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Dick Lit: Habibi and Paying For It
By Kristy Valenti
Wednesday February 1, 2012 08:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
By all appearances, Chester Brown and Craig Thompson put out two of The Most Important Graphic Novels of 2011: Paying For It and Habibi. Both were eagerly anticipated, original works by critically acclaimed autobio cartoonists, extensively promoted (Thompson is still touring) and covered by major media outlets such as NPR. Though, on the face of it, these books are diametrically opposed — Brown's autobio comic catalogs his experiences with prostitutes, while Thompson's graphic novel is a fantasia about two soul mates, an Arab woman and a black man — I noted, as have others (http://www.comicsbeat.com/2011/09/27/people-are-talking-about-habibi/, http://goodokbad.com/index.php/reviews/habibi_review), that Brown and Thompson have similar preoccupations, and are working through similar concepts: the separation between love and sex, sex and the spiritual, are concerns from their previous works that have come to the fore. I would argue that, though Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon would like readers and critics to believe that these are Serious Books, worthy of critics' attention and readers' dollars, they're also something else — something I'm going to try to define as Dick (Graphic) Lit.

Apparently, Dick (Graphic) Lit is black and white on the inside, and coded warm brown on the outside, in contrast to the crude Photoshop coloring of superhero comics, the sleek blackness of a cut-above prestige project, like a Hellboy or an Absolute edition, and certainly far removed from the aggressive pastels that often characterize manga volumes. (Target employs this same trick; "chai" indicates Yoga Mat for Non Girly Dudes.) Both Paying For It and Habibi sport relatively simple brown covers, overlaid with a richer red/orange and both focus on a male/female couple. On Habibi, it is the star-crossed lovers, Dodola and Zam (aka Cham). Dodola, who drives much of the book's action, stares defiantly out at the reader; she holds Zam protectively. Zam, her adopted child/eventual mate, lies on her breast, a position that suggests both of his roles. (On the back, they are older, and their position is reversed, although Zam's expression is more sad than angry.)

Paying For It literally bears Robert Crumb's seal of approval; the lettering is reminiscent of his own, and his name, when his introduction is announced, is second only in size to the title's and the author's. Underneath the text, and only slightly obscured, is one of the book's eight-panel grids; it shows Brown and a prostitute negotiating their encounter. When the dust jacket is removed, the book is blue, with a single panel of Brown and a woman kissing; the "a comic-strip memoir about being a john" subtitle is in his thought balloon.[1] Obviously, both comics are going to deal with male/female relationships, but the brown reassures that, like a "chai" yoga mat, men needn't be embarrassed being seen in public with them.

Paying For It reads like a cross between Sex and The City (both Candace Bushnell's book and the TV show) and Steve Ditko's Avenging World. Like Bushnell, Brown acts as a "social anthropologist." They both rely on "composite" characters; for her, it's Manhattanites, for him, it's the prostitutes he frequents as he purports to represent the voice of the "john." There are pages and panels in Paying For It, funny ones, which could be right out of Bushnell's book: Brown wondering how he's going to pick up a hooker without a car, and then setting off on his bicycle, trolling for one with no success. As if taking their cue from the TV show, cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt play the Charlotte and the Miranda, respectively, to Brown as they stroll around Toronto, hang out in diners, talk about Brown's relationship troubles, argue and support each other. (Can single heterosexual men in their 30s find satisfying relationships with women?) These are the liveliest sequences in Paying For It; Seth's gestural smoking indicates the broadest movement and emotion in the book. (More on that later.) Like Carrie Bradshaw, Brown is obsessed with "shopping," pointing out the features (and flaws) of each woman, like Bradshaw detailing what's so special about a particular pair of strappy sandals; he's the ultimate consumer, thinking about other users' feedback and composing posts for an escort review website, rating their friendliness level, even while with the prostitute in question — and when he's disappointed, he wants his money back. He's a conscientious customer, too, polite, money all ready to go.[2] Like Sex and the City, Paying For It promises sexual frankness and an unsentimental view on societal mores, but doesn't quite deliver.

