On Tuesday, the postman brought me a present. Since I preordered it, I knew it was coming. I hung out at the post office so long waiting for it that I was late for a shift; there was even a brief but excruciating period when I could see the box on the shelf, but, for lack of a slip, could not retrieve it. This was certainly a waste of time, but I've been waiting for Habibi for so long, since I read Blankets five years ago, that I did not really mind. And, because Craig Thompson told Bookslut in 2004 that he was aiming for completion in 2005, I figure I wasn't the only one.

I unboxed it as soon as I got my hands on it; the book itself is a work of delicate beauty, with inlaid gold color and intricate, presumably Islam influenced, designs. Be careful when you grab it: I've been carrying it around, and, apparently, I've been holding it with my thumb on the inlay, which has begun to rub off. The book looks just as nice on the outside as it does on the inside (and the ink on paper won't rub off!); everything we've come to expect from Thompson, the distinctively highly rendered cartoons, the visual puns, the gorgeously complicated splash pages, it's all there. If anything, the time that Thompson spent on Habibi means it looks better and more well thought-out than Blankets. I think part of what made the earlier book a work of sloppy genius is how accidental everything seems; Habibi is striking for the opposite reason, because every line and panel and every space where there is nothing, they all seem intentional.

So let's get one thing out of the way: despite the fact that it is clearly the work of Craig Thompson, Habibi is not Blankets. It doesn't have the same inherent gravity, and the book doesn't keep you as close. Although this fable comes close to the quality of Thompson's autobiographical impulse, it's too intentional, and, anyway, our expectations for it were almost certainly too high. There's no way that Habibi could be all the things I expected it to be, since my expectations were almost certainly unreasonable.

Let us, then, try to move Blankets and my high expectations for its follow-up out of the way, and try to evaluate this new work on its own terms.

Habibi is pretty great. It's flawed, for sure, but the sheer mass of great ideas outweighs the fact that the sprawling fable just feels too big, too spread out, and the strength of the characters is enough to drag you through a good deal of exposition dealing with Islamic theology, mysticism and science: at moments, the book feels like a half effective crash course in Islam. The point of this exposition is unclear to me; Thompson must mean the biblical stories to be allegorical for the events of the story, or maybe the other way around, but allegory and allusion don't work if you have to explain what it means, which is precisely what happens. When the stories do work, or at least when they work better, it's because they are being told in the context of the story itself, because they are stories within the story. The allegorical method might merely be that natural progression of Thompson's tendency towards nonlinear storytelling, his penchant for revealing things at the moment of their highest impact rather than at the moment of their actual happening.

Usually, this works like magic; sometimes, however, Habibi is just too sprawling. Revelations get lost at the moment when they would suddenly make sense, events are frustrating because they are too far separated from the revelations that give them meaning. Like the bits about the magic squares and the Arabic letters, some of which I could probably read a few more times and still not fully understand, the book's sheer size tends to slow its force as a narrative, which is exceedingly frustrating.

You also get the sense that the narrative isn't the point, not quite. There's a lot going on here, beyond the stories of Dodola and Zam, their separations, their reunions, and their love. On that level, the book is very much like Blankets, just significantly more complicated and not pulled together as tightly. On another level, I get the sense that the exposition about Islam is an attempt to soften perceptions about it; I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that this was part of the intention behind the new book, and I wonder about its efficacy, given that Thompson's audience is almost certainly playing the choir to his preacher. Above all that, though, Habibi is a story about stories and, more specifically, it is a story about stories told in both pictures and words: Habibi is, all the way up, a meditation about comics.

The way Arabic is written is a peculiarly situated way in to this contemplation: as a language that is recognizable yet illegible to most of the intended audience, it is possible for us to look at the calligraphy and both understand that it is words and see that it is also a picture. For someone who reads Arabic, though, the connection is more clear; as an illiterate, I understand that the pictures are words, but someone who reads Arabic understands both the word and the picture together. Thompson then pulls a brilliantly clever trick: in the penultimate chapter, he draws nothing but Arabic letters, English letters and panels-- nine equally shaped rectangles on the page. "Orphan's Prayer" is nothing but exposition, words (which we can understand to be pictures as well as words) strung together to make meaning placed within the traditional context of the comic-- the domain of the word and the picture. For Thompson, the word and the picture are one and the same, born separate, coming together, rent apart, and then coming together again, leaving behind the legacy in the form of an adopted child.

Habibi is, then, perhaps the most subtle in-medium defense of the medium of that I've ever read. It's mere existence is, of course, a testament to how far we've come in the battle to make people take comics seriously, but, even beyond that, Thompson made his book, which he knew people were going to read because it is his first major work since Blankets, which is partially responsible for the vanguard of comics intellectuals we now have fighting the good fight, the biggest weapon we have yet in that fight.

In this regard, Habibi may be proven to be even more important than Blankets, and I will be interested to see how, once the initial critical reaction passes, readers of comics, hopefully a larger group than before, consider them both together.

Weekly Process Roundup 9/23/11

The Weekly Process Roundup, which hits every Friday, is dedicated to showcasing everything other than finished product from The Long And Shortbox Of It's favorite creators.