Thursday, June 24, 2010


Graphic novels have gained a much more mainstream popularity lately, especially after some big ones (Watchmen, Sin City) were turned into movies. Graphic memoirs, though, are less common, even when they've also been adapted into successful films. Marjane Satrapi's memoir Persepolis: a story of childhood combines stark black-and-white drawings – arranged as comic panels – with conversational text: when the characters aren't speaking to each other, Satrapi speaks directly to the reader.

I first read Persepolis in a first-year university history class. I did not enjoy the course, but because it introduced me to Satrapi, I don't regret taking it. Satrapi is Iranian, and historically speaking, Persepolis is as much a personal history as it is a narrative take on how Iran has changed over the last 40-or-so years.

Satrapi was just a kid when the Islamic Revolution broke out, but because her parents were vehemently opposed to regime change that was taking place, her early teenage years were filled with history lessons and and anti-fundamentalist discussions. And those values and strong patriotism run deep in this portrait of a young girl in a changing Iran.

That angle, remembering how the Revolution interrupted her childhood, is one of the aspects of Persepolis (besides the graphics) that make it interesting to read. Besides being a generally entertaining story (there's conflict, coming-of-age, angst and other delightful memoir tropes), Satrapi's perspective is a fascinating one, in part because she was sent to school in France after the Islamic Revolution succeeded, which sealed her memories rather than letting them become clouded or confused by the ensuing social overhaul.

Her memories of being angry and confused by the introduction of the niqab and the ban on western culture come across as still raw, aided by the expressive drawings that illustrate a changing world more clearly than words could.

Satrapi's childhood is entwined with the Revolution and her ability to both describe things in very personal detail and also take a step back to give a more distanced viewpoint makes this a very compelling read. And, despite the heavy-ish nature of the subject matter, the graphic-nature of the memoir reminds you that some parts are funny; their simplicity work to both add lightness to the story and draw you into the truly devastating parts.

I always appreciate it when authors take a genre and then do something unexpected with it. Persepolis is such a success in this way that I'm almost surprised more authors/artists didn't try to follow in Satrapi's footsteps. But, if they were intimidated, I wouldn't be surprised. Satrapi is a literary triple-threat: writer, illustrator and historian. And she's got a sharp wit on top of all that, which adds a little edge to her memoir, keeping it fresh and relevant. Despite how often we seem to hear or read something about Iran, you're seriously missing out if you give Persepolis a pass.

Persepolis: a story of childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
First published in 2000 (cover image from Pantheon Books edition)

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