If Paying For It is the Sex and the City TV show, then Habibi is a little bit like that Sex in the City movie, set in "Abu Dhabi": it's all excess, larger-than-life, Sheik of Araby reverie. Thompson tells the tale of Dodola, a child bride who prostitutes to feed herself and her ward, Zam. The two live in a desert, in a world part Orientalist, part modern and polluted. They separate when she is captured and put in a harem; they reunite after he has chosen to become a eunuch. Though Habibi is obviously fictional, it's hard not to see shades of Thompson in both Dodola and Zam — at one point, she muses that "I'd always felt detached from my body," echoing Thompson's "Since a child, I was always displaced from my body," from his autobio gn Blankets. If Paying For It fancies itself unsentimental, Habibi (floridly) imagines itself romantic; it dallies in romance novel territory, and it's difficult not to read "rape fantasy" into a sequence where Zam falls into a group who voluntarily castrate themselves for rather ill-defined "spiritual" and "ascetic" reasons, and castrates himself as well because he associates sex with dirty prostitution. Though, it seems the prettiest eunuch prostitutes for the good of the group, leading Zam to bravely offer to whore himself after the previous prettiest dies (after apologizing for "judging"), and then he's captured and carried off … and so forth.

The two books seem very different, visually; since Brown wants to make his pro-prostitution argument appear logical, he works very hard not to titillate. The reader is often looking down on Brown and his sexual partner as they neatly perform sex acts on beds that are barely mussed, as if viewing them in an operating theater. Brown's attempts to compartmentalize love and sex are reflected in his rigid eight-panel grids, with small, closely grouped panels set off by wide margins, giving the impression he's got it all sorted and cleared away. Thompson, like a greedy magpie, overstuffs his book with a style inspired by French brushwork, Arabic art, and early comic-book caricature (unfortunately, he seems to be drawing some of his black characters from early comic books/strips, too), bedazzling his own rather simple lovers meet/separate/reunite yarn with Bible and Qur'an stories, folklore, myth and borrowed symbolism. But, like Brown, Thompson wants to find patterns, make connections, impose order, chart the universe; he can't resist the impulse to catalog either (the changes in Dodola's body while she's pregnant, etc.). Brown and Thompson have done their homework, and they want to show it off.

Despite their divergent aesthetic philosophies, however, both Brown ("I'm not trying to seduce you") and Thompson ("Would you like me to seduce you?") are fond of The Word; not only do they support their arguments with literary examples, they both cartooned two very similar sequences, of grids with words, sans images. Charles Hatfield talked about Thompson's sequence at length over at tcj.com (a sequence which calls back the masturbation sequence in Blankets, where sex, drawing and handwriting are all connected); in Paying For It, a sequence like this occurs at the beginning of the book, when Brown's girlfriend, Sook-Yin, tells him she's interested in pursuing another sexual partner. The panels turn black as the two discuss it. This is so private that Brown, who (apparently) discloses the length and appearance of his penis in this book, and draws almost every panel of himself and his sexual encounters in areoles, as if in a spotlight, can only tell, not show. Brown budgets carefully — his money, his time and his orgasms. As this sequence suggests, he's absolutely miserly with depicting emotion. As Crumb points out in his introduction, Brown's — and essentially everyone else's in the book, especially the prostitutes, whose faces are obscured by their hair — have little to no facial expression. Paying For It can be reread as only a study in slight changes or variations in expression, such as the awkward grin of Sook-Yin's new lover as he meets Brown, or her slight frown as she asks Brown not to bring prostitutes into her house. If, as Seth tells him over and over in the book, Brown is repressed, it may explain the emotionally voyeuristic relationship he and Sook-Yin seem to settle into (that's the only way I can think of to describe it). Although he occasionally shows the "Brown" character as irritated or petty, emotionally speaking, he's largely a cocktease.

What really seems to make both Habibi and Paying For It "Dick Lit," though, is that in these works, both Brown and Thompson organize their (and their characters') identity around love and sex. Both present themselves as sensitive males; Brown, in particular, tells himself "he shouldn't care what other people think," but he does; he wants the prostitutes to think of him as friendly and benevolent (he makes mention of nice clean towels he has to offer them); he wants others to see him as cool-headed and reasonable. (I first approached Paying For It in the context of comics like Michelle Tea and Lauren McCubbin's Rent Girl, and books like Shawna Kenney's I Was a Teenage Dominatrix and Diablo Cody's Candy Girl; all explored the feminist writers' firsthand experience with sex work. As such, Chester Browns' Paying For It does, in fact, shed a little light on the experience of one "john"; but, like Crumb's intro, often seems to hinge on the anecdotal.)

