We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Craig Thompson is one of the stars of the alternative comics world. In1999, Goodbye, Chunky Rice led to his winning the 2000 Harvey Award for Best New Talent. His graphic novel Blankets, a autobiographical coming-of-age story came out in 2003 and was a big hit; Thompson’s telling of his fundamental Christian upbringing and his first love struck a chord with many readers. In the years since, he produced only one book, Carnet de Voyage, a travel sketchbook about a tour through Europe and Morocco. With the publication of Habibi, a retelling of 1001 Arabian Nights, Thompson returns to the top of his game. I read the galleys, and predict this will be the breakthrough book for 2011, much as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was in 2006 and David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp was in 2009. Thompson was kind enough to devote a half-hour to answering questions prior to his appearance at SPX this year.

WCP: Your two previous works were well-received autobiography. Why switch to magical realism?

Craig Thompson: To keep it interesting, I want all my projects to be completely different from the last, at least in terms of surface qualities. I’m not one of those cartoonists who wants to work with one set of characters for my whole career. And I would like each book to be completely different.

WCP: How do you feel about calling it magic realism?

CT: I think you’re the first person to use that label, but I’m comfortable with that.

WCP: Did your travels in Morocco, detailed in Carnet de Voyage, lead to Habibi?

CT: No… yes… somewhere along the line, someone must have reported that was the case, but the seeds of Habibibi were planted before that trip, and because Habibi doesn’t take place in any specific location or time, I was able to draw fast and loose from a lot of different research and make up things too because it is a fairy tale. In that sense, Morocco didn’t really inform the book, but at the same time, having experiences like riding a camel in the desert can help but add texture to what I write.

WCP: Certainly some of the scenery from Carnet de Voyage seemed to be replicated in Habibi…

CT: That’s definitely true to say, like the crowded souks and markets that I found myself repeating them in Habibi.

WCP: In another interview, you said the book was supposed to be 200 pages. Why did it keep growing? Were you tempted to serialize it?

CT: Well, 200 pages was just the ideal size of the next book I wanted to do. Before I even had the story, I was thinking of an object and that struck me as a very approachable object and an approachable page length for having another book out in a year or two. I did entertain this illusion that I could have another book out a couple of years after Blankets. And that it would be a much more modest undertaking.

WCP: I will say that Habibi is one of the rare books that actually reads as a graphic novel, as opposed to a graphic short story with a lot of pages. My follow-up question was whether you were tempted to serialize it as you were doing it, and of course that’s not what you would do with a novel unless you’re Charles Dickens or Stephen King

CT: I never wanted to serialize it. I was pressured by one of my foreign publishers to do that because they thought it was far too long for readers to wait and too big of a book to actually produce. They were putting a lot of pressure on me to break it down into separate volumes and I had to resist because I knew the book wouldn’t work if experienced that way. It wouldn’t be satisfying for the reader and the whole structure was dependent on reading it together.

WCP: I’m betting that was a French publisher….

CT: Yes.

WCP: Were you actively trying to write a real graphic novel, or did it just grow organically as you were working on it.

CT: From the beginning, I did want to do something modest so that it would be out fairly shortly after Blankets, but then very soon I started daydreaming and conjuring ideas, I did want to make a fairy tale epic. That word ‘epic’ was kind of in my head. I didn’t want to do a Kurosawa film or anything with a massive cast of characters, or multi-generational like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I did want something with layers that would overwhelm and engulf the characters at times.

WCP: There seems to be a warping of time in the book, and it seems to cover about two centuries in development from slavery in a pre-industrial society through a poisoned  modern society at the end of the book.

CT: There all the same in my perception of the book. I don’t think civilization has developed that much in that gap. Many people would argue that there’s more slavery in the world than ever before in human history, so maybe I’m commenting on that fact. They all feed into each other—-industrialization and exploitation of people.

