An Opinionated Examination of What Worked and Did Not Work in The Complete Persepolis
Going to be taking a little bit of a left turn here and look at a book that has been on my mind of late. I read this for school, and having written the paper for it, I figured I’d spruce it up and make it into a regular review (because there’s just so much that I have to say about this book; it’s crazy). So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Out of all the books I have ever read over the course of my career as an English or History student, none have come close to the level of mixed feelings I have for this book. There are books that I’ve read for school that I have absolutely loved, such as The Things They Carried, and then there are those that I have absolutely hated, like Grendel or The Mists of Avalon. But Persepolis has the unique honor of doing so many things right and enough things wrong to make it a rather bland experience for me. On the one hand, I love the book because it illustrates a child’s need to understand things perfectly, it pulls us through the life of this woman who starts out as such a naive young girl, and comes out in the end kind of still being the same person, but with an understanding of herself and what she wants out of life. It’s very real and very human, and as well it should be; this is a biography after all.
On the other hand, I do not like this book. It’s not the story that bothers me, nor the characters (however two-dimensional they may be at times). It’s not the plot, as that remains strong and as I said, human. No, it’s the approach that this book took in telling its story, because this is two things: this is a graphic novel and an autobiography. The autobiography portion of this is strong, however it falls short in that it has instead been reduced to a mere shadow of what this amazing text could be on its own because it struggles so vehemently against the art which plagues it. I think Persepolis should be considered a novel first, and a graphic novel second, because the images are secondary to the plot and characters of the book.
The art of comic books is a key ingredient in their makeup. Without that, you just have a book with a bunch of dialogue and minimal, if any, descriptions of setting, expression, people’s features, etc. Art is huge, and what graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and V For Vendetta do so well is use imagery not just to show us setting, features, or mood through color, but also to convey their ideas, themes, and arguments. With V for Vendetta, the entire book is peppered with red to represent the corrupt regime of England, black and white to represent V himself, the blues and sad colors to represent Evey and her state of torment and misery, until the end when the colors turn to black and white… yet the hero’s colors show in the end that he has fallen. It conveys so much through imagery and it does so beautifully.
Persepolis is made out in black and white throughout. This is not a slight against the work or the choice to use black and white symbolically within the medium; indeed, Maus did the same thing. However, the two books differ in one simple area: Maus had meaningful imagery embedded within the text and Persepolis, most of the time, does not. The choice to portray everyone as animals within Maus, the use of alien backgrounds, the texture of the images and the subtlety of racism and technology made the flavor of the story come through beautifully. In Persepolis, the images are mostly there to move the plot along. Now, there are some images that stand out and do enhance the story: Satrapi’s discussions with God and the use of fire (77, 79) (among other places) do provide visual appeal along with text-based meaning. But this is often the exception rather than the rule. Satrapi the author calls herself a cartoonist, yet leaves so much to be desired by her one-dimensional and often meaningless art accompanying the oh-so-rich text.
Satrapi gave a speech called Persepolis: A State of Mind in which she detailed what she was trying to do with her work, and this presents a good counterpoint to what I’m arguing. Persepolis wasn’t a graphic novel to Satrapi; this was a cartoon. “I didn’t want to make any artistic work that would only be conceivable by the elite,” she said. “I wanted people to have access to it. I thought I could make it work with degrees of knowledge; they would have different layers of understanding. It needed to be understandable to everybody” (Satrapi, “State” 44). Here, Satrapi says that her overall goal with this was to make Western culture aware of Iran and Iranian culture, and that her best medium for that in her view was through pictures, as this allowed her to express her ideas in both the written word and in visual form so as to make it more accessible to the average Western audience.
Now, those are admirable goals. Iran does need to be better understood. It is not just a broken war-ridden, savage Middle Eastern country; it’s a place where people are able to live and thrive and commute and have families, just as any Western state is able to do. Visuals are a great tool to express the full spectrum of Iran and the culture therein. Satrapi makes the point that she wanted to explore where she came from in her book (46), that a “question that any normal person needs one word to answer required a 45 minute explanation for me” (46).
Exploring who a person is through the use of visuals can be very powerful, and use of imagery to express oneself is nothing new to history. However, where Persepolis falls short is that its visuals don’t express anything that the text doesn’t. Iranian culture is expressed perfectly well within the confines of the text, the daily life of Satrapi is well-represented with the text, and the situations that the characters find themselves in within the story function fine as text-based plot-points.
For example, the beginning of “The Sheep” (Satrapi, Complete 62), is all about how Satrapi is attempting to wrestle with concepts that she doesn’t understand, or that her parents and elders dismiss her of being able to understand such complex issues. The first page of this chapter is great because it looks at how adults treat children when they attempt to join in on complex issues that most of the time the adults themselves don’t fully understand. The final two panels on this page illustrate this beautifully: “Do you hear that, Anoosh?” asks Satrapi’s father. “Do you realize how ignorant our people are? The elections were faked and they believe the results: 99.9%?! As for me, I don’t know a single person who voted for the Islamic republic. Where did that figure come from? From their asses, that’s where!” Satrapi replies, “But it’s not my fault! It’s the TV! Boo-hoo!!!” Anoosh is more sympathetic to Satrapi’s cause: “Calm down Ebi. She’s just a child who repeats what she hears!” (62).
