Critical Essay About Persepolis

          “Persepolis” tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood, adolescence and transition into adulthood set on the changing backdrop of her cultural location and identity[1].  Through her personal story, Satrapi educates her audience on what it means to her to be an Iranian girl and woman, the political situation in Iran at the time of her upbringing, and how she often clashed with her surroundings and fought back against oppressive and simplistic ideology encountered in both Iran and Europe.    As inspiration for her graphic novel, Satrapi cites “Maus” by Art Spiegelman[2].  While in some ways “Persepolis” is very similar to “Maus,” the changes that Satrapi has made can be seen as her way of creating a feminist text out of an uncommon genre – the graphic novel.

            “Maus” provides an interesting description of World War Two and the Holocaust, in which mice represent the Jews, and cats represent Germans[3].  This cat-and-mouse tale is personal for the author, Spiegelman, because it is his father’s story of survival through the Second World War and eventual relocation to the United States.  It is drawn in black and white and has a hurried and crowded feeling that could be inviting the audience to feel the sense of chaos and crowdedness that Spiegelman’s father surely felt as he experienced the events in the graphic novel.  The novel includes its own writing as part of the plot, with pages about the author’s visit to his father in order to hear the story as introductions to many plot points.  It feels as if the audience is invited into the process of creating the graphic novel, since we see its earliest inspiration. 

                                                             

This image shows the detail in “Maus,” and is a scene in which the father is telling Speigelman his story and the reader begins to see the process of “Maus”’s creation.  There is shading, and many small details, such as the father’s tattoo from the concentration camps.  This level of detail is not seen in “Persepolis.” 

        “Maus” is primarily a story about men, with Spiegelman and his father being the two most prominent characters.  There are women present, but their characters are one-dimensional, and could be described as “wife” or “mother.”  This is not necessarily a flaw in the work, and it does not necessarily make “Maus” anti-feminist, but it does make Satrapi’s use of her inspiration all the more interesting in her telling of a story primarily about the lives of women.  It is significant that Satrapi looked to a primarily male text as a starting point for her own work.

            Knowing that Satrapi saw “Maus” as an inspiration for her own work, it is clear that “Persepolis” borrows some stylistic elements from “Maus”; however, Satrapi adds a personal flair that makes her work unique.  She also uses black and white, but the feeling of her panels is drastically different from Spiegelman’s.  They are much less detailed, so instead of the claustrophobic and cluttered feeling of “Maus,” the panels and pages of “Persepolis” seem carefully thought out, with each detail being necessary to either the plot of the story or an understanding of Satrapi’s internal conflict and dialogue.  Satrapi does not show her audience the process of her writing, but instead presents the novel as a pre-formed and thought out story.   An obvious, but important distinction between “Maus” and “Persepolis” is that Satrapi represents her life with human characters, while Spiegelman chooses to distance himself and use animals, perhaps softening the blow of a harsh moment in history.  Although “Persepolis” also tells of several horrific moments, Satrapi humanizes them by allowing the reader to see them as she did.

        The key difference between “Maus” and “Persepolis” is the presence of women in “Persepolis.”  Male characters, such as Satrapi’s father and uncle, are certainly well developed, but women make up the core of the novel.  Satrapi herself, her mother and grandmother are all extremely well described.  They are multi-dimensional characters that show us their beliefs and inner conflicts.  These women are shown to be imperfect, and Satrapi does not try to glorify, disparage, or unite women.  Instead, she shows the complexities of their relationships and in doing so, their essential humanity.  Conflict between groups of women is shown when Satrapi describes her feelings about wearing the veil.  In these scenes, Satrapi only explores her own character; she does not claim to know the mindset of “the Iranian woman.”  The audience encounters women who are polar opposites from Satrapi, but we do not learn very much about them.  “Persepolis” truly tells the audience about the life and mind of one woman; it does not try to show all perspectives or even explain anyone’s actions but Satrapi’s own. 

