinct and shady (Thompson 48-49). This development creates a sense of mystery and heightens tension at the unknown. In terms of the Zam watching Dodola through the porthole, and interesting transformation occurs in the span of two panels—Zam grows a from screaming infant into concerned adolescent with the repetition of a single panel (Thompson 49). Not only does the reader jump through time with Zam, but his posture and demeanor in a single panel also characterize their situation—Zam and Dodola have survived, and Dodola continues to sacrifice her body so that they both may live.
Speaking again of sacrifice, the repeated images of Ishmael and Issac are particularly effective. While some of these images are repeated throughout the novel, in particular the image of Abraham pressing both of his sons to the altar (Thompson 48), the repetition of the two sons in this section is unique. Although the boys differ in age by thirteen years, they are drawn as equivalents—same age, same height (Thompson 46). Their clothing is similar—although Isaacs may seem a bit finer, and the biggest difference is Ishmael’s thin, dark features as opposed to Isaac’s rounded, fairer ones (Thompson 46). These physical characteristics, as well as their emotional dispositions, are also projected on each of the boys’ respective mothers, further emphasizing their differences. When Ishmael and Isaac appear in the same panel together, it is always Ishmael on the left, and Isaac on the right. While Isaac may be Abraham’s legitimate son and thereby his right hand man, Ishmael is the compliant son. The contrast between these two sons and their character tie into the central theme of sacrifice—voluntary or not.
The juxtaposition and braided narrative not only applies to the religious texts and the lives of Zam and Dodola, but within the texts themselves. The teachings of the Qur’an and the Bible are often presented side by side in what appears to be Thompson’s objective perspective on the nuances of story. This is most evident in the full-page panel depicting the sons of Abraham carrying bundles of firewood to “to the site of the slaughter” (Thompson 47). On the left side of the panel, Ishmael is a “willing participant,” on the left Isaac “was tricked” (Thompson 47). The actual quotes of both Ishmael and Isaac are also provided, along with their location in the Qur’an and Bible, respectively, giving not only Dodola authority as an expert storyteller to Zam, but gives Thompson credibility as the author making a conscious choice to cite the passages themselves.
The study of the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible are culturally pertinent to the current state of affairs between the Western world and the Middle East. While this segment of Habibi does not expand on the radical juxtaposition of first- and third-world living conditions, the excerpt does touch on the power of storytelling, as an oral and written medium, and its influence in society. Dodola begins with a bedtime story about Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, but this story grows into a metaphor for their situation, a willing or unwilling sacrifice to “provide for ourselves” (Thompson 46, 48). Thompson’s deliberate use of a braided narrative structure paired with clever use of juxtaposition in images creates compelling pacing and a resonant tone to speak to his theme of sacrifice.
Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.