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"Persian Miniatures"

(October-November 2004)

By David Hajdu

The eons-old culture of the place we now call Iran first inspired comic-book artists as early as 1949, when the late Disney studio veteran Carl Barks wrote and illustrated a twenty-four-page adventure fantasy titled "In Ancient Persia" for Dell Comics. Lightly peppered with Middle Eastern arcana, the story makes reference to the historical cities of Kish and Susa, and it depicts the fictional Ali Cad scurrying to find the capital of Persia  — Persepolis, which he recalls as a "roaring boomtown." Three time-honored cartoon gimmicks inform the narrative: a mad scientist, uncanny resemblances, and talking fowl. Ali Cad just so happens to be a double for the book's protagonist, Donald Duck, who is mistaken for the wholly caddish Ali and trapped (along with the former's nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie) in a nominal Persia that functions mainly as a source of whimsically grotesque exotica.

Comic books were not the place to look for more enlightened views of Iran, past or present, until recent years. In the late 1990s, Marjane Satrapi, an expatriate Iranian woman living in Paris, began writing and drawing what would become a series of quirky, veracious memoirs in comicbook form. Collectively titled Persepolis, they may well represent the first notable use of the word in comics outside the context of Donald Duck. While the books are named for a city of the first millennium BC, they are utterly contemporary and intimate accounts of Satrapi's life in and out of Iran. The first, published in America in April 2003, details her childhood in Tehran in the years prior to, during, and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The second, issued here in August, follows the author to school in Vienna, where she suffers a traumatic indoctrination into Western society and young adulthood, and then back home to Tehran, where she struggles to find her place in both a stultifying, bifurcated society and a doomed marriage of convenience.

Employing a pop medium associated with America to portray a complex, ancient culture of the Middle East, Satrapi has made her country — at least her loving view of it as a land of noble traditions and human passions misrepresented by fundamentalist extremism &$151; appealing to Western eyes. She has upended the worst American stereotypes of Iranians as humorless jihadists on the axis of evil, putting a new face on her homeland: namely, Satrapi's doodle-like caricature of herself. With thick curlicues of black hair and a capital L of a nose (a couple of ovals with adroitly placed dots inside), the cartoon girl in the first Persepolis could have been an Iranian exchange student in Charlie Brown's class. Persepolis has now appeared in a dozen or so European countries in addition to the United States, and the two volumes have found a welcoming readership, particularly among those around college age who take their generation's wealth of ambitious comics and graphic novels as seriously as their parents took classic-rock albums. (None of Satrapi's work is available in her native Iran, where comics have been banned by religious authorities who view them as decadent.)

Much as Persepolis defies widespread preconceptions of its subject matter, it also challenges long-held prejudices against its medium. The books are not juvenile, but sophisticated, even in the first volume's referential use of its child narrator's often naive point of view; they are not hyperactive and do not glory in violence, but progress at the mercurial pace of memory and depict the horrors of life under the Shah and the Islamic Revolution as a way of protesting them; they are not male-oriented, but absorbed with matters of womanhood (particularly the sexual inequity of Islamic fundamentalism); and they are not overblown or self-consciously arty, but simple, elegiac, artfully unaffected. At the same time, they are proudly comics and good at the things comics do best: The drawings have punch and clarity (the Guardians of the Revolution, who nab the young Satrapi for wearing a denim jacket and Nikes, look like ghouls; the shrouded school girls are interchangeable), and the story takes fanciful flights (at the start of the revolution, when Satrapi suddenly feels groundless, we see her float into outer space; God visits Satrapi from time to time to have a glass of milk or talk about the weather).

Satrapi was promptly acclaimed in Europe, where arts institutions carry on a vaguely Marxist tradition of advancing parity between the high and the low. She won Spain's Fernando Buesa Blanco Prize for a literary work furthering peace, as well as most of the important honors for comics art in Europe, and pages from her books have been exhibited at museums and galleries in Paris, Berlin, and Lucerne. She has lectured on her work at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Naples and spoken at the elite Tschann Libraire in Paris. In the United States, it has been much the same; the first Persepolis book was praised in the book-review pages and made several best-seller and best-of-the-year lists. Soon after its publication, Satrapi began receiving commissions from the same sort of venues, including one for a Times Op-Ed page comic about the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, which had been awarded to the rights activist Shirin Ebadi, a fellow Iranian woman for whom Satrapi had served as translator on the day the prize was announced.

