If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a 600-page graphic novel is comparable to a Russian epic.
For a reader unfamiliar with this genre of writing, Craig Thompson’s Habibi and Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions may seem like overwhelming reads. In this case, the reader should not judge a book by its volume, and instead judge it by its depth of meaning.
These two books take the reader on a journey of discovery as questions are raised probing the origins of the universe, a belief in a higher power and whether to place blind faith in humanity. Philosophical in nature, these stories convey an existential outlook.
Habibi tells the story of a tangled journey between Dodola and Zam, two emotionally damaged characters who struggle to survive hardship after hardship with only their faith in God and love for each other to push them through.
Meanwhile, Big Questions is a graphic fable using a flock of birds as the “characters” searching for answers to life and its mysteries. The birds’ predictable and boring existence is thrown into disarray after a series of unfortunate events fall upon them. Their reaction to these events has consequences on others as the story unfolds.
According to Nilsen, who spent 15 years working on Big Questions, “I should have added to my title ‘small answer’ because the message I wanted to get across was to look at the bigger picture of existence and appreciate the day to day gifts in life.”
Thompson believes that graphic novelists break down barriers through their work. While working on Habibi, he befriended Muslims and through extensive dialogues came to realize how similar the Christian and Islamic faiths are. “I believe that separations between peoples are imagined and there would be far less loneliness in the world when people start to accept that,” said Thompson.
Thompson is breaking down the walls of ethnocentrism; Nilsen’s art breaks down the walls of separation between life and death as the characters accept the outcome from every situation that they endure.
Coming from a Christian background, Thompson was fascinated by the aesthetic beauty of Arab calligraphy. “As a cartoonist, when I flip open the page of a comic book the text and images turn into ideas,” he said. “That’s why Arab calligraphy was so appealing to me because every word has its own artistic beauty that represents an idea.”
The Arabic word “Bismallah” translates to the following phrase in English: “In the name of God, the Merciful, The Compassionate.” Such words are introduced right away into the story, setting the importance for language and the need to have faith.
Inspired by mysticism, Habibi is full of spiritual anecdotes and biblical stories seen from various religious perspectives. “I am obsessed with the esoteric perception of divinity and universality. This novel brought me along a path of knowledge as I researched Judaism, Sufism and other eastern religions,” said Thompson.
When it comes to attention to detail, both authors have different perspectives.
Nilsen is known for his simplistic and straightforward style of drawing. “I care about the story and what’s going on in every scene I draw, rather than the emphasis on dazzling the reader with too many drawings,” he explained.
The two novels also play with the theme of esoterism. “It’s funny,” chuckled Nilsen, “My book divulges in exploring the meaning behind life and death and my readers expect to find big answers at the end, but things aren’t black and white, just the pages are.”
In comparison to Habibi, Big Questions’ simple, newspaper cartoon style works with the characters in the story, just as the intricate mandalas of spiritual art in Habibi enhance the hardships the characters endure and how they seek faith to provide answers and support. When Nilsen compiled his novel, he did so with the intention for his readers to not get too caught up in the details. “Big Questions is my hope to people to see the world for what it is and accept it,” he said.
Thompson agrees that we have to breathe more and fear less. “People are where they are in life and the only direction to go is forward,” he said. “That’s where faith and spirituality come in.”
Nilsen believes that there is a special beauty connecting words to images. “A reader has a certain type of intimacy with a graphic novel that doesn’t exist in other artistic mediums,” he explained.
Both authors are optimistic about the future of graphic novels. “There is that personal quality in the element of graphic novels,” said Thompson. “I always feel that when I read or write a comic that I am looking at a handwritten letter.”
Nilsen will launch Big Questions on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. Thompson is launching Habibi on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. Both book launches will take place at Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard St. W.