This is a beautiful book and an ugly book, deliberately. It is a book written by someone brought up Christian but set in a Muslim world (I don't say that casually -- the entire perspective is thoroughly through the Qur'an, and the seamlessness with which he presents it is one of the author's greatest accomplishments). It is a book with lovingly detailed drawings of piles of trash, a book that shows an all-powerful sultanate state from 1000 years ago with motorcycles beside camels (and the best depiction of cholera in comics I've ever seen).
To let you know what book I'm talking about, it's titled Habibi and it's by Craig Thompson, whose last major work was the similarly long (~700 pages) Blankets in 2003. Technically it's far superior to Blankets, but ... I can't help but like Blankets better. Blankets is the one I want to read again and give to others. For all the amazing integration of Islamic art and theology, for all the intricate numbers echoing through the plot and artwork, doing things I've never seen a graphic novel do, no, not even one by Alan Moore -- like most of Alan Moore's work, Habibi seems to be missing its heart. Which is really hard for me to say, this book is such a technical achievement. Upon reaching the summit I just felt cold.
Maybe it's the nagging feeling that, for all the emphasis on the stories of the Qur'an, you don't get the feeling that any of the characters really believes the stories or what they represent. Even motherhood is trumped by circumstance, which is completely unrealistic to me on a character level. Ultimately it's a cold universe without belief, in which power is really what rules, and only the most extreme coincidences allow love to live. That's too harsh, and I recognize it as I type it, because love does find a way to live in a surprising way (avoiding spoilers!) -- but what's a review without an honest reaction? I like it, I don't love it. I honestly wish I did.
The bottom line is that I picked up several copies of Blankets at the Library Book Sale just so I'd have a few to hand out to friends. But this one, if I see the beautiful hardcover edition I'll probably pick it up, but it'll be partly for collection, and partly to go through and see details like how each "number" recurs through the very plot of the chapter. In other words, don't expect one from me for Christmas. Which is really too bad, and it's ultimately just one person's personal reaction. If you liked Blankets it's worth a try because Habibi may be technically the best and biggest graphic novel I've ever seen. I know I'm not making sense, but I don't have to. It's my blog after all!