Comics of the Decade: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

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This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

By Julie Paludan-Müller

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of the most touching pieces of exile literature in recent memory, and a comic — as the French newspaper Libération has put it — so convincing that even the harshest sceptics of the genre cannot help but be seduced. It is a four-volume autobiography, telling the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran and, later, her life as a teenager and immigrant in Europe. In the fourth and final volume, she describes her tentative attempt to return to Islamic Iran in the beginning of the 90s.

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Marjane Satrapi, whose character in the book is nicknamed “Marji”, has organised each volume as a collection of short stories, each of which work on several different thematic levels: while Marji attends her first youth party, wearing a torn sweater and a homemade necklace of nails (“it was the period of punk”), other youngsters sign up for service in the army — and certain death — beckoned by the plastic keys to the gates of Heaven distributed in the country’s schools. She recalls the scent of her grandmother with the same vividness as horrifying accounts of torture carried out in the prisons of Tehran, and as an exile in Austria, her Heidi romances clash with a certain president named Kurt Waldheim.

Satrapi’s striking minimalist cartooning manages to encompass these extremes, resulting in a both harsh and moving story, while her wry sense of absurdity makes it consistently funny. Persepolis is drawn in black and white with a 70s-style naivité (think woodcut activist art and David B.). Its awkward simplicity makes it remarkably expressive and works especially well with the “childish” point of view of the first two volumes, in which Marji is 6 and 13 years old, respectively.

Marjane Satrapi grows up as an only child in a well-to-do Tehran family at a time when even an 8-year-old is confronted daily with political realities and issues of religion and social injustice. Let us briefly recap some Iranian history: in 1979 the Shah was overthrown in a revolution, in which Satrapi’s intellectual, socialist parents participated actively, but which quickly became known as “the Islamic revolution.” With Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power, Iran saw the replacement of one dictator with another who was at least as brutal. A year after the revolution the war between Iran and Iraq started and would last for the next 8 years.

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This painful, large-scale history is told from the point of view if a young child, with a mixture of naivité and acute insight, while equal attention is devoted to the smaller, personal stories of her life. The poetry and humour of Persepolis arises from this dialectic, which also ensures its never becoming maudlin or didactic. We see the 6-year old Marji dreaming about becoming a prophet, because her grandmother has chronic pain in her knee and because the family’s maid is not allowed a seat at the table. Her childish innocence, however, is threatened by the violence and oppression reigning beyond the safe confines of her home, and intrudes painfully when her favourite uncle is executed by the Islamists on false charges of espionage. In the first two volumes we witness her development from small child to wise beyond her years; she reads Marx in comics form and has long night-time conversations with God. She grows into teenagehood, wearing Nike trainers under her chador and rebelling against any authority — her parents, her teachers, the regime.

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During the Iran-Iraq war, Marji’s parents decide to send her abroad. In addition to wishing to protect her from the danger posed by the SCUD missiles that periodically fall on Tehran, they fear that her strong sense of fairness and general cockiness might land her in trouble with the authorities. Moreover, the general curtailment of educational possibilities — notably the closure of universities — diminish her generation’s hopes for a decent future.

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The third volume tells the story of how Marjane Satrapi becomes an exile in Vienna at the age of 14. After the initial euphoria over being able to shop to her heart’s content at Aldi (in Tehran the war has meant rationing) has subsided, however, she is faced increasingly by crippling loneliness. The transition from traditional Middle-Eastern culture to Western society is a shock that she has to handle on her own. How, for example, would she be able to tell her otherwise progressive parents that she has seen her friend’s boyfriend “Wolfie” in nothing but his undies? Marji tries a number of different strategies in managing her life as an immigrant: lying about her identity and emphasising her status as an outsider by hanging out with a bunch of pseudo-intellectual “anarchists” (who are interested because of her proximity to the realities of WAR and DEATH); constantly getting high and making a living as the school drug dealer. And she of course yearns for love as much as the next adolescent, which results in a catastrophic relationship that lands her in street where she spends an icy winter. One day she collapses and is miraculously helped to the hospital and eventually to a flight back to Tehran.

Thus Persepolis increasingly becomes a story of being trapped between two cultures. In the fourth and final volume the impossibility of this situation becomes clear. It is an account of reverse integration, in which we follow Marji’s efforts to re-assimilate herself to Iranian society. In post-war Tehran, every third street has been renamed after a fallen martyr, childhood friends are now crippled veterans, and even her once so cool parents are seized by a previously unthinkable despair. Marji herself is plagued by guilt over not having been there during the hard years of the war, as well as by the trauma of her experiences in Vienna, about which she meets little understanding from her peers. Her old girlfriends, for example, have apparently become as shallow and judgemental as the dictatorship under which they live. They wear lip-liner and hair gloss under their veils, imitating American TV stars, but are entirely subject to the sexist norms propagated by the societal order. This becomes evident when they ask Marji whether she is still a virgin. When she replies in the negative, their reaction is prompt: “then what makes you different from a whore???”

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A depression almost kills Marji, but as the reader may already have gathered, the strong and charismatic heroine of Persepolis is apparently nigh invincible. She acquires a boyfriend (in secret, naturally), as well as a job as an aerobics instructor (!), and reapplies the strategy of adapting to local conditions. She realises that young people capable of independent thought are still to be found when she commences her studies at Tehran’s Academy of Fine Arts. She falls in with a group of students with whom she can talk and draw and freely share experiences of living in a society so absurd that the students are prohibited from looking at the fully-dressed models in their live drawing classes. But despite this newfound intellectual community and her family’s support, it turns out to be impossible for her to escape the norms imposed by the official order — is marriage not preferable to living in constant fear of being arrested for walking next to one’s boyfriend in the street?

Marji has to go through a whole lot more before Persepolis leaves her in the Tehran, about to board a flight for France. For her, a final goodbye to her life in Iran, for the reader — presumably — to the luminous protagonist of a comic that remains inspirational to the last.

In the spring of 2003 the first and second volumes of Persepolis were released in the USA and the UK. The timing was perfect: it is the story a tough little girl growing up in the country most immediately neighbouring Iraq, which also touches upon the dubious part played historically by the US in the Middle East. Marketed there as a “graphic novel”, the book was met with glowing reviews and achieved redoubtable commercial success.

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Volumes three and four are less explicitly political or historical and more personal. The rendering is more mature, the portraits more detailed and realistic. One might catch oneself missing the childish imagination that drove the first half of the story so compellingly, but this would have more to do with nostalgia for the cheeky little Marji than any shortcomings of the second half. The book grows along with Marji and turns into an acutely topical story of integration and finding one’s place between two cultures. The airport is a recurrent motif in the book, and a real-life airport anecdote from Satrapi’s post-Persepolis life serves as a poignant reminder of the continued urgency of her story: upon arrival to the US on her spring book tour she was withheld at the airport. Her Iranian passport was scrutinised for an hour-and-a-half by suspicious immigration officers, and despite having valid visa and an invitation from her American publisher, this representative of the “Axis of Evil” was fingerprinted, mugshot, and asked to declare solemnly that she possessed no ill intent, before she and Persepolis were admitted into the country.

Published in 2003 on the Rackham website. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory. Read also our review of the Persepolis movie (2008).

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