The Persepolis books entwine the stories of Satrapi's first twenty-five years and her country's contemporaneous history. The first words above the first book's first drawing-one of the author at age ten, a year after the Islamic Revolution-are "This is me..." But the art depicts what fundamentalism had brought upon her: Posing dutifully for a class photo, she is sitting with her arms folded, wearing the mandatory black veil and a plain, long-sleeved, button-down dress; in the second panel we see four of her classmates, all positioned and attired identically. This is my country, Satrapi tells us in pictures with as much value as words. Near the end of the first book, as Satrapi prepares to leave Iran for the journey to Europe and womanhood that makes up Persepolis 2, her father implores her, "Don't forget who you are and where you come from." Her books are proof that she listened.

The young Marjane Satrapi was a bright and troublesome girl, having been educated during the last years of the Shah's reign in relatively liberal, bilingual (French/Persian), secular schools. As she depicts herself in the first Persepolis, she was something of an Iranian Pippi Longstocking, a free spirit who challenged authority in all forms that affected youthful life, be they parental, academic, religious, societal, or governmental. Initially sympathetic to the "cultural revolution" against the Shah, she defied her parents' orders to stay safely clear of public protests and joined a demonstration with her maid, only to be caught and roundly punished by her mother. After the fundamentalists imposed rigid new standards for dress and conduct (public and private), the adolescent Satrapi dared to ignore them, and (a) went out in public alone, (b) to buy bootleg cassettes of Kim Wilde and Camel, (c) wearing Nikes and a jean jacket adorned with a Michael Jackson button. (Nabbed for the last transgression, Satrapi was taken off the street and interrogated, although she escaped punishment by claiming that she wore the shoes for school sports and that Michael Jackson was really Malcolm X.) Defiant beyond recklessness, she was expelled from one school for striking the principal in a fight over a forbidden bracelet, then dared to question her subsequent overseers on matters of political dogma. Her parents, seeking to protect her from punishment worse than expulsion, sent her to school in Austria. She was fourteen.

Thus begins Persepolis 2, wherein Iran starts becoming a spectral presence in Satrapi's life. Seduced by Western pop culture and its romantic idealization of loners, outlaws, and the like, Satrapi goes through a series of phases much less common in Iranian culture than they are in the average American high school or college. She discovers sex and suffers betrayal; she makes gay friends; she takes up smoking and drinking; she does drugs and even deals a bit for a time; she becomes a punk.... Exhausted by it all, Satrapi returns to Iran four years later, studies art, and, desperate for male companionship, submits to a marriage that she regrets before the end of her wedding night.

"The books are about me, and they are about my country, but we both change in the books, and I'm still changing — look, now I'm married again, and I'm happy, and I was so miserable before," Satrapi explains, relaxing in the front room of the airy, third-floor apartment in Paris's Marais district where she and her second husband, Mattias Ripa, a Swedish émigré, have lived for four years. Relaxing is a relative notion to Satrapi; she had worked all day on a Sunday, as she does nearly every day and most evenings, because she revels in it.

"It's not that I think working is the best thing in the world — I'm really passionate about what I do," she says. "If I cannot do it, I would die by my own hand. I'm very lucky that my husband understands." (Satrapi, in turn, has no interest in what he does for a living — nor the least knowledge of it. "Nobody wants to believe me, but I don't know," she says with a wink of a smile. "I prefer not to know. My first husband and I knew everything about each other, and we did everything together, and it was awful. This way, I can imagine, 'I wonder what he's doing,' and I think that's better.")

She teeters on the edge of the seat cushion of a brown leather armchair, seemingly prepared to lunge across the coffee table if need be. She smokes as she talks — and smokes as she snacks on sweet pistachios that her mother shipped from Iran — occasionally using one cigarette to light the next. "The point of the books is not just to say, Oh, look at me — I was cute, and I had black hair, and my parents, they were nice.' The point of the books is to show what a person is really like who comes from my country, because nobody outside of my country knows that there are normal people in Iran. I shit and fart, and I laugh and I make love.

"I don't really care what people think of me," Satrapi, now thirty-four, says. "But I care what they think of my people. I love my people, even though the ones in power right now are idiots."

