As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.
Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.
Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.
But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.
Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.
The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.
Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.
In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.
But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.
The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.
The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.
The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.
The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.
The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?
(Originally posted January 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.