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Comics as cultural bridge – Persepolis

October 3, 2013

persepolis

That Barack Obama yapped via telephone with Iran’s prez last week was a notable moment. The first time a U.S. President had spoken to an Iranian counterpart since the Shah’s flight and the rise of the Islamic state, it was a potential starting point for improved relations between countries that have for a long time regarded each other respectively as part of he Axis of Evil and the Great Satan. Maybe this will be the beginning of a fresh start. Maybe not. Probably not.

One thing that always gets lost in headlines and evening news blurbs is that the denizens of hostile countries generally have no beef with each other. People are people, struggling to get through life in spite of the dumbbells who wind up guiding their fates. Sometimes we all need a gentle reminder of what lies on the other side of the wall, of who dwells behind the soldiers and their fixed bayonets. Art is always there to fill that need, to enter that breach. Ten years ago Persepolis was just such a bridge between Iran and the West.  

Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical tome remains a you-can’t-put-it-down read. Originally published in France, it was translated for American audiences and condensed (in terms of books, no content was lost) into two volumes in 2003, and it instantly drew the same level of critical acclaim it had earned in its original language. Deservedly so. Persepolis follows Satrapi and her family through the upheaval that drove the Shah into exile (and deftly gives a primer on his rule), before then shifting to the after-effects of the Islamic takeover, as well-intentioned leftists saw their hopes dashed in authoritarianism and headscarves. Along the way we see just how effective the comic book medium can be for a meditative, piercing look at the foibles and tragedies of life.

The style of the art is the black and white staple of independent comics, the sort of minimalist figures and backgrounds you find in strips at the back of underground newspapers. Satrapi’s great triumph is the amount of emotion and depth she infuses in the faces and backdrops. She says much by saying little. Persepolis flows with such ease, it never once becomes mired in the occasionally dark subject matter. In this way it’s much like a fellow black and white classic, Maus (though without that book’s degree of slaughter, or its anthropomorphic conceit) — and one hopefully sees the irony in this comparison. And, if we go far afield with the black and white analogies, it certainly doesn’t have to hang its head around From Hell, a book this site has labeled the greatest comic book story ever forged. (Though, as seen in the comments on that post, some think FH isn’t as good as The Shaggy Dog).

The Satrapi’s aren’t mere bystanders in Iran’s tumult. Descendants of the ruling regime deposed when the Shah took power, they’re committed leftists, willing to join in street protests and shelter dissident friends just released from prison. Marjane grows up in this open, permissive, and loving milieu, developing her moral worldview along the way. She communes with her God (she amusingly notes that he looks like Marx, though Marx’s beard is curlier), and has her own personal rebellions as the outside world swirls about. The Shah goes, but then the clerics take over, proving once more that the void following revolution is a most dangerous time. Headscarves become mandatory, universities are closed to scrub them of Western decadence, ties and short sleeves are banned for men, and the eventual war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq only provides an opportunity for further repression. All the while Marjane is there to document it in her own irrepressible way — even when forced mourning makes schoolchildren cogs in the state machine:

persepolisa

The soul of the story is its pithy humor, which helps the narrator and the readers whistle past the graveyard. Take this page, which comes during a clandestine party conducted by members of Marajane’s family, one that’s interrupted by an Iraqi air raid:

persepolisb

The humor isn’t always of the dark brand. The lighthearted high point comes when Marjane’s parents travel on vacation to Turkey. Being a child just as crazy about the pop icons of the 1980s as any kid from the American suburbs, she has a few requests for what they can bring back from the more open Turkish markets: a denim jacket and two posters, one of Iron Maiden, one of Kim Wilde. These items are duly purchased, as well as a Michael Jackson button and two pairs of sneakers, but the problem comes in deciding how to smuggle them back home, the posters especially. The posters they can’t just carry through customs, and they can’t fold them up to hide them in their suitcases, as the resulting creases would ruin them — and they don’t want to disappoint their daughter. So Marjane’s mother comes up with her own ingenious solution:

persepolisc

Now that’s funny no matter where you’re from. And, more importantly, the ruse works.

If there’s one fault with Persepolis, it’s that certain things are glossed over in the understandable tunnel vision on our narrator. For example: Early on in the first volume we meet Mehri, the Satrapis’ live-in maid, who came to live with them when she was just a little girl, and became a nanny to newborn Marjane when she herself was only ten. She’s sweet but not too bright, and her developing a schoolgirl crush on a boy next door becomes illustrative of the class distinctions still present even among enlightened Iranians. We only see her in this brief vignette and one short coda, and then she’s gone. She’s never mentioned before, and never seen afterwards. In the unrelenting focus on Marjane’s home and family life, this omission feels odd, and the reader wants to know more about this relationship, the dynamics of raising a child while at the same time employing her, a girl who grows up with a family that isn’t hers. It’s unfair to call Marjane’s work self-centered — what else is autobiography? — but simple Mehri’s story seems like it would be of interest, perhaps just as much as her bright charge’s, the one who got to go to Europe for her education. Alas.

Both of the American volumes are good, but the second, with its focus on Marjane’s education and maturation in Europe, loses some of the steam of the first. It’s that half that hooks you, with its youthful exuberance, perspective and sense of discovery. Persepolis was also adapted into a film by the same name, which drew the same degree of praise in the movie world. It made the obvious and wise decision to mimic to a tee the visual style of the book, with the omnipresent deep black shadows working just as well in motion as they do when still. No comic movie has been such a sparkling illustration of Neil Gaiman’s old maxim, that the success of an adaptation for a successful comic book property is directly related to how closely it adheres to the source material. (Satrapi was credited as a co-director.) The film flows beautifully, much like the book. Either one is a fine draught for any in the West open to seeing how people in Iran muddle through the same exact way as we do, if with different and more deadly challenges.

And one trusts books like this to bridge a gap more than chatting heads of state.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2013 12:47 am

    I’ve only seen the movie version of this, but I’ve always wanted to read the graphic novel. Thanks for reminding me!

  2. Edo Bosnar permalink
    October 4, 2013 7:06 am

    Excellent review. I totally agree that it’s works like this that help bridge cultural divides. But in that regard it seems to me that the only shortcoming of Persepolis (and pretty much everything else Satrapi has done) derives from its fundamental strength: there is no better format in which the story in Persepolis can be told other than as graphic novel and/or animated feature, but that fact alone – despite all of the praise heaped upon it – keeps it from getting even more widespread attention, which it so richly deserves. Too bad, because Persepolis is simply something that everyone should read.

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