First Person History
Persepolis volume 1 tells a story of one woman, from a girl of six to a teenager of 14. The author of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, was born in Iran of 1969. As a child she grew up in Tehran through the fall of the Shah in 1979, and the Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq which followed. For the past nine years she has been living in Paris, where she was encouraged by David B., author of Epileptic and co-founder of the independent publishing collective L’Association, to translate her remarkable experiences into comics form.
Since November 2000, Marjane has written and drawn a series of four autobiographical volumes published in French by L’Association, one each year. Her first volume went on to win the Alph’ Art Award for best debut album at 2001’s Angouleme International Comics Festival in France. The series has gone through multiple editions, making it L’Association’s third biggest selling title, and was translated all across Europe. Finally, in 2003, Pantheon in the USA and Jonathan Cape in the UK collected the first two books into a 154-page hardback in English.
Marjane opens her story in 1980 on the first anniversary of the Shah being deposed, when the new regime decrees all women must hence forth wear the traditional headdress. Marjane, just 10, has to start wearing hers at school, which is now sex-segregated and no longer bilingual or ‘decadent’.
In a telling vignette, a photograph of her mother protesting against the headdress edict is circulated to magazines worldwide, including to one in Iran, the land of the Ayatollahs, terrifying her mother into tinting her hair and wearing sunglasses in an attempt to disguise herself.
We then flash back to Marjane at the age of 6, declaring herself the latest in a long line of prophets, who will cure her grandma’s aching knees and abolish class divisions. She is a bright, almost precocious kid, who devours books on politics, talks with God in her bedroom and falls asleep with her Marxism comics.
We follow her growing up in Tehran in a well-to-do, politicised family during the final troubled years of the Shah, as she tries to make sense of the injustices around her, even in her own home where their maid is not allowed to eat with her at the same table.
Now that we are living through a ‘war on evil’ after September 11th, many people are looking to understand more about the ‘outside world’. Persepolis offers a uniquely accessible and compelling way to learn from a child’s eye view, just as Marjane does, about the Shah’s history and his violent suppression of ‘revolutionaries’. Her grandmother talks movingly about her husband’s imprisonment and torture, and about the horrors that have touched their family’s past.
This is no ordinary childhood and Marjane is no ordinary child. As she becomes more politically aware, she has to come to terms with being the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor; in ancient Persia a ‘satrap’ was a governor or ruler and Persepolis the capital city. When her Uncle Anouche, a former rebel forced into exile in Moscow, is arrested as a Russian spy and is about to be executed, Marjane is his one last visitor. He gives here a little swan which he has sculpted out of bread to remember him by. Then he entrusts his niece with the family history. "I will never forget", she promises him.
Next she reads the headline that he has been executed. Angry at God, she is called by her mother down into the basement, as the Iraqi bombings of Iran begin. Marjane was lucky, she was able to leave her homeland at the age of 14, partly to escape the war, but also for her own safety, because, even as a teenager, she was denouncing the Islamic regime.
After five years in exile studying in Vienna and Strasbourg, she returned to art school in Iran in 1989, where she continued to protest against injustices. These years are covered in her second pair of books, published as one hardback in English in 2004. In one surreal scene, when she is studying life drawing in Iran, the female model has to be covered from head to toe in a tchador.
Marjane draws with a spare directness in bold black and white and with the power of the very finest woodcuts. Hers is the sort of solo account of history, intimate, often funny, sometimes devastating, which can say so much more than any factual textbook or CNN coverage.
Marjane has commented, "The news hides the complexity of a society. They talk about politics but never about people who are suffering it’s consequences and who are fighting for more freedom. Nor about the poor, who don’t have the possibility of leaving."
Persepolis ranks as one of the most immediate accounts of childhood in comics since Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s story of surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; The Spiral Cage, Al Davison’s triumphs over spina bifida; and Daddy’s Girl, Debbie Drechsler’s memories of her father’s abuse. It also brings home the effects of war and oppression on ordinary people as powerfully as Maus, Art Spiegelman’s family story of surviving the Holocaust, and Joe Sacco’s reportage from Palestine.
The comic medium is ideally suited to tell the personal, yet universal, first person stories that can immerse us in the humanity and reality all but ignored or trivialised by the mass media. Through her unforgettable graphic novel, Marjane is keeping her childhood promise.
Marjane Satrapi’s Three Inspirations:
“I discovered the black and white wood engravings of Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) while studying at Strasbourg Art School. He was one of the ‘Nabis” movement, Arabic for ‘prophet’. Seeing his originals in 1994, the first time I was in Paris, I was so impressed. It was a revelation to me, his economy of line and decoration. It’s the most simple and the most naive at the same time. That took courage and inspired my drawings.”
“Murnau’s Nosferatu is the best Dracula movie ever. It’s silent, in black and white, from 1921, but it’s so modern. I’ve seen it ten times and always see something fresh in it. Image after image is so well constructed, like a big painting. It doesn’t show you too much but you get really scared. I learnt not to show emotion all the time or say everything in my comics, but let the reader’s imagination do the work.”
“It wasn’t easy being back in Iran after the War. Almost one million people were killed, two million fled the country. But their humour helps people survive, it’s a space to breathe, to laugh about yourself. A man who lost both legs told me a joke, he didn’t ask for pity. Humour is important in my stories, like the secret jokes Iranian women tell each other about sex, which I put in my new book, Embroideries.”
Review: Embroderies by Marjane Satrapi
"Let her air out her heart. There’s nothing better than talking!" That’s the advice from the Grandma of Satrapi, author of the two volume best-seller Persepolis, in her very frank, very funny record of what Iranian women discuss among themselves. Yes, it’s no different than anywhere else: it’s mostly about men and sex and this smart little hardback will have you in stitches. As for that title, she is not just referring to these ladies skills as seamstresses, or at elaborating their confessional yarns. She is also describing the practice in Iran of ‘restoring’ a woman’s lost virginity. Humour and insight in equal measure.
This article first appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.