Her parents, Taji and Ebi Satrapi, prosperous social idealists who deplored the oppression of the Islamic revolution but came to accommodate it, take pride in having instilled in their only child a devotion to independence that they have compromised in their own lives by remaining in Iran. "The most important thing for us was definitely independence," her mother says, responding to questions relayed and translated by her daughter. "We always wanted her to grow up as an independent woman with all that this may mean. In a country like Iran, with its patriarchal culture, a woman with an economical independence may also often be a happier person than a woman who is financially dependent on her husband.

"I remember her always saying, 'If I don't try to do it, how would I know if I can do it or not?' The word fear is something she doesn't know the meaning of."

Like her work, Satrapi's apartment is a mosaic of Middle Eastern and Western, high and low — a willful testament to cultural and aesthetic heterogeneity. Hanging from one wall are a small handwoven rug, a diorama of figures from Persian mythology, and a painting of one of her great-aunts — a Jean Harlow look-alike, posing in the nude; on another wall are a couple of vintage American advertisements with the slogans "The Man for Me is a Pipe-Smoking Man" and "I'm your best friend. I'm your Lucky Strike." On a third wall is a poster of one of Roy Lichtenstein's comics-inspired paintings, and on another is an array of palm-size stones onto which photographs of Satrapi's parents have been glued, gifts to the daughter in Paris from her mother's maid. An appetite for kitsch appears to run in the extended family.

Despite having read no superhero comics in her youth — and few other comics besides a Soviet-published title, Dialectical Materialism — Satrapi has been inclined to hero worship, as well as grand ambition, from an early age. Her book portrays each of her parents much as she sees herself today, as a flawed champion of a virtuous minority position. Her parents once fought to preserve their values of Marxist secularism; Satrapi, through her books, seeks to challenge the Western caricature of Iranians as malevolent zealots. "I always thought, I will grow up and I will fight for the freedom of the people — I will be like Che Guevara!" Satrapi says. "The fight that I'm making now is to show the people in other places of the world that a person in Iran can be very much more like them than they think."

The very fact that an Iranian female has written a graphic novel shatters perceptions, Satrapi has found. "A lot of people can't believe that a woman from my country could do such a thing — they think we're all idiots or maniacs and don't know about anything except how to hide behind a veil," she says.

The deftness with which she has lifted that veil to reveal herself, as well as Iranian life as she has seen and felt it, distinguishes Satrapi from the many artists of her generation who have done intimate memoirs in cartoon form. According to the comics historian Trina Robbins, author of The Great Women Cartoonists and other books, "What most women, like most guys in the independent comics field, do is very boring, because an awful lot of the indie cartoonists, unfortunately, really have very boring lives, and they make these really boring real-time comics that say, Oh, I hang out at the coffee shop, and then I go to my job at the used record store.... ' Whereas the story that Marjane has to tell is so incredible and so powerful, and she tells it magnificently. It's a privilege to hear her story, and not another one about 'I hate myself because my thighs are fat and my boyfriend left me.'"

After her failed first marriage, Marjane Satrapi left Iran for the last time (so far) to study illustration at the Strasburg School of Decorative Arts. Following graduation, at age twenty-four, she moved to Paris with aspirations of writing and drawing children's books. Having grown up without much exposure to comics, she had not given them much thought one way or another. "I started reading comics late, really," she recalls.

In that, she has much in common with those around college age who have made Persepolis and other graphic novels a popular phenomenon, embracing a form many of them likely see as something new and their own. They are, on the whole, the first young adults since the invention of the comic book to have grown up without much connection to traditional comics; in essence, today's graphic-novel audience is the postcomics generation. Because of a radical change during the '70s in the way comic books were distributed and sold and, commensurately, how they were created and read, comics largely disappeared from magazine racks and re-emerged in hobby shops, where they mutated into specialty items for obsessives engaged in collecting and trading them (ideally, wrapped and unread). Publishers facilitated this shift into "direct sales," which liberated them from magazine distributors' irksome policy of returning unsold titles for credit. Although many kids have continued to buy comics (and sometimes read them), absorption with comic books has not been a common rite of American childhood for decades. Video games, being more kinetic as well as more suspect in the eyes of adults, have taken comics' place. Accordingly, when readers in their twenties today pick up graphic novels, they are inclined to do so without the prejudice of entrenched childhood associations.

