In my quest to eat up the best that the comics medium has to offer, I turned my hunger onto PERSEPOLIS, a two volume graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It's one of the latest admissions to comics canon, a modern critical darling, and was even most recently animated as a feature film. It's a memoir about her time during her time, first as a child and then as a teenager, during the Islamic revolution in Iran.
There is an issue in the non-fiction genre, particularly with memoirs, about whether the storytelling/craft of writing is actually good or if someone has just lived through, what my non-fiction professor called, "craaaazy shit." Because anyone can be (un)lucky enough to be born into an absurd, extreme situation (Augustin Burroughs), but not everyone can tell that story well. It is even rarer to find a writer who can make the mundane, ordinary life seem full of universal power.
I kept this in mind in trying to decide which side of the fence Satrapi fell on. While I'm not keen on being one of those reactionary douchebags that likes to hate things that are popular or critically acclaimed, there are some significant annoyances that hindered my enjoyment of the book. The big picture is this: Satrapi has had an interesting life, and tells it well enough. But giving it MAUS status as one of the must read graphic novels might be a little much. She might certainly have the potential to craft a masterpiece, but this seems only an indicator of her potential.
The art is the soul of the comic, and Satrapi uses a flat, stark black & white cartooning style that is passable in terms of ease of comprehension. I don't mind that it doesn't have a lot of flashiness to it; I am, in fact, a big fan of minimalist art styles. But it tends to be flat a lot in Satrapi's work. Too often are characters draped in pitch black forms, whether in Iran or Vienna, and they become difficult to distinguish especially since the writing context doesn't always help and characters will change hairstyles. While there's something to be said about difficulty vs. ease in comics, the way Chaucer is harder than Hemingway but both are good in different ways, this feels like the type of story that would benefit from ease.
The art is really at its worst in the first 30 or so pages of Volume I, when Satrapi goes into the long history of Iran, and not unnecessarily. Problem is, the book gets dull, flat and borderline unreadable. Not because history is boring, far from it. It just isn't presented by the art in any meaningful way. You see a guy on a horse facing other guys on a horse. You see a man with a crown. It is all iconography with no flow from the panel coupled with expository captions. Instead of reading scenes, we may as well be reading museum plaques. It reads like hieroglyphics, not comics.
It feels like a missed opportunity in that way. In what is already an emotionally wrenching and suspenseful tale, the use of the drama that only comics can bring, such as time manipulation and camera focus, would have made it tremendously richer. There are quiet moments in the story she tells, but you don't see them. You are told about them in panel captions as the character looks at the camera with one finger in the air and makes a declaration.
That is, by the way, the worst and most ham-fisted way of conveying what epiphany a character has come upon. Young and old Marjane literally put on finger in the air, "I have a proclamation!" style, and declare something. It happens several times. And that is bad comics.
Despite this, it is a truly interesting tale and time to live in. The oppression and fear become tangible and strong. There is an overbearing sense of dread through much of the book, and sometimes it feels like a series of close calls. Is this where she gets arrested? Is this when the bomb hits them? Is this when her parents are killed? She knows the close cuts in her story and knows when to play them up.
But the missed opportunity. Whereas something like Craig Thompson's BLANKETS is written with introversion and self exploration, Persepolis is written with general flatness. This is what happened and then this happened, and I thought this, and he said this. It is dry reportage, made digestible only because the events themselves are prepackaged with heavy meaning.
There are a few moments when the talent shines through and brightly. A few of the big panels where Satrapi takes advantage of the stark, patterned art, such as during crowd protests or a large explosion, really have great composition and would be worthy of framing. She also makes the wise choice of portraying a warts and all biography of herself, including some less than flattering moral moments. The flatness of the art and writing voice is saved by the likability and wholeness of the characters. Her grandmother is fierce, her parents handle their bind with equal parts bravery and fear, and Marjane herself is full of conflicts. If only they were more of a story and less of a report.
Persepolis is definitely worth reading, if you like history, or current events, or an eye into other worlds. As comic art, it gets a recommendation for its historical significance, as a milestone of what the medium can and has been used to portray. I don't know what Satrapi does from here. It will likely be something in the same vein, and if it is, I hope it displays an evolution. If the book got better as it went along, I'm hoping her climb continues and she can really put all the tools of comics art to work.