Book Review – Persepolis
In the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the reader follows the author through an autobiographical look at her own life, though interestingly, this is done through the use of the comic book format. Growing up in Iran, Satrapi had to remain innocent and dignified, despite the horrors that were happening around her. Due to the enigmatic, strange, quirky and often outrageous directions her life had taken her, Satrapi decided to use the comic book format in order to tell her childhood story. This lent it a heightened, visually intriguing spin that turned the horrific and out-of-control world of her childhood into something much more palatable. Instead of thinking of this piece as somehow ‘better’ than a comic book, however, it merely shines as a wonderful example of what a comic book (and a memoir) can be.
The black-and-white nature of the drawings helps to outline the stark and often depressing nature of growing up in Iran. In her childhood, she never had a lot, and neither did anything else. The world was black-and-white, and the aesthetic decided on by Satrapi helped to emphasize that. This was also meant to symbolize the simpler times of being a child, which the lack of color helped with – it helped to create a bit of distance between Satrapi and the reader, as well as offer a more sympathetic eye, due to the appealingly cute drawings of Satrapi and the other characters.
The drawings provide a sense of relatability to the story – the plot and characters are very simply conveyed, without being bogged down in overly descriptive language that fails to provide an accurate visual portrait of what the author is describing. The comic book panel shortcuts that by offering a snapshot of the visual image Satrapi wants to portray. Instead of giving a long paragraph about her mother chiding her for not being forgiving enough, you can see the expression of shame on Satrapi’s face when she realizes how ashamed she was of how she treated the children of members of the secret service.
The visual elements of the comic book make this particular memoir come alive in a way that traditional autobiographies cannot. When you see the comic book panels of beatings and the like, these incredible sights are presented as Satrapi remembers them, allowing for a much clearer picture of the author’s intention. When reading a memoir, one uses their imagination to create a scenario in their mind. While this is encouraged for fiction, memoirs have the difficulty of conveying the real situation to a reader. The comic book format found in Persepolis permits Satrapi to provide her own perspective of what she saw, while still leaving incredible license through the comic book panels to dramatize and change it.
Compared to other comic books, Persepolis is certainly in the upper echelon in terms of storytelling, artwork, and depth of character. This is not to say that other comic books are not capable of this level of sophistication – stories like Watchmen, Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead and others are all celebrated works of fiction in their own right. While there is the stigma that all comic books are sophisticated superhero fiction, graphic novels like Persepolis prove that a normal, everyday story can be enhanced by the comic book medium (Root, 2007).
If I were to place this book in a bookstore, it would be difficult to find a place for this book. It is at once a memoir and a comic book, though less so an account of current events. While it does have those elements (the wars in Iran, etc.), the story is much more personal, and somewhat less entrenched in the overall politics of the place than most. I would still likely put it in a comic book section, though it equally belongs in memoirs; in a way, it is a memoir merely told in a different medium, and different audiences would look in different sections to find Persepolis.
In conclusion, Persepolis is an incredibly interesting, vibrant and whimsical view of a young girl growing up amid tremendous political conflict and a conservative society struggling against the liberal tendencies of its youth. The fact that it is told in a graphic novel style helps to establish a very clear visual and atmospheric mood for the reader, allowing them to engage more fully with the character of Satrapi and all that she experiences around her.
Root, Robert. Interview with Marjane Satrapi. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 2007, pp. 147-157. Print.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.