When Satrapi first tried to create books for children, she failed magnificently; she wrote and illustrated fourteen titles for young readers and received 187 letters from publishers rejecting them all, she says. Satrapi remained blithely unimpeded. "She always had this self-belief," says her Swede husband. "She was famous when I met her. Nobody knew it, of course." (Since the success of Persepolis, Satrapi has published four children's books in France, most of them revisions of her once unaccepted ones.)

Meanwhile, at her shared studio, five French artists, all about her age, were thriving in comics. Thanks to a friend of one of her friends, Satrapi had landed in L'Atelier des Vosges, an exquisitely decrepit space on the perimeter of the Place des Vosges that French comics enthusiasts regarded as the Parisian Bloomsbury of the art form. "It was an accident that I was lucky enough to be in the same studio with the best comics artists in France," Satrapi explains, sitting at her drawing board in the atelier late on a weekday morning. "The miracle of the thing was not that these people decided that they were going to make a movement — it happened that all of us were in the same studio, all of us around thirty years old, and I end up there. We were all talking all the time," Satrapi says, miming chatter and rolling her eyes. "I was telling my friends there about my life in Iran and the Islamic Revolution. They didn't know anything about my culture, and I didn't know anything about comics before I met them. One of them, and then two of them, then three of them, said to me, 'Come on, come on, come on — you should do a comic out of that.'"

L'Atelier des Vosges was and is a somewhat fluid assemblage of French comics artists who share working quarters, provide mutual stimulation and support, and publish themselves in a cooperative called L'Assocation, through which the Persepolis books originally appeared. Its membership has included some of the most esteemed names in European comics circles, including David B., Christophe Blain, Emile Bravo, and Joann Sfar. "We came, most of us, from fine art, from modern art, and we were trying to do comics," explains Sfar, whose children's book, The Little Vampire Goes to School, was a best seller in the United States. "We were learning our job together — there was no master and pupil. We are still learning, and we try to play together. Sometimes, we have two people draw the same story at the same time, to see the difference. We play and experiment and, most of all, please ourselves. But Marjane thought comics books were vulgar and something for kids. She was not interested until she realized, Okay, it's not a genre, it's a medium.'"

As Satrapi recalls, "Suddenly I started doing it, and they helped me a lot. I didn't know the language of comics. I had the drawings follow from right to left, like in my mother language. They all gave me advice. Emile Bravo told me, 'When you are drawing, be like a lizard — be perfectly still, but aware of everything around you. Don't waste your energy with a lot of movement while you're working. Be like a lizard.' There were things that I didn't know how to draw. Cristophe said to me, 'A hand is like this ...'"

Satrapi roughs out a one-page opinion comic about the Iraq war, commissioned by the Italian newspaper Ll Manifesto. She has just begun and is testing designs for a panel depicting a grid of invading aircraft. Dispensing with drawing-class convention, she uses a marker rather than pencil; the ink, being less forgiving, "forces me to concentrate," she says. "Otherwise I would sit here all day and draw shit." At the same time, she employs a counterbalancing ritual to prevent her work from becoming overly self-conscious: She draws on the most inexpensive paper she can find. "If I use very good paper, I feel like I have to make a masterpiece," she says, "and the best way to make shit is to feel like you have to make a masterpiece. I feel now like the world is waiting for a masterpiece every time I put a brush in my hand, and that is a bad thing. Cartoonists shouldn't have to be too good.

"I never thought that I was good and that I had talent — I still don't," Satrapi says as she draws. "My understanding of anatomy has always been zero, because in the anatomy class I took in Iran, the woman was fully clothed. I didn't even know how an arm bends. I'm not really a very good drawer — I'm a good budgeter. I do the best with what I have."

Satrapi finishes her page, looks it over, shrugs her shoulders, and reaches for a cigarette. "The technical quality is not the thing that matters," she says, darting her eyes at the page on the table. "Cinema is reality, but reality is obvious. Nothing is more truthful than a drawing, because it's an interpretation.

"I like black and white better than anything, because there's no bluff in black and white. To me, color is extra information, and when you add color, whether or not the drawing is naive, it makes something real about it. I write a lot about the Middle East, so I write about violence. Violence today has become something so normal, so banal — that is to say, everybody thinks it's normal. But it's not normal. To draw it and put in color — the color of the flesh and the red of the blood, and so forthreduces it by making it realistic. Black and white makes it abstract and more meaningful." Satrapi picks up the page she has finished and looks again at the maze of jet fighters she has drawn. She turns it upside down and gently pounds her fist on the back of the paper.

