Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts - Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Writer/Artist: Marjane Satrapi
Translation by L'Association, Paris, France
Jacket and Binding Design: Jean-Christophe Menu
Publisher: Pantheon Books

Here's what I thought...

Warning: May Be Spoilers Ahead

Autobiographical comics are often a tricky proposition. I think you really need three things to do them successfully - an interesting life or point of view in the first place (or at least one interesting enough to hook a significant number of readers); an accessible, welcoming art style; and the wisdom to know where the dividing line is between bringing readers into your world and just being self-indulgent. Satrapi has all three of these ingredients, in spades.

Satrapi is described on the book jacket as "The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors." How much more singular can a voice get? You have your exotic land, royalty, social revolution, the gender divide - Satrapi's story is the kind that can draw in everyone from fantasists to feminists to political activists. And it's the best true coming-of-age tale I've ever read. For instance, she writes of and illustrates her childhood ambition, "I wanted to be a prophet... because our maid did not eat with us. Because my father had a Cadillac. And, above all, because my grandmother's knees always ached," where the last of these three panels features Marjane's grandmother on a bench saying "Come here Marji! Help me to stand up," as the child complies thinking "Don't worry. Soon you won't have any more pain. You'll see." (This panel is also a fine refutation of the current received "wisdom" that thought balloons are somehow evil or too hokey, rather than just another tool in the comic creator's arsenal that can either be used deftly or clumsily depending on that creator's skill.)

The whole book has such little moments interspersed with country-altering (and indeed world-changing) events, told in a simple style, cartoony but not exaggeratedly so. Satrapi's command of body language and facial expressions is clear and perceptive. She's not drawing to show off, she doesn't over-render into oblivion - she's just engrossing the reader in her story. Satrapi notes, "I think the pictures, they say always more than the words can say. Also, in pictures, they help me to have the distance without becoming cynical, and be able to describe a part of the story with humor -- which I couldn't do otherwise." In a way it's kind of like Anne Frank's diary if she would have lived and escaped the Nazis. Because, as harrowing as the Islamic revolution was for many in Iran (particularly educated women who were relatively secular in their everyday practices), Marjane's family had the means and the sense to get their daughter to safety in Vienna once the warning signs became too numerous to ignore.

My one frustration with the book is that it ends just as she and her parents separate, and I was so enthralled and rooting for her so much that I wanted to see more closure, and was hoping for something akin to a happy ending. But Satrapi plans to release her autobiography as a series of four graphic novels, of which this is the first. I can't wait to read about the "vagrant life" she led in Vienna, her move to Sweden, her marriage and divorce and life in France, and above all whether the rest of her family is okay. In the meantime, this book can stand its own with some of the best true-life graphic novels ever published, and I give it my highest recommendation.

So, what did y'all think?