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Review 183: Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”

There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.

Enter Craig Thompson and Habibi

It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.

The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.

This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.

In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.

The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.

It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.

The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.

It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.

And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.

That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?

I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.

What I do know, however, is that he did a ton of research to make this book, and it shows primarily in the art and the stories that are told as the book progresses.

The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.

It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.

On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.

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“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27

All illustrations by Craig Thompson

Habibi on Wikipedia
Craig Thompson on Wikipedia
Habibi on Amazon.com
The Habibi homepage
Craig Thompson’s homepage

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Filed under alternate history, art, Craig Thompson, fantasy, friendship, gender, graphic novel, identity, Islam, religion, sexuality

Review 125: Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I have a question for you. It’s a simple-sounding question, but hard to answer, so I really want you to put a good amount of thought into it before you do. Okay? Yes, I’m still in Teacher-mode, but that’s not important right now. My question is this:

What is truth?

Good luck with that whole "free will" thing.

It’s one of those unanswerable questions that has bugged us ever since we started being able to ask unanswerable questions. Along with “Why is there evil in the world?” and “Do we have free will or are our lives pre-determined from the beginning?” or “What’s the deal with that Justin Bieber kid? I mean really?” this question is one that people either ignore or obsess over.

Didn’t think I could do a pop-culture reference like that, did you? Shows how much you know….

This graphic novel is about one man’s pursuit of this question, and the ways in which it nearly destroyed his life. The man was Bertrand Russell, and we follow his life from his childhood to late adulthood as he searches for an unshakable foundation to mathematics and logic, and thus an absolute truth that he could rely on.

Bertrand Russell does not find the truth. He teaches it to come when it is called.

As a child, Russell lived with the question of why things are the way they are, and got no good answers from his domineering grandmother. It wasn’t until his introduction to geometry and the wonder of mathematical proofs that he could finally say there was something about which he could be absolutely sure in the universe. Mathematics, he thought, would be the answer to everything. Pure, unsullied and utterly, utterly reliable.

But there was a flaw in math – the Axioms. Mathematics in the 19th century was a direct descendant of Euclid’s work, and rested on a series of axioms in order to function. An axiom, then, is something that is assumed to be true so that you can go on to prove other things. For example, if you have a line, and a point not on that line, there can be only one line drawn through that point that is parallel to the first. Why is this true? Well… it just is. If you have to prove that, then you have to prove a thousand other things first, and you never end up being able to prove the thing you were trying to prove in the first place. It was like, he thought, the cosmological model of the world on the back of a turtle. Which stood on another turtle. Which stood on another, and another – turtles, all the way down.

The bottom turtle's name is "Jeff." (art courtesy of Kenneth Rougeau)

That didn’t satisfy young Russell, and he went off in search of the floor upon which the last turtle stood, as it were – new mathematics that would be able to define the foundations of math, and thereby give a concrete understanding of the universe. Along the way, his desire to apply the certainty of math to human thought and interaction led him to the discipline of logic, a strange chimera of mathematics and philosophy. By becoming a logician, he thought he might finally be able to pin down some absolute truths about not only abstract math but human nature itself.

Of course, he failed. Spectacularly. Broken marriages, broken friendships, ill health – his obsession with an absolute truth to the universe nearly destroyed everything he had. Fortunately for him, Russell pulled back from the abyss before it could swallow him whole, and became one of the early 20th century’s greatest philosophers in the process. His failure to find an ultimate foundation for logic and math was not entirely without fruit – thanks to work by Russell and others, these disciplines were pushed forward in ways that made our modern lives possible. New ways of understanding the universe, from the unfathomable depths of infinity to the simplicity of 1+1=2, everything was open to examination in those days. Because of men like Bertrand Russell, humanity advanced in great leaps and bounds.

1+1=2. Seriously. No more arguments.

In the end, it’s a compelling book. I read and re-read it, convinced each time that there was something else I had missed. I was very often right. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou have put together a compelling tale of a man often overlooked by the general public, and they did so in a medium that’s close to my heart – the graphic novel. The art, done by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, is wonderful. It has a simplicity that belies the complexity of its topic, and shows an excellent sense of storytelling. Hats off to the two of them, without a doubt.

This book, it should be noted, is not a primer on logic. If you’re looking to know how logic works, or you want to know a bit more about higher mathematics and how to do them, then you’d best look for another book. As the authors tell us right in the beginning, this book is a story, a great tragedy that owes its inspiration to the ancient productions of the Greeks. It’s the story of a man who pitted himself against the universe and lost, but who did so in such a way that he – and the world – came out better for it. The book ends with a scene from The Oresteia, a classic Greek drama about another man who found himself in a no-win situation with no absolutes to rest upon.

"Stop asking me to prove beauty, dammit!"

Much like Orestes, when faced with two choices that could lead to his destruction, the only way forward for Russell was to compromise and to move forward. By doing so, he not only became a happier man, but became involved with humanity again, as a philosopher, a teacher, and an anti-war activist.

In the end, this book is about the compromises we all have to make as human beings. The world may be a logical place, but we are not. There is a limit to our logical understanding of ourselves, and sooner or later we have to accept that and deal with people as people, rather than as problems to be solved and equations to be balanced. Bertrand Russell’s quest, as interpreted by this novel, is an example of how far we can push the need to know exactly what’s at the bottom of it all. The fact that the foundations of our world appear to be unprovable and unknowable is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important is that we are here, now, and we need to make sense of our own lives.

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“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.”
– Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays – Philosophy for Laymen
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Logicomix on Wikipedia
Apostolos Doxiadis on Wikipedia
Christos Papadimitriou on Wikipedia
Bertrand Russell on Wikipedia
Logicomix on Amazon.com

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bertrand Russell, biography, Christos Papadimitriou, graphic novel, logic, mathematics, nonfiction, quest

Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it’d be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It’s considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you’ll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They’re right.

