The controversy over the book's 'orientalism' is certainly worth paying attention to. Obviously, Craig Thompson is an American depicting a vaguely Middle Eastern setting and culture, which will inevitably set alarm bells ringing. It doesn't help that the book features a sultan's harem, slavery, and the sexual abuse of children and women. The author certainly doesn't exhibit a sense of superiority. Neither is there a significant amount of 'othering' going on, at least on a conscious level (not like, say, Frank Herbert's concern over the hubris of 'Western man'). If anything, Habibi ends on a distinctly cosmopolitan note. I'm thinking particularly of the third and fourth panel on p.672, where the new family walk into and are lost in a crowd of people – out of the story and into our lives – Thompson is working under the assumption that the characters he is portraying ultimately share the same essence and worth as us, and that condescension or idolization are both to be avoided. The author's intentions are irreproachable in that respect.
If I have a problem with the book, it is with Thompson's predilection for over-explaining himself, brought out particularly in the eighth, image-less, chapter. His characters sometimes spend too much time telling the reader the precise reasons behind their emotions or actions. That said, Thompson's sense of precision is also one of the book's great strengths, in that it is put together with extreme care as a visual narrative. He employes a dazzling array of devices (repetitions, contrasts, symbols) in telling the story, to the extent where I get the impression the book could work as a pretty solid primer for the range of possibilities presented by the comics form. In that spirit, I'll note some of the effects I noticed in the first chapter below.
The first panel of a drop of ink is all meta, obv, but the idea as developed in the rest of the page is a bit more subtle than that. Sure, this is the creation of the story as well as the world, but the ink is also a river – a sustainer of life. The book will continue with these transitions between religious myths and lived experience. Indeed, one of its main themes will be the way such bedtime stories layer and make sense of our reality.
The page is divided into a nine-panel grid. Later on, Thompson will explicitly draw attention to the range of patterns that can be worked into these nine squares – the fact that they can be read vertically and diagonally as well as horizontally. This is also brought out on the first page. The middle panels make reference to the water / earth / fire / air idea which will be significant later. There is a certain male-female contrast between the left and right of the page. Finally, panels 3 and 9 foreshadow the very end of the book: where our heroes decide to go up the river, and where Dodola is freed from the predations of a patriarchal society.
On the next two pages there is a cross-page contrast between a hand holding money on the top left corner and a hand holding a pen on top right (which also recalls the very first panel). Dodola appears to be sold for water as well as money – the issue of control and exploitation of natural resources is something the book will continue to explore.
Page 12 is another nine-panel grid, with certain visual repetitions when read vertically. The final panel on that page ('So pure') is called back to on page 14 ('It proves that you were pure') – the veneration suggested by the act of washing the feet contrasted with the subjection of the veil. The image of the veil is carried on to the next page, where it symbolises people's separation from the divine essence – the separation of reality and storytelling. The implication being that writing can lift that veil.
The next couple of pages map out a progression from literacy to knowledge and corruption – an orthodox reading of the fall of man as a journey from the innocence of childhood to the experience of adulthood. Page 19 literally draws a religious frame around the events portrayed in page 22.
The 'River Map' of the chapter's title refers to the nine-square maths problem which stops the flooding in Dodola's story, but also serves as a metaphor for the imposition of order on an unpredictable world. Taking that a bit further in a meta direction, comics are also a way of imposing order on reality – magic charms that will protect us against devils and make us braver when faced with the unknown. The story will go on to explore other themes, and this first chapter almost serves as an introduction to the methodology Thompson will use to do so. For me, this internal logic makes it the strongest of the lot.