Whether Brown or Thompson succeed in these works in their aim to separate love and sex, sex and the spiritual, is up for debate. In Thompson's case, this is most definitely informed and intertwined with his religious upbringing (explored at length in Blankets); it's trained him to separate love and sex. Both Brown and Thompson, as autobio cartoonists, are driven by the need to confess, if nothing else, to alleviate guilt. (Some of Thompson's guilt appears to be of what is termed the "white liberal" variety, as he projects himself as an Arabic woman, a black man, toys with gender roles, and worries about the environment). But what is clear is that neither want to separate sex and cartooning, at least for the moment. In another humorous sequence (for a Ditko-style polemic, Paying For It manages to be a lot funnier than Habibi. Habibi's humor is largely … ineffective), Brown, although initially trying to maintain anonymity with similarly pseudonymous women, can't resist giving one prostitute a copy of one of his graphic novels. Brown is capable of changing his sexual identity to the point where he can tell the world he sleeps with prostitutes; what he can't do, and what Thompson can't do, is think of himself as anything other than a cartoonist.
Notes
[1] If this is not enough, there are blurbs by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman on the back cover. Gaiman reinforces the book's importance; Moore insists the book requires rereading. Given much of what Moore said about his own Lost Girls, I can see him responding very well to the non-erotic ritual in the book.
[2] It's bad to buy into stereotypes, but as depicted here, Canadians do seem really polite.
Image credits
Habibi images ©2011 Craig Thompson
Paying For It ©2011 Chester Brown
Blankets ©2003 Craig Thompson

Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010

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Comments

fhelvie (2 years ago)
 
In response to Kristy Valenti
Kristy,
First, let me thank you for your thoughtful reply. I've followed other columns & reviews you've written before, and I enjoy reading up on your thoughts about the various books out there--these two included. Second, I'd like to reiterate the point that I really don't have any real arguments with your analysis of Thompson--other than the notion that he is cartooning about penises. I'm not sure I agree it's as explicit as that; however, I can see where this work could easily be viewed as speaking primarily to a hetero-male audience. But maybe that's the point you were making :)
In regards to Thompson's present preoccupation with love, sex, and comics, it IS interesting to see how there is a general trend in his work involving these concepts. I'll be interested to see where he is 5 to 10 years from now--still working out these issues or on to something new? Unfortunately, I've not yet read Brown's work, so I can't speak on it. And I've seen one or two of the links you mentioned and thought each had a number of merits to the respective argument. I particularly recall enjoying Eddie Campbell's post as I had similar reaction to his, enjoying the novel until I began processing what I read... which was the point where some red flags started flying.
I guess where you lose me a bit is with the whole "Dick Lit" assertion. First, as I mentioned before, it's just not a term I'm personally comfortable with nor would I use professionally. By this logic, Bushnell's books (and later shows and movies) should be more appropriately dubbed "Vag Lit" or something along these lines as opposed to "Chick Lit." After all, the subject matter is all about a bunch of women whose day-to-day experiences often center on love or sex. I'm not trying to serve as the "PC Police" here by any means; I just think the use of this sort of terminology unfairly confines the subjects into being strictly gendered and sexualized. While both issues are noticeably present in Habibi and SATC, they certainly aren't the only major concerns for each writer. I understand this isn't a term you've coined either; but I don't believe it's one that needs to be used. And frankly, if I--as a male--were to refer to SATC as "Vag Lit" or some derivative, I'd fairly expect to receive a fair amount of criticism from many upset readers. If I were to use that term as a faculty member in one of my classes, I would not be surprised to hear about it in one way or the other. Don't get me wrong: Sitting at a bar over drinks, I'm not so concerned about the color of my language; however, I do tend to filter those expressions out of conference papers, published essays, etc. Because I do take your work seriously (your reviews have guided some of my reading choices), I was a bit surprised with this particular choice of terminology.
THAT said, I do think your premise is an interesting one about male appropriation of female writing techniques / tropes, and I'd be curious to see what other examples (if any) you have on this. This idea certainly raises some interesting questions about changing roles of men and women, masculinity and femininity in both comics and literature today.
And on a side note... I just can't get over the analogy he makes to Cowboys and Indians. I just can't help but shake my head every time I read that bit. He certainly isn't helping matters there... it just comes across as a little too cavalier.
 
 
Kristy Valenti (2 years ago)
 
In other words, Thompson and Brown spend a lot of time cartooning/catooning about penises. It is inherent in the work, and they've started the conversation about it.
 