Now, how much of this would be lost if we were to translate this conversation onto paper? As I hope the above excerpt made clear in this very essay, nothing would be lost here. Do you lose anything from not having the image there along with that quote? No. Why? Because the images associated with it are superfluous. The most eventful thing happening in those panels is Satrapi crying, which itself is already stated by her “Boo-hoo!!!” statement. Satrapi’s claim from above about wanting her readers to get multiple tiers of ideas falls short because her ideas are all conveyed through the text alone; the visuals neither add nor detract from any of the information given, be it facts or thought provoking arguments.
I found myself reading this as though it were a book, not really looking at the pictures, and every so often, I would glance down at the panel in question, and I would see that, yes, just as the text above describes, Satrapi is in school… but nothing else about the image enhanced what the text had not already told me. In fact, the image associated with the text may have decreased the meaning of the text to me. All I was seeing was a simple action being executed, where the text had me thinking about the implications of an idea the text may have conveyed, that the image swallowed up and replaced with simple, cookie-cutter actions to demonstrate the merest sprinkle of what the text is getting at.
This is why I think Persepolis should be considered a book first, and a graphic novel second. The text of the book functions on its own, and the images add very little to what they are trying to convey. Other graphic novels do this too; I’m just saying that graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns use their images in meaningful and powerful ways that enhance the story, while Persepolis uses them almost as wallpaper material.
However, my criticism of the book stops here. There is such a layer of humanity in the text of this that it just had me turning the pages to the end! The amount of relatable material in a book about a conflict that is most likely foreign to us, the amount of sympathy we have for this girl who is from a culture that we don’t understand is astounding to me. Seeing her go through childhood with this upbeat attitude yet understanding that everything is not right with her world is handled beautifully and Satrapi’s vision of showing that Iran is more than backwater anarchy translates well.
Satrapi as a child is really fun, cute, and has you on the edge of your seat. Her innocence of knowing what is going on, and her naivety of events yet her need to participate in them regardless of the circumstances, is great to see. We’ve all been there. We have all thought we had a complex situation figured out and we have all wanted to participate in whatever was going on concerning that situation. In fact, the book takes a unique spin on this and involves an out-of-touch and childlike adult in the mix in the form of the maid (38-39).
The idea that protesting is good because not protesting means that you are somehow elitist or cruel is captured brilliantly in Satrapi convincing her maid to go with her to a protest… to be in the protest. It doesn’t matter to her what they’re protesting; they’re protesting something that must be evil, and thus Satrapi must participate. It’s that idea of a kid turning complex issues into black and white situations that this book does so well, because we all do this when we’re young. The notion that Satrapi needs to understand what the world is offering to her is told well in the book. Her parents are little help in the matter of understanding, preferring to steer her in a direction of conforming to the norm rather than allowing her to branch out and explore the world around her (46).
At home, we see Satrapi learning from not learning. She’s told something important, and she thinks she understands it, but she doesn’t. Her mother tells her that “Anyway, it is not for you and me to do justice. I’d even say we have to learn to forgive” (46). And what does Satrapi do with this information and philosophy now engrained in her mind? She marches right up to the person whom she bullied before and the two share the following exchange: “‘Your father is a murderer, but it’s not your fault, so I forgive you.’ ‘He is not a murderer! He killed communists and communists are evil’” (46). Here we have an example of paradoxical execution of what to say and do about the knowledge given to a child, as when Satrapi relays the above to her mother, her mother says that he is just repeating what he’s been told… yet Satrapi did this exact thing too! It’s her naivety that is crucial to understand here. This repetition of what one is told is a great way to convey the ignorance of a child, yet the heretical teachings of parenting. It’s summed up quite well in the last panel of the chapter: “‘You have to forgive. You have to forgive.’ I had the feeling of being someone really, really good” (46).
That last line of the chapter, of being someone good, of having moral integrity while still trying to uphold what is believed to be the good of the country while knowing deep down that something is amiss with the structure of such a system, that is a great thematic struggle, and is to me the main focus of the first half of the book. Being good, yet not understanding why you’re being good, and not understanding why everyone else is only “kind of” good, when you’re out there being good because you’re told to do so is a very relatable topic. Satrapi in the story is independent and smart, but she’s also a child, and as such, she’s prone to her own weaknesses that come with that, here in the form of hollow repetition of phrases.
Persepolis is an excellent character and sociological study of duty, patriotism, and that maturity into adulthood. At its strongest, it is an exploration of ignorance of what is going on around you, and how that can sometimes be a good thing. At its weakest, however, it plods along. Graphic novels rely heavily upon their art to convey information that a small box of text cannot convey, but Persepolis seems to have missed that fact entirely, preferring to pad itself out with shots of mundane activity throughout 90 percent of the novel. The book has so much potential to be more than what it is now, and I think Satrapi really failed in her endeavor to make this meaningful on both the textual and visual tiers, as the images are this works’ weakest point. It succeeds in concept of ideas, but drops the ball when it comes to the execution of its imagery.