Craig Thompson grew up in rural Wisconsin, where his access to media was strictly controlled by his fundamentalist Christian parents. But comics flew under their radar, so that's where Thompson, then a socially awkward nerdling, ended up gravitating. His 1999 debut, Good-bye, Chunky Rice won a Harvey award and was nominated for an Ignatz—named for the beloved Krazy Kat character. He followed up with the mini-comics Bible Doodles and Doot Doot Garden, but it was Thompson's 2003 release of Blankets, an autobiographical coming-of-age saga that earned him a shower of awards and cemented his place in the comic pantheon—even as it led to a family rift. Maus creator Art Speigelman sent him a laudatory letter, and Time dubbed Blankets the year's best graphic novel, while Paste magazine would later name it the decade's best.
At a staggering 672 pages, Habibi, Thompson's new book out this week, is a richly rendered love story set in a fictional Middle-East that's simultaneously modern and medieval. The author weaves the adventures of his slave-child protagonists with tales from the Bible and the Koran, numerology, and themes of imperial debauchery and environmental degradation. "I wanted to do a book that was bigger than myself, either something sort of fantastical and epic like Lord of the Rings or something with political relevance, like Joe Sacco's documentary work," says Thompson, who is now 36 and living in Portland, Oregon. "So I think those two modes met somewhere in the middle: a social-political fairy tale."
Mother Jones: I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, but never got as far north as Marathon. What's it like?
Craig Thompson: The town, when I was growing up, was population 1,200. There's a cheese factory there, and that's sort of the center. The elementary school and the high school are on pretty much the same block, and pretty much your entire life is there.
MJ: Did your parents work in the factory?
CT: They didn't, actually. My dad was a plumber, and my mom was on and off again, either a stay-at-home mom or working with the disabled as a visiting-nurse assistant. We lived a 10-minute drive outside of town, in the country, on a highway.
MJ: You were cartooning pretty early on, right?
CT: Yeah. I grew up in a very working-class family and also a very fundamentalist Christian family. So, we didn't have access to the arts in the house in any form other than the Sunday funnies.
MJ: Were the arts frowned upon by your parents?
CT: I think that's one of the reasons I imprinted myself on the medium: They did censor all the media in the house. All the movies they'd watch first, and the television shows—it was very strict. Only Christian music was allowed, no secular music. But comic books were below the radar because they were children's entertainment, you know? They didn't even consider them. So I think that's why my brother and I were obsessed with comics; that was like our edgiest form of entertainment.
MJ: What comics were you most into?
CT: We were really obsessed with Black and White comics, which were sort of part of this '80s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles part of the industry. But it was indie creators, like self-publishing. They were generally escapist fantasy fun, but they were still more edgy and more, like, auteur-style than corporate superhero comics. We loved the DIY ethic behind it—that this is just one creator, one person, writing and drawing these and publishing them.
Craig Thompson in Portland. (Photo: Alicia J. Rose
MJ: I would imagine you're familiar with Chick Tracts, those evangelical Christian morality comics.
CT: Yes, although I don't think I had access to those until I moved to Milwaukee. I was already 19 or 20 then. Jack Chick's sort of political and religious stance matches my parents'—including that sort of strange, the Pope is the Antichrist, and those sorts of things.
MJ: Was your family part of an organized church?
CT: It was an evangelical church we saw evolve from a couple families meeting in a living room at one person's house. And then there was a pastor. He was kind of a hippie pastor. These are all sort of small-town people but kind of growing out of the back-to-nature sort of Jesus-freak movement of the '60s and '70s. We'd sit in people's living rooms and sing Jesus songs that our pastor made up. And then at a certain point the church had access to a storefront that I think also hosted other churches, and they just had couch cushions on the ground. And then we rented out the City Hall, until it burned down. That was a cool space. And then we rented time at a Presbyterian church, so after their service we would have service. Finally, when I was in high school, the church bought its own building, or had it constructed, and then the political dynamics changed a lot; it became more conservative and half of the people left.
MJ: More conservative in what sense?
"I was really disenchanted with the church and its dogma. I was pretty feminist back then—a little scrawny vegetarian Christian feminist boy."
CT: In every sense. The new people were older and it became more of a fire-and-brimstone sort of church. I felt pretty attached to the pastor I grew up with—he literally was a carpenter by trade and had long hair and a beard and made homemade songs on his acoustic guitar. It was, you know, a hippy-dippy version of Christianity. And then he left; I think he was booted out by the more conservative people that started to pour in.
MJ: Do you still consider yourself a Christian?
CT: No, I don't consider myself a Christian at all.
MJ: Was there something in the church's teachings that turned you off?
CT: It was slow and instant at the same time. The slow part happened all throughout my high school years, where I was really obsessed with Jesus and his teachings, but really disenchanted with the church and its dogma. I was pretty feminist back then—a little scrawny vegetarian Christian feminist boy. [Laughs.] So I clashed with a lot of the teachings, and a lot of the Bible, actually. But I loved Jesus and his ethics. That was sort of the career path I wanted to follow, too: just to live like Jesus, not have any belongings, not have any job, not pay any rent. It was very hippie.
MJ: That attitude could come in handy for a struggling cartoonist.
CT: Yeah, definitely. I think there is some overlap in terms of artistic desires and Christian desires.
MJ: So have you also said goodbye to Jesus, or are you still down with him?
CT: I'm still down with Jesus. I like to think of him mostly as a social revolutionary who mixed with bad crowds and hated the rich. [Laughs.]
MJ: So was there a big rift with your parents after you split from the church?"I don't think my parents will like Habibi. But I don't think it could be worse than Blankets, because Blankets was about our family, it was about Christianity, it was very personal."
CT: Blankets was the vehicle with which I came out to my parents about not being a Christian, so we never really had that conversation. Typical sort of northern Midwest, stoic personalities: There isn't a lot of conversation or communication in our dynamic, so it just never came up. They never ask things about my life. They were really concerned about me going to church and stuff like that, but they never pressed for further details about Blankets, which is a lot about my falling from the faith.
MJ: But they read it?
CT: They did read it. Yeah, I sent it to them. And it caused, at least for a couple of years, a lot of tension. But things are feeling better now.
MJ: Have they commented on your career?
CT: They used to be very upset by it and say that my work was satanic, even. They used that term. And so, they were really troubled by the message, they said it was the devil's message in my work. And when they had suggestions of how I could use my talent, they would bring up like, VeggieTales, those Christian animated vegetables.
MJ: Have you sent Habibi to your parents?
CT: No. I'll definitely send it to them as soon I have the official, printed version.
MJ: What do you think they'll think of that?
CT: I don't think they'll like it. But at the same time, I don't think it could be worse than Blankets, because Blankets was about our family; it was about Christianity, it was very personal. I just feel like, you know, it can't get worse—not with my family, I don't think.