Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Complete Persepolis (graphic novel memoir) by Marjane Satrapi

This is another graphic novel I read as part of my plan to read all graphic novels, comic strip collections, and comic format books that the library I work at owns. Trust me, this is not an insurmountable goal. I think I may be done with at least a quarter of what we've got now, and I've only read three books.

I had heard of Persepolis before - like Maus, it's kind of hard not to have heard of it, and Persepolis gained further exposure when a film based on it came out (although I rather doubt that the film was shown anywhere within an hour of the town I live in - I think the movie theaters around here only ever show blockbuster movies). So, I had an idea of what it looked like. I also had assumptions about it. I assumed it was depressing and sad, so I avoided it.

Although it does have sad and horrible parts, it wasn't what I expected. It didn't make me go through a box of tissues and hate my Americanness (some people may feel differently). Unexpectedly, it made me laugh.


This memoir of growing up in Iran, and of being Iranian, begins in 1980, when Marjane Satrapi is 10 years old. Her family is fairly well-off (and are throughout the whole book, which is probably part of the reason Satrapi survived to adulthood) - they have a maid and a Cadillac. Although life is getting a bit more restrictive (she has to wear a veil at school, even though she didn't have to only a year before), she doesn't really understand what's going on. What injustices she sees she figures she'll fix as the Last Prophet. Meanwhile, her parents attend demonstrations and are generally supportive, even though her desire to become a prophet must have struck them as odd.

She has to deal with the disconnect between what the TV and authority figures outside her home are telling her, and what her parents say. She's thrilled to be able to one-up her friends by telling stories about her uncle, who was imprisoned and tortured, but eventually he's imprisoned again and finally killed. Over the next few years, her childhood in Iran is filled with bombings, killings, and revelations about the way things really are (the children of the poor are shipped off to the frontlines to die, whereas children on her economic level aren't). People are detained and worse for wearing the wrong kind of clothes.

However, it's not unrelentingly horrible. Life goes on. Young Satrapi talks her way out of trouble, and she tries to get the kinds of clothes and music she wants, even if she has to get it all on the black market. Eventually, though, for her safety, her parents decide to send her to Austria on her own. She's fourteen.

In Iran, Satrapi was always supported by her loving family, but in Austria she has no one except whatever friends she is able to make. She goes through tremendous growth spurts and physical changes on her own, she keeps having to find new places to live and at one point ends up homeless, she tries to balance her pride in being Iranian with the perception that others have of Iranians, she deals with romance and heartbreak, and she takes drugs. Eventually, she ends up very sick and decides that, no matter what she would end up dealing with back in Iran, she has to go back to her family.

Unfortunately, after being gone for so long, it is difficult to adjust. She learns terrible things about what had been happening in Iran while she was gone, and her former friends are not only unrecognizable, she can't relate to them anymore and they can't relate to her. After a period of depression, she works to snap herself out of it and eventually hits it off with a guy named Reza. They get along well, but their lives and envisioned futures tend to be pretty different - something that becomes a bigger problem for them when they get married. Luckily, Satrapi's father makes sure that, among other things, Reza agrees to give Satrapi the right to divorce (in Iran, a husband must allow his new wife this option during the signing of the marriage certificate). It isn't long before Satrapi and Reza's marriage begins to fall apart. After a long period of thought and some advice from her grandmother, Satrapi decides to talk to Reza about divorce. The book ends with Satrapi leaving for France, where, although she wouldn't be near her family, she would at least be able to be free.


I actually really enjoyed this, even though Satrapi's pretentious friends annoyed me, and the "Americans are stupid" blanket assessments got my back up (it seems hypocritical to not want people judging all Iranians by what extremists do and yet at the same time judge all Americans by what the American government does). The artwork is simple, and yet appealing - more detailed artwork would likely have detracted from the story and people. Plus, it really helped highlight the starker, sadder moments.

I have to say, I enjoyed the first part, with child-Satrapi, the best - I loved Satrapi's family, and I found their life in Iran to be really interesting. Being a child, Satrapi didn't always get what was going on around her, and her attempts to reconcile what authority figures outside her home and on television were telling her and what her family told her were particularly interesting to me.

In the second part of the book, Satrapi became a little too self-destructive for my tastes. Also, I didn't really like most of her friends - I don't like people who spout ideologies because they think it's cool to do so, even if they don't understand those ideologies or only live them when it's convenient. Even when she went back to her family, her mother, father, and grandmother (my three favorite people in the book) only made a few appearances - mostly, Satrapi focused on her readjustment period, her life as an art student, and her relationship with Reza. Since Satrapi made it pretty clear well before the part where she and Reza married that their marriage would not go well, I had a hard time liking any scene with the two of them together. In fact, Satrapi's relationships in general were pretty hard to read about, since none of them ended well.

One thing I did like about the second part was the bit about Satrapi being an art student. Imagine taking a life drawing class and not being able to use an unclothed model - the female students were lucky to even be able to draw clothed male models, because, had they been limited to female models only, they would never have been able to draw anything even close to resembling human anatomy, because it would all have been hidden by yards of cloth.

There are lots of things that that I liked in the book - even when I didn't like a particular part, there was usually still something I could enjoy. Overall, I'm glad I decided to read this and didn't let my assumptions continue to keep me from trying this out.

My read-alikes list was tough to put together - I don't usually read things like The Complete Persepolis, so I ended up having to read a lot of reviews and descriptions.

  • Epileptic (graphic novel memoir) by David B. - For those who'd like another memoir in graphic novel form, this might be a good one to try. With stark black-and-white images, the author shows what it was like growing up in a family trying to deal with his brother's grand mal epilepsy.
  • The Complete Maus (graphic novel non-fiction) by Art Spiegelman - A classic graphic novel about the Holocaust as experienced and survived (sort of, because who can ever really survive something like that) by Spiegelman's parents. Like Persepolis, the artwork is stark black-and-white.
  • Stitches: A Memoir (graphic novel memoir) by David Small - This graphic novel memoir covers Small's life from age 6 to adulthood, as he tries to understand his family. Whereas Satrapi's family was loving and supportive, Small's tended to be abusive, cold, and uncommunicative.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (non-fiction book) by Azar Nafisi - Not a graphic novel, but a good one for those who'd like another memoir about the same general time period in Iran to try.


  1. Aha - I beat you to this one - my book club read it (well, actually the two separate books this is made of) back in 2006. I donated my copies and they are in the collection downstairs.

  2. Have you read Maus? I'm still trying to work up some enthusiasm for that one - I know my assumptions about Persepolis were wrong, and I ended up enjoying it, so I might enjoy Maus too, but I can't seem to help dragging my feet.

    1. No, I haven't read Maus (sorry it took so long to reply), but I want to, since it's such a classic.

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  4. Also - we have a few more graphic novels and comic format books downstairs - I've selected a few more since you wrote this post. :)

    1. I saw. :) One I'd really like to read at some point is Smile by Raina Telgemeier.


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