After seeing the trailer for the upcoming movie version of Persepolis over the holidays, I knew I had to read these graphic novels quickly, before the movie came out and could affect the voices of the characters in my mind as I read it. Using my newly renewed library card, I checked out both volumes and devoured them over the holiday weekend.
It’s the pictorial autobiography of the author, Marjane Satrapi, as a little girl, then a young woman, growing up during the fall of the Shah in Iran and the fundamentalist revolution that followed. After years of brutal war with Iraq and increasingly restrictive treatment of people who just wanted to have parties, listen to Iron Maiden cassettes, play chess, or even let a few wisps of hair hang out of their veil, her parents eventually send her abroad to relative safety and schooling in Vienna. There, she has a normal Western adolescence, hanging out with the cool outsider kids, doing too many drugs, and making some botched stabs at romance, all the while undergoing prejudice and shame for being where she is, knowing where she’s from.
I found it very moving, and very enlightening. She portrayed Iranians as primarily fun-loving, caring souls who lived radically different lives behind closed doors than they did in public. I can’t imagine what it would be like, living in a world where my friends and I wear punk rock clothes and have parties every night, yet could risk a savage beating just for wearing nail polish or walking down the street with a person of the opposite sex. The image we’ve gotten for years of these people, of Islamic fanatics who would burn the American flag and throw rocks at Jews, just doesn’t jibe with this first-hand account of someone who has lived through it all. And though it’s a story filled with lots of pain, the overall theme here is one of individualism shining through even the darkest repression.
As for the art–it kind of reflects that theme of dark repression by using blocky black, almost like wood-cut art, as the only hue and shading for the streets and buildings and clothes (especially the veiled women) of the people who inhabit her stories. Yet the shapes of her characters are decidedly light, even feminine in their countours. In many places in the first novel, what with its schoolgirls and rounded faces, it reminds me of what Madeleine might have looked like if illustrated by Der Brucke. And in the second novel, especially as Satrapi cultivates her own “lost weekend” in Europe, it reminds me a whole helluva lot of Joe Sacco’s depictions of European hipsters (and 80’s paisley underground garage rockes such as the Miracle Workers) in his early works.
So yeah, for the art, the story, and because we all need to remind ourselves why we should NOT declare war on Iran, please read these books.