It is hardly a bad reflection on comic books that it took decades for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults; to the contrary, it seems a testament to comics' resilience and adaptability. About a quarter of a century ago, the pioneering American artist and writer Will Eisner published one of the first book-length comics drawn from personal experience: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, a collection of four loosely related stories about tenement life in the Bronx of the Depression years, inspired by Eisner's childhood. While American precedents for adult-oriented, long-form comics date back to the era of God's Man, the wordless "novel in woodcuts" that artist Lynd Ward rendered in 1929 (antecedents for which can be traced all the way to hieroglyphics, if you want to get technical about it), A Contract with God prompted a generation of artists and writers to experiment with long-form comics, because the idea was good enough for the revered Will Eisner. "He was the most credible and loudest evangelist in the early years," recalls Paul Levitz, the president of DC Comics, who was a twenty-two-year-old comics writer and editor when A Contract with God was published. "Will was the guy who was an established figure, who stood up and said, 'This is the way of the future — these things are going to be for adults, and they are going to tell stories of intellectual worth.' "

Eisner's approach to making comics for grown-ups was vigorously transformative. "I believed that the medium had a capacity to go beyond the joke-book usage," Eisner has said. Unremitting in their determination to prove the point, his books have been serious above all — virtually purged of humor, in fact.

Satrapi and many of her peers, like the underground artists before them, see seriousness of purpose and lightness of execution as mutually compatible-indeed, the tension between the two, pulled to extremes, is the essence of their aesthetic. Robert Crumb's early influences included Little Lulu comics and talking-animal cartoons, and the ghosts of nursery school in his artwork make his darkly comic tales of drug trips and sadomasochism all the more disturbing. Art Spiegelman, much the same, extricates the Holocaust from the realm of abstract evil, thereby magnifying its horror, by rendering the Nazis and Jews as accessible cartoon cats and mice. Satrapi takes on adult subjects (Islamic fundamentalism) in sophisticated ways (interlacing her narrative with Iranian history, demonizing no one), while also exploiting the expectation of a good time integral to what used to be called "the funnies." (Her cartoon self trades jibes with God, whom she depicts as a look-alike for Karl Marx, but with curlier hair.)

When Satrapi looks up from her drawing table, she sees a found-object collage of novelty items: a poster of Bruce Lee, an assortment of children's stickers from a flea market, an "A for Anarchy" logo made out of a varnished sausage, a Russian circus poster depicting performers engaged in inexplicable feats. "What is he doing?" she asks, pointing to a contorted painted figure in something like a Gypsy space costume. "Or these people over here — you don't know really what is happening, either. If they do what they're doing, they are going to die, they are going to be like hamburgers. It's not possible. The artist took people for idiots. I think this is very, very funny." A short while later, Satrapi picks up a cell phone from her drawing table and starts carrying on a terse business conversation, during which a spray of water shoots onto my shirt from the phone, which I realize is a gag water toy. Satrapi roars.

Several days a week, Satrapi likes to sit in a sidewalk café around the corner from her studio and watch for amusing passersby. "This is the best place in Paris, because you can sit here and watch all the fancy people as they walk across the street," she says, squirming to get comfortable on the tiny iron seat. "You can tell this is becoming a fancy area, because the food shops are closing, and they are being replaced by clothing shops, because the rich people, they don't need to eat. The rich people, they eat air, and they shit bubbles. The rich people, all they need are make-up and clothes and shoes.

"I have to move, because it's become too fancy," Satrapi says. "Sometimes, I need to go out and buy something other than shoes."

Where would she go? No further than a "not so good" neighborhood in Paris, she says. Despite her fascination with American pop culture, as an artist, Satrapi feels bound to live in France. (Crumb has been living in Sauve, a medieval village in the south of France, for years, and his American friend and fellow comics artist Peter Poplaski is a neighbor there.)

"In France, comics are taken seriously, yes — but, at the same time, they are not such a big deal," Satrapi says. "Here, as a comics artist, you have respect, but at the same time, you are allowed to do some foolish stuff — they will excuse you.

"I know that I'm a very serious person, but I don't want to be thought of as a serious person. The fact of not being taken for serious, for me, gives me freedom. That's the only thing that I care about — being free, acting free, thinking free," she says as she snuffs out her cigarette. "That is the hardest thing and the most important thing."