                                                 

These panels show the stark lack of detail in “Persepolis.”  Satrapi shows the details that are important, but leaves everything else blank.  In “Maus,” the faces of the individuals behind Satrapi’s parents in the airport scene would likely have been filled in, and the characters themselves would have had more details or shading.  By using strong lines and showing only what she wants, Satrapi controls the narrative and brings emphasis to the key emotions and plot points. In the scene depicting Satrapi and her mother, the audience can see their relationship and begin to understand the complexities of their cultural identities.

            By examining her thoughts and presenting events as she witnessed them, Satrapi forces her audience to think and see as a girl and woman.  By writing her own story, she has given herself agency and a voice, despite the many times her voice was “veiled” by others or by oppressive regimes.  Telling the story of one woman and thoroughly exploring a female character, along with several female side characters, can be seen as feminist, and using the genre of the graphic novel makes it even more so.  Traditionally, comics have used male protagonists and often hyper-sexualize their female characters or use them solely as plot devices.  Satrapi’s use of the genre, without hyper-sexualizing her protagonist, claims it and defies the reader’s expectations of the graphic novel.    

            Using a graphic novel format, but altering key elements to suit an individualist feminist message works well in “Persepolis.”  Although it can lend itself to many interpretations, “Persepolis” can without a doubt be read as a feminist text, due to its exploration of female characters in male-dominated spheres, and an often male-dominated genre.  Because the genre is so associated with male “heroes,” using it to tell a woman’s story creates more thought and discussion for readers.  If Satrapi had written a memoir using prose, there would most likely be less conversation about the text, but by breaking a genre barrier, Satrapi promotes discourse about the implications of a heroine telling her own story.



[1] Satrapi, Marjane.  The Complete Persepolis.  New York, New York: Pantheon, 2009.

[2] Hattenstone, Simon. "Confessions of Miss Mischief."Guardian UK. 28 March 2008: n. page. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/mar/29/biography>.

[3] Spiegelman, Art. Maus:A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History & And Here My Troubles Began. New York, New York: Pantheon, 1986.

 

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood has reached a global market, and Satrapi’s story has been generally well received in the West. In France, where Persepolis was originally published, Satrapi was awarded the Prize for Scenario by the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which is the largest comics festival in Europe. The novel was also listed in TIME Magazine as one of the ten best graphic novels released in 2003.

Commentators consistently praise Satrapi’s sincerity, humor, and touching characters. Satrapi’s simple, direct images lend her graphic memoir a power that would be missing from a written account. Artistically, Persepolis is thus a success, but Satrapi is also attempting to change the international perception of Iran. Has her work achieved its political purposes?

Many commentators have suggested that Satrapi “humanizes” Iran for international audiences. Indeed, although the story is based in Iran and is largely about Iranian history, Satrapi has said that her use of black and white images invites audiences of all ethnic backgrounds to identify with the story itself. Reviewing Persepolis for TIME, Andrew D. Arnold pointed out that Satrapi “provides a unique glimpse into a nearly unknown and unreachable way of life.” However, other commentators have maintained that because Marji comes from such an unusual family—her family is relatively well-off, is unusually well educated, and holds many Western views—the glimpse into Iranian culture that she offers is not that of an insider but that of an outsider.

Due to its critique of Iran’s rulers, Satrapi’s story has not been as well received in her homeland, particularly by fundamentalists and their supporters.

Ultimately, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood has found a wide audience. Currently, Satrapi is mentioned alongside some of the most well-respected names in the medium, including Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Alan Moore (Watchmen). The last test it faces is that of time.

A sequel, The Story of a Return, tells the story of Marji in Austria, of her return to Iran, and of her final departure from her homeland in 1994. Both Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return were originally published in French in 2000 and 2001, respectively. In North America, the two stories have since been released in a collected edition, The Complete Persepolis. Because she will not return to Iran from her home in Paris, Satrapi acknowledges that she has no credibility to offer further commentary on the subject and will not write a third installment.

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