WCP: It seemed to me that you began by having a sultanate, but then proceeding to a change in the level of technology with far more mechanical equipment in the end…

CT: At the end I did want there to be a jarring quality for the reader. I wanted them to identify with the main characters who would be feeling very out of place in their new world.

WCP: One tends to think of eunuchs as a nineteenth, early twentieth century phenomena…

CT: Oh yeah, that’s true to say. I don’t think there’s a lot of actual castration going on these days. I’m hoping not.

WCP: Who are your influences? I seem to see a lot of Will Eisner in Habibi, especially the faces…

CT: That’s not a conscious influence, and I get the comparison a lot, but he’s not someone who I deliberately studied other than his sequential art textbook that every cartoonist has on their shelf. With Habibi I don’t know if I was cite any deliberate visual influence in comics. I think inspiration was coming outside of comics – all that Islamic art, calligraphy and then late nineteenth century French Orientalist paintings and actually a lot of general turn-of-the-century art from France. That’s kind of what I was poring over. And folk artists like William Blake and Gustav Doré.

WCP: The book seems to represent varied interests for you. There’s comparative religion, numerology, mysticism, calligraphy and the power of words seems to be especially strong in this book, perhaps oddly so given that it’s a graphic novel. Can you talk a little about how you decided to tuck in these disparate threads?

CT: Yeah, where do I start here? The book was greatly influenced by 1001 Arabian Nights and so I knew that Dodola would be a Scheherazade of sorts, storytelling for her own survival. You know some of those things just emerged. I grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian household and so the only really book on the bookshelf was the Bible. We weren’t an educated literate family – the Bible was thought of as the only book you had to read, but meanwhile my brother and I were using all our farmboy money – the money we earned while working in the fields – to buy comics. Just from a very early age, it was the Bible, and it was comic books – the only two literate forms and it seems natural that they would merge into one for this project. Numerology – maybe it was first learning about the structure of the Koran that would feed into that, but mostly it was coming from outside Islam, that North African mysticism that was a big part of the talisman, the magic square. Once I adopted that as the structure for the book, I got really obsessive about numbers because each chapter than had a numeric value that was a theme.

WCP: It looks at some point as if you were running fairly strongly with the Arab tradition of calligraphy…

CT: Yes. That was probably the first thing that leaped out and inspired me is Arab calligraphy in all its beauty and musicality and splendor. There’s something really unique as a cartoonist in this idea of letters being more visual than symbolic, the way they are in typography. As a cartoonist, you’re kind of working in a drawing shorthand, it’s like a cursive form of drawing. It’s very similar – your words and your pictures blend together into one form in the same way that operates with Arab calligraphy.

WCP: I felt that as a true graphic novel, you were making the words and the pictures work together as much as you could.

CT: Thank you. Yeah I’m never thinking about another medium the way that some people might in comics with the ultimate goal of making films or something. That’s never my approach and that’s why I was thinking that this is about the comics medium as much as the story.

WCP: From one point of view, this book can be considered grotesque – it begins with depictions of child abuse and rape, then has slavery, sexual slavery, murder, castration, and ultimately ends with environmental disaster… would you say that could be an accurate description by someone who was trying to do a hatchet job?

CT: [laughs].

WCP: I’m not trying to do a hatchet job. Do you see the story as ultimately hopeful, because they are together in the end? In other words, is it a love story where crummy stuff happens to the lovers?

CT: Yes, it’s an apocalyptic love story. It’s sort of delving into the darkness. I told someone yesterday that I felt like I was Agent Cooper stuck in the black lodge for much of the creative process. For me it was always about this juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, pictures and words, beauty and ugliness. I was sort of like a vengeful god, subjecting my characters to some pretty dark traumas, but I was really rooting for them too and hoping that they could come out on the other side. It’s hard, but also appealed.

WCP: You said ‘sacred and profane’ and of course some idea of castration in the church’s history has been to keep you closer to God and away from sinning. Was the idea of making Habibi a castrati in there from the beginning or did the story evolve that way?