Before I get to the actual story – and it’s a formidable story – I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it’s good. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in – and set in – the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality’s will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes – or “costumed adventurers,” more appropriately – were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It’s tempting to say, “These characters are us,” because they’re not, but they’re still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn’t begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can’t stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it’s coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary – do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they’re utterly un-heroic. They’re the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That’s what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they’ll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can’t be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They’re not people you can look up to, mainly because they’re just like us. They’re flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can’t blame you for that. Still, it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation – and I know there’s no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie – so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right….

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“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world…”
– Captain Metropolis, Watchmen
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Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at Amazon.com

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Filed under Alan Moore, apocalypse, comic books, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, ethics, graphic novel, made into movies, morality, murder, mystery, super-heroes, terrorism

Review 04: Superman: Red Son



Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong

Every culture has its icons. Characters or figures that are recognizable by anybody who lives there, figures that are almost impossible not to know. And America is very good at producing those icons and spreading them worldwide. I remember reading somewhere – I don’t remember where at the moment – that the United States’ chief export is dreams, and I think there’s definitely something to that.

Of all the dreams to emerge from the American subconscious over the last century, Superman is one of the most enduring. Show that “S” shield to almost anyone on the planet and they’ll probably know what it is. For most of his lifetime, he has stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way, with the third element to that tag line slowly vanishing as writers with a more global perspective take over the character.

Regardless of his jingoistic past, Superman still remains a popular American figure. He represents what we would like to be, as a country. Powerful and just, upright and honest, but at the same time kind and generous and, at heart, good. Superman has the power to control the world, but he doesn’t – he chooses not to – and we like to believe that it was his small-town, American upbringing that instilled such humility in him.

This book examines how things might have gone.

In the late ’80s, DC Comics introduced their “Elseworlds” imprint, with a pretty simple mandate: take canon DC characters and place them in new situations or environments. This way you could see how Batman might have turned out in an America that had never gained its independence, or what would have happened to the JLA without Superman, or if The Flash had taken the bullet meant for JFK. It opened creative doors, allowing writers to tell new stories about familiar characters without disrupting the regular continuity of the DC Comics line.

Of these, Superman: Red Son is one of the best. Mark Millar poses a simple question with a very complex answer: What if young Kal-L’s rocket had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas?

What emerges is a fascinating tale of a Superman brought up under Stalinist philosophy. Still the good man that we know him to be, Superman nonetheless chooses a very different means of interacting with the world. We see from the first few pages that the man cannot stand still – he is constantly in motion trying to save people, not just in the Soviet Union, but anywhere in the world. It is his responsibility, he believes, to keep people safe, much in the manner of Soviet philosophy where the government controls nearly every aspect of its citizens’ lives.

Taken in by Stalin, Superman eventually rises to lead the Soviet Union to nearly world-wide dominance. Under his rule there are no accidents, no wars and no conflicts. Crime is nearly non-existent, and those who do not mesh well in this well ordered world are mentally reprogrammed until they do. There are dissidents, of course, like the mysterious Batman, a singular force of chaos in Superman’s perfectly ordered world, but in the end, even he falls. The only true challenge to Superman’s worldwide reign is the brilliant American scientist Lex Luthor, who has devoted his life to freeing mankind from alien tyranny.

It’s a brilliant take on the myth, with a lot of very familiar characters worked in. The art is gorgeous, with a style and a color palette that evokes thoughts of Soviet-era propaganda posters, yet never fails to be dynamic and fascinating.

More important, however, is the message of the story. The idea that comics can have a message is something that a lot of people seem to ignore, fueling the idea that comics are just for kids. The message in Red Son is very important and very, very timely.

The story was published in 2003, a time when America was in great pain. We had been badly hurt and wanted to set things right. By doing so, however, we caused far more damage to the world than we had ourselves endured. By trying to fix other people’s problems, we created even more, and the harder we pushed, the more the world pushed back. And this was not a new trend – one of the negative labels often affixed to the United States is that of “world policeman.” We have a long, long habit of trying to help everyone, whether that is the right thing to do or not.

In that vein, the Superman of Red Son, despite being a Soviet, is a reflection of ourselves. He is a man of immense power, who decides to help everybody. His intentions are good, but good intentions are not always rewarded with good results. His world is orderly, yes – crime and violence are nearly unheard-of – but it comes at the price of individual freedom. People are no longer in control of their own destinies with Superman in charge, and while that may be a safe life, it is not one that I would like to live.

The political message of this book is subtle, but it’s there. More interestingly, it’s a message that can be enjoyed by a broad spectrum of political views. If you’re a liberal, then it’s taking a stance against imperialism, against the imposition of one country’s values and politics over others’, all in the name of making the world a better place. If you’re a conservative, it’s a call for individual liberty. A government that provides everything for its people is just another form of oppression – without the freedom to make their own choices, for good or for ill, people are not truly free.

In the end it’s a complex tale, with no real good guys and no real bad guys. Except for Brainiac, who will probably never be anything but a bad guy. It’s a story about the choices we make, both as citizens and as societies, and the understanding that we must have the freedom to make those choices. They may sometimes be the wrong ones, but making mistakes is part of the package. In the end, there can be no Superman to save us. We must save ourselves.

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“I care about everybody.
– Superman, Superman: Red Son
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DC Comics.com
Mark Millar on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Amazon.com
Soviet Posters: Revolution by Design

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Filed under Batman, comic books, Dave Johnson, DC Comics, Elseworlds, ethics, fantasy, graphic novel, Mark Millar, morality, peace, super-heroes, Superman, totalitarianism, USSR