 
Kristy Valenti (2 years ago)
 
I will never ask you to lighten up because we are talking about comics (especially because I'm not a literary critic, but comics critic who, admittedly, comes from lit background).
My point about the seriousness of these books had to do with 1. how they were packaged, presented, and promoted and 2. They ARE serious books, worthy of rereading and critical attention, and many informed critics have focused on many of the issues that Habibi raise. For example, the tcj.com roundtable I have linked to, Eddie Campbell, http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/2011/10/h-abibi-by-craig-thompson.html, Tasnim http://majjal.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/self-conscious-orientalism-in-craig-thompsons-graphic-novel-habibi/ are just a few of the critics who have tackled the book with very different approaches and perspectives. In fact, Matthias Wivel did an overview of critical responses, and that may help you find what you're looking for. http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/12/dwyck-open-sesame/
BECAUSE they are Serious Books (though not, perhaps, as serious as some of Brown's and Thompson's previous), they are ripe for many forms of approach and interpretation: the comics can support that. What interested me, personally, is what they have in common (something that I was not the only one to notice), how they connected to the cartoonists' previous works, and how they were engaging with ongoing multimedia conversations and genres. Plus, I just genuinely find these books a lot funnier than they've been presented.
As for the term "Dick Lit":
1. I am incapable of resisting a pun.
2. When I talk about "Chick Lit," I am referring to a specific genre of popular fiction written for women (by women) which I think ties together sex, consumerism and financial independence in a similar way as these graphic novels cartooned by men. I should have gotten more into it, but — in their own way — both works are about men who are dependent on women's financial support working to support women financially — that seems like a male version of the "chick lit" genre, which is about a woman "standing on her own two feet," to paraphrase wikipedia. "Chick Lit," in its own way, raised the question: how would relationships change if women only needed men for sex and love? I'm interested in "Dick Lit" because of how two cartoonists address this anxiety (who, fascinatingly, make an attempt at separating sex and love, but can't separate sex and cartooning).
Your phrasing "get carried away," incidentally, is the tagline for the first Sex and the City movie (which I think is best viewed as "a women's picture," right out of the 1930s, with a fashion show in the middle and everything. If you try to watch it any other way, it is terrible. The show is much better.) And in Habibi, people quite often literally get carried away! I'm not criticizing Thompson for getting carried away, necessarily, but I am pointing out that 1. he often does and 2. in some ways that are sometimes remarkably similar to the ways other genres get carried away, usually in works aimed at women, but instead cartooned by a man for other men (and women — just because something is targeted at a specific group, doesn't mean others can't appreciate it. I mean, a fella got me into the SATC TV show). Despite all of his ambition and beautiful art, there are places in Habibi where Thompson loses me right where other idioms lose me, too.
3. Basically I wanted to explore how specific works aimed at people with dicks (men) utilized strategies usually employed by in works aimed at women. I'm using "dick" more in that sense, rather than "jerk."
Also, I am pretty comfortable using the term "dick" when I'm talking about a comic in which there are a heck of a lot of voluntary eunuchs running around and women are often solely differentiated by stuff like cottage cheese thighs and small boobs.
 
 
fhelvie (2 years ago)
 
I won't argue with some of the writer's criticisms levied against Thompson's "Habibi" as it IS a problematic novel--with both pros and cons associated with it. It's important for us to move past our initial reading of a novel and begin to think critically about what the novel could be saying below a superficial level. However, what I find particularly difficult to overlook in this analysis is the rather offensive term "Dick Lit." I know that as a male, I would never refer to popular fiction written for women by the chauvinistic term "Chick Lit"--which, to be honest, seems to me to be less offensive if for no other reason than it doesn't boil the female gender down to it's sexual organ. I get it--we're talking comics here, and part of me says to lighten up. On the other hand, part of the criticism over "Habibi" lies with the problematic representations of other cultures and genders. If we're going to criticize one writer for getting carried away with his writing and artistry, then we need to avoid making use of pejorative terminology like "Dick "Lit" as well as "Chick Lit."
So, perhaps it's important for us as literary critics to demonstrate a similar concern, as we want to see from those whom we critique. Otherwise, we take some very sound arguments and analyses (as is offered here) and thoroughly undercut them through what might be perceived as hypocritical language (as demonstrated here).
 
 

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