CT: It was there from the beginning before I knew anything about castration, and I still don’t personally, fortunately [both of us laugh]. From the very beginning, the two characters presented themselves out of my subconscious and I loved the idea of a romance of sorts – again an apocalyptic romance – between a prostitute and a eunuch. To try to understand how someone would ever arrive at that place, I was researching eunuchs and castration and I think that where the Ottoman theme and elements came in. And then of course that developed in other ways too, but that was probably the beginning of ‘this is where real eunuchs have played a major part in history.’

WCP: You did an interesting job of showing the various sides and factions in the harem. I assume the decision to make one character black and the other white is to have it visually look like two opposing sides as well?

CT: Ethnicities also arrived in sort of a subconscious way as well. I knew that they would be slaves from the start and it’s hard to have the theme of slavery without touching on race. Also, I was studying the East African Arab slave trade, and they weren’t necessarily discriminatory against one particular ethnicity. They were enslaving a lot of Europeans, so that was of interest to me to. This wasn’t about the trans-Atlantic slave trade—-it was about something broader.

WCP: Why did you name book after the secondary lead character, and a name he abandoned (in favor of Zam)? Is he the emotional heart of the book, or if not him, the idea of what he represented as a child? He seemed to be a very hopeful innocent child.

CT: Initially I think I chose that name because Dodola was narrating and I felt like her audience was Habibi. In my earliest drafts, it was definitely all the narration was something that she was directing towards him. As I got deeper into the story, I realized that in he was the emotional core. It’s funny, because as a creator I was in some ways a lot more attached to Dodola, and I thought less about Zam’s character, but that’s what makes him a little more fascinating and inscrutable.

WCP: The decision to become castrati is almost incomprehensible in some ways, and completely logical in terms of the story, while Dodola had the advantage of being more developed as a character because she was the older character in the beginning of the book.

CT: Yes, the horrible thing about the Internet is anything you might research, you find it’s a little more common than one might expect, so there are web forums for people who self-castrate, and it is really hard to relate to on a self-mutilating level. I think [it’s understandable] on more of an emotional level because of what we go through at different points of our sexual lives—-there are times when we’re really cut off from our sexuality and closed down, and other times when we’re the opposite and more promiscuous. It’s always like this struggle to find a balance and a healthy place between polar extremes.

WCP: For him, in addition to being a sexual decision with guilt over longing for her, it was also a survival decision, since that was the only way he was going to get food.

CT: Yes, I might have popped that in there too to make it a little more sympathetic.

WCP: How did your move to Pantheon come about? Will you be splitting projects between Top Shelf and Pantheon?

CT: Right now I’m still doing Blankets for Top Shelf and I have another book in the next year or two. Beyond that I’m not even thinking about any one of my projects in terms of a publisher; I just want to work on them. It turns out the jump I made was really good initially. One, because I got an advance that I was able to carve out a nice chunk of time to devote to the book. And beyond that, honestly I got better contractual details that were good in terms of maintaining some of my rights as a creator. I feel that right now it’s making sense to have both publishers coexisting because you tap a far different market when working with a book publisher, but I never want to lose sight of my small comics press roots. Pantheon has been really great in that sense because when my publicist started organizing a tour, I said to her I want to be at SPX and APE and comic shops, and we have this CBLDF fundraiser kind of kicking off everything, and they really accommodated that. I had this fear that I would just be doing Barnes and Noble, but in fact I have a lot of comic book stuff happening.

WCP: Did you approach Pantheon, or did they approach you?

CT: The beginning of it all was an editor at Pantheon contacting me, and then I was meeting with a number of different publishers and pitching the project. It was obvious straight from the start that Pantheon got it. And there was a couple of legit book publishers on that list that were really repelled by the proposal. They wanted me to do Blankets 2 and when they saw that was not what I was doing, they were still interested, but I could tell they wanted me to change things already. But Pantheon was totally on board from the moment I met them and I got a very good instinctual vibe.

