Marjane Satrapi – new literary phenomenon in comics by Igor Prassel

"I cannot praise enough Marjane Satrapi's moving account of growing up as a spirited young girl in revolutionary and war-time Iran. Persepolis is disarming and often humorous but ultimately it is shattering."

Joe Sacco, author of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde


Over the last ten years the international comic strip scene has undergone a real rebirth. In the wake of Art Spiegelman and his masterpiece Maus, a comic strip story about the life of his father, a Polish Jew who survived deportation to Auschwitz, a group of authors from different parts of the world continues to present autobiographical stories in comic strip form. With his comic strip reportage in the books Palestine and Goradze, Joe Sacco, of Maltese origin, has demonstrated that the comic can also be used as a journalistic medium and the Canadian Julie Doucet has made us grieve with the stories of her comic strip diary. The Swedes, Max Andersson and Lars Sjunesson, have mixed surrealist fiction with true life in their travelogues through the Balkans, the Croatian Helena Klakocar has given us a splendid account taken from a travelogue with her family in the Adriatic Sea at the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia and finally, a group French authors - Joelle Manix, Matt Konture, Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, David B and Marjane Satrapi – have understood that the comic strip as a medium does not have to be limited only to fiction.

Marjane Satrapi chose the right moment to appear on the international scene of new comics with Persepolis, her comic strip debut in autobiographical form, which is also the first Iranian comic book (even if the first edition was published in French by the French publishers of Paris L’Association). There are many important artists in Iran in the fields of literature, cinema and caricature, but comics do not exist there and so Marjane Satrapi, influenced by the French Bande Dessinée has filled the semantic vacuum. At the beginning of her career in drawing, Marjane, who studied Fine Arts in Tehran and Art in Strasbourg, was influenced by the American graphic artist Milton Glaser and wanted to become a famous graphic designer. Her first successes came with children’s books. The decisive turning point in the life of Marjane Satrapi came when she moved to Paris where she met a group of young French artists - Joann Sfar, Émile Bravo, Christophe Blain, David B. and Emmanuel Guibert – who published comics for a living. These young men invited her to share their studio (workshop ‘des Vosges’) and in particular David B., who with his Cronaca del Grande Male, an intense autobiographical account of epilepsy experienced by his brother Jean-Christophe, opened Marjane’s eyes and encouraged her to express her story in comic strip form. During the process of writing and drawing the story Marjane relieved a great frustration: “… Since I moved to France in 1994, I have always told my friends stories about life in Iran. When they show news on Iran on television I am always furious because what they show is not representative of my experience. For almost twenty years I have had to explain why being Iranian is not a bad thing…”, and then from the introduction to her book published in the United States: "The Shah stayed on the throne until 1979, the year he fled Iran to escape the revolution. Since then, this old and great civilization has been mentioned mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know this image to be far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis seemed of such major importance to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also didn't want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under repressive regimes, or who were forced to flee their families and homeland to be forgotten. One can forgive but one should never forget." The first volume of Persepolis, which came out in France in 2000 with a historical introduction by David B., became a great success immediately. It tells the history of Iran as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl who lived in great expectation through the Islamic Cultural Revolution of 1979. I had the good fortune of meeting Marjane in 2001 on the stage of the theatre of Angoulême at the award ceremony (with Stripburger we received the prize for the best self-produced comic and Marjane won the Alph-Art “coup de cœur”, prize for the first work) and I knew immediately that she was an intelligent warm person and, without becoming immodest, would go a long way in the world of comics. The jury was particularly impressed by the correctness of tone and the authenticity of the sentiments contained in the Persepolis album. The sobriety of the black and white drawing reflects childlike sensibilities and brings out the imaginary that triumphs in the tragic fall of Iranian society under the dictatorship. Going beyond the historical context, it presents universal aspects. In the same year Persepolis I was awarded the Golden Lion prize by the Comic Strip Centre of Brussels. The second volume brought her the prize for the best scene sequences at the Angoulême 2002 festival. It is not only the awards that testify to the work of Marjane Satrapi however. The third and fourth parts of Persepolis were published in a series in the important French daily newspaper Libération and the important American publishers, Pantheon Books, has published Persepolis 1 and 2 in English in hard cover format. Another source of satisfaction for the author is meeting her public, not a typical public of avid comic readers, but an indistinct public that prefers ‘serious’ reading material.

At this point we will pause on the story of Persepolis. With an acute sense for the details of daily life and apparently simple narration, Marjane Satrapi tells us about the life of a young girl who is starting to grow up at the time of the beginning of the Iranian Islamic revolution. The story begins immediately after the fall of the Shah and shows us how Marjane (an only daughter) and her family lived during the years of war with Iraq. Marjane was educated in a liberal modern family with an intellectual Marxist father and a feminist mother both of whom were politically active against the brutal dictatorship. Marji was affected naturally by their struggle of course and became a young revolutionary, sympathising with Castro and Che Guevara and reading texts about Iranian revolutionaries. She followed the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the aggression of the United States in Vietnam…At that time her favourite reading consisted of a comic book entitled “Dialectic Materialism” with Marx and Descartes in the main roles! Listening to the stories of her uncle, her friends and parents, who were tortured in prison, Marji grew up quickly. With the rise of the Islamic fundamentalists to power, fear and uncertainty replaced the hope and the sense of new possibilities existing at the beginning of the Islamic Cultural Revolution. Overnight Marjane’s daily life changed drastically. Boys and girls were separated at school, girls had to wear the veil, the cries of the dying are heard more and more (even to the point of massacres such as cinemas being set on fire with the public locked inside…). In the book, Marjane reveals her contempt for Unitarianism right from the first story, “Le Foulard”. Like most Iranians, the Satrapi family too began to look around, to guard their words and way of dress in the period of oppressive conformism that begins to reign in Iran. If that were not enough, war against Iraq broke out causing frequent bombings of Tehran and thousands of Iranians (even thirteen-year-old children) were recruited into the army and sent to the front. In this climate, the now fourteen-year-old Marjane began to rebel (at first by means of the music and western clothes that her parents brought from Turkey and then by verbally challenging the schoolteachers) so her parents decided to send her to Vienna to study and to live with her mother’s best friend. Rediscovering her individual and social liberty Marjane found it difficult to blend in with her peers. The lay consumer society had some ugly surprises for her and at this point the young Marjane began to reclaim her origins. She started by mixing in the alternative scene and through the first true loves gradually finds herself falling into a new existential crisis… When her mother comes to see her in Vienna bringing an “affective baggage” which would help Marjane to overcome even the most unpleasant moments. The roles of her mother and grandmother were very important in Marjane’s life. With the album Broderies, issued this year in the collection Cotelette published by L’Association and dedicated to her grandmother, Marjane broke the taboo and showed us the feminist side of the Iranian woman (three generations of women drinking tea and talking openly about virginity, divorce, love, lovers, arranged marriages, sexuality…). At the time of writing this text I am anxiously awaiting the fourth and last part of Persepolis, which will take Marjane back to Iran at the Academy of Fine Arts and then to her final exile in France… It has been a long time since I have looked forward to reading the end of a story with such impatience and, to tell the truth, I hope that after telling us of half her life Marjane will continue to excite us with her literary comics. 

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