WCP: How many years have you been coming to SPX?

CT: Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been there. I haven’t done a lot of US shows, or even European shows for many years. I was touring a lot up until maybe 2005, and then I just felt like every little event I did was keeping me from getting Habibi done. I initially pulled the plug on domestic touring and then in 2007, on the Europeans too. I did a show at Portland, the Stumptown show, because it was convenient, but it’s been a long time. My first SPX years were probably 1999 or ’98. It was actually 1998. I remember going before Chunky Rice ever came out and Chunky Rice came out in ’99. Those were days when I just made minicomics and I would just walk around from table to table and meet other artists.

WCP: Yes, back when it was in that little Bethesda hotel, and you never knew who would be around the corner.

CT: I know. It was such days of innocence and purity.

WCP: Do you see a generational shift since you’ve started coming to SPX?   Is there another crop of minicomics kids coming up behind you that you’re aware of?

CT: Oh, definitely, definitely. There’s no way I can keep up. That happened really quickly though. Probably by the time Blankets came out, I already felt like in some ways like in some ways I was the old school. I remember Jordan Crane and I teasing about it that there were so many young up-and-comers that we couldn’t keep up with or keep track of. Yeah, it’s more than ever. The fact that there’s college courses now for comics, and nothing like that ever existed when I was younger. There’s a lot of energy out there. I think there’s a whole generation of kids that are just now still in elementary school that comics are going to be cooler for them than they ever were for our generation.

WCP: I hope you’re right about that. Are there any new cartoonists that you tend to be excited about, or that you’re looking forward to their books?

CT: The book I’m most excited about right now is not by a new cartoonist—-it’s Anders Nilsen’s collected Big Questions. It’s definitely high on my list as the next book I want to get my hands on. I have a lot of those issues, most of them I think, but I just love having a book on the bookshelf, especially a 600-page book like that. Top Shelf published a French cartoonist, Ludovic Dubeurme and his book Lucille – that’s another recent book I’m excited by. I’m reading a lot of old school stuff—-the alternative manga that Drawn & Quarterly has been putting  out. I love Tatsumi and the Drifting Life collection specifically. They just published Mizuki whose one of my favorite Japanese cartoonists whom as far as I know has never been published in English before. They put out that semi-autobiographical World War II memoir Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths. I’m halfway through and loving it. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to bore through it too quickly; I want to savor it, make it last.

WCP: Drawn & Quarterly is putting out a lot of interesting stuff these days. It’s a golden age for comics, which gets very expensive…

CT: I know. Actually the last trip I made to a comics store, I was just overwhelmed and I didn’t buy anything. I was also in a space of cleaning out the studio which had become very cluttered over the final months of finishing Habibi, so I was worried about adding more clutter, but there were so many good things that I just didn’t know where to spend my money.

WCP: It’ll be interesting when you get to SPX and need to decide what to buy then.

CT: That’ll be hard because that’s at the very beginning of a two month tour.

WCP: Wrapping up, you have a very fluid line. What type of pen and ink do you use?

CT: I use a brush, a Winsor-Newton series 7, number 3 which is sort of a generic classic cartooning tool, and then use Speedball superblack India ink, which is not a flowing ink. That stuff is kind of like tar, but it serves my dry brush line that I incorporate a lot.

WCP: For the local audience, is there anything you like in particular about the DC area?

CT: That’s a great question, and I don’t think I’m informed enough to comment. [laughs] My trips have been mostly SPX. Once I got to DC when I was in high school for a tourist trip, but otherwise I haven’t the opportunity and time to explore, and unfortunately this trip doesn’t afford me the time either.

The Small Press Expo takes place 11 am–7 p.m. Sept. 10 and noon–6 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 5701 Marinelli Road, Bethesda. $10-$15. spxpo.com.