Persepolis, or Katie Barlow Knows Too Much About Zoroastrianism.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today I’d like to talk to you about Persepolis.

Uhh…not that one. Not precisely, anyways, although it lends something of a motif to this story. What story?

Just to warn you - the rest of the images will be French, with a rough translation underneath. This was just priceless.

This is Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, but whose parents sent her abroad to escape the tyranny of her homeland. It features complex themes exploring women’s rights, political and cultural oppression, materialism…blah. In any case – just compare that list to anything Superman did, or Thor, or anyone in America outside the Underground Comics movement (which is another can of worms I am carefully staying away from) has done. I’m not saying this makes Persepolis qualitatively better than a lot of American comics, but compare it to the the typically escapist literature (even if it is particularly well done) that dominates the later, and it’s easy to see why Persepolis has done more for the public image of comic books than the Spiderman films. It’s the same with any medium, honestly – find a way to connect something to the real world, in a way beyond entertainment and abstract theme, and it will suddenly becomes relevant.

And I assert that bande-dessinée is dominated more by this relevance than American style comic books are, currently. Again, this is not an observation of one being qualitatively better than another, just that the public standing of one has more oomph than the other.

Anyways, like I said before, what I find interesting about Persepolis is not how it handles a single theme in particular, but how it juggles them with the facility of a circus performer around the three ringed circus that is the plot. Then add on top of all that the fact that it uses those themes to address another, bigger theme about the role conflict plays in our lives and it’s like that clown juggling around the rings is doing so with his feet – while using his hands to peddle a unicycle.

It’s also funny as heck. Did I mention that? Pro tip – if you ever want to hear a French lady with a heavy Farsi accent try to sing Eye of the Tiger, watch the movie based off the book.

So, Persepolis is actually divided into two volumes – I and II – that recount Marjane’s childhood in Iran, and then her life in Europe as a teenager. The part that concerns me, as far as studying immigration goes, is in the 2nd part.

Here, Marjane enters a European supermarket for the first time and is stunned by the amount of food on the shelves. She tells us that the fabric softener was the best thing she ever smelled, and to this day she keeps dozens of bottles of it in her house.

Having grown up in war-torn Iran, where shortages are common, Marjane is shocked by the abundance and wealth of Europe. Nonetheless, she has a hard time adjusting.

Her only connection, her new roommate, becomes occupied with a German television show that Marjane neither understands nor finds particularly funny.

She simply doesn’t understand the culture she has entered into. Inevitably, as with her roommate, many of her early relationships become strained because of culture clash. Lucia, for example, is incredibly nice, and even takes Marjane to her family’s house in the Tyrol for Christmas, but the language barrier and Lucia’s conservative Catholic roots (that meant that Marjane was kneeling on a stone bench for three hours for a religion she didn’t even practice) prevent the two from progressing much further in their friendship. Despite even calling Lucia’s parents “my new mother and father”, after Marjane leaves the convent where the two of them are staying, there is no indication given that she ever sees Lucia again.

Another sort of reaction is illicit ed from a new group of friends that Marjane eventually gains.

The only line you need to know is: "This is Marjane, and she has known war."

Those are the people who are initially interested in her because of her experiences as an Iranian. Eventually, it even goes on to say that the only time she ever had any authority with these people was when she played the “I’ve seen people die; you haven’t” card, despite the fact that it is obvious that she was smarter than them. By scores. As in, she was reading Marx when she was 9. Speaking of which:

"I found it funny that God and Karl Marx looked exactly like, except that maybe Marx's beard was a bit more frizzy."

Nonetheless, they are nice to her, to the point that Marjane actually lives with one of the girls for several months after she got kicked out of the convent for calling the nuns a bunch of former prostitutes.

So, in her first years in Europe, Marjane befriends two kinds of people: those who embrace her because they are stupendously nice, and those who are entertained by the gimmick that she is Iranian. Everywhere else she is ignored, or even harassed because of her identity. Nonetheless, Marjane never seems to develop a close connection with any of them, really. In fact, Persepolis II stands in contrast to Persepolis I because, while hundreds of new characters are introduced, the level of intimacy she reaches with them is minuscule compared to the family ties introduced with her mother, father, and grandmother. Even her Austrian boyfriend of a year, the break-up with whom led her to live in the streets and almost die of pneumonia, as a result, is not portrayed for more than a few panels, mostly in the background, while her mother’s two week visit is afforded its own chapter. Despite the fact that she enjoys the openness of Europe – something she misses when she moves back to Iran – the isolation it imposes on her throws her into a deep depression that threatens her life well after she returns home to her family.

But enough of that – how does the art of Persepolis interact with it’s themes? Well, as you can see from most of the clips I’ve taken from the graphic novel, it’s in black and white like The Arrival. The purpose for this, though, is much different; instead of attempting to imitate old photographs, Persepolis has a different inspiration:

The stylized figures of the Achaemenid dynasty. Of which the city Persepolis was the capital. You can kind of see the influence of Ancient Persia in the novel throughout, from border outlines featuring images of Achaemenid kings, to an idea she has later of building an amusement park based off Ancient Persian mythology (which, I might add, is an AWESOME idea). Yeah, the art of Persepolis is modernized, and westernized, and simplified, but you can still see the influences of its ancestors.

The heavily slanted eyes, the prominent nose, the way the hair frames the face – and the simplification of all other facial features are reminiscent of how the Achaemenids drew themselves. Europeans feature rounder eyes and, on a whole, look more like traditional cartoons. Only Marjane and other Iranians are drawn in this distinct style.

Thus, the art also moves to isolate her from the others; even when she dresses like her friends, even when she get’s a punk haircut –

The way she is drawn keeps her separate.

The monochromatic scheme also serves a very different, non-Western traditional purpose in Persepolis. In The Arrival, for example, the darkness of certain images was used to convey the hopelessness of the immigrants positions, and stood in comparison to the light airiness of the Land of Promise to which they had immigrated. Not so in Persepolis. While sometimes black is used to symbolize sorrow in the typically western sense –

 

The top is Marjane's mother, talking about how her father's back never really healed after his time in an Iranian prison; the bottom, Marjane as a child really not wanting to play Monopoly.

– For the most part, Marjane Satrapi avoids it altogether, by keeping black and white in complete balance with one another. For example, one of the most powerful images of the story, an image showing dozens of people being burned alive in a movie theater, mixes both for a frightening effect:
Yeah, not pretty. Why does she use this color pallet? My best guess is that is has to relate to the dualistic nature of Zoroastrianism, where Ohrmazd and Ahriman are the equal and opposite opponents representing good and evil, order and chaos, etc, the conflict of which we humans are stuck smack dab in the middle of. At a first glance, it doesn’t look that much different than Judeo-Christian belief, but where those religions regard God as supreme and thus any real conflict with Hell as some kind of joke, this battle is still very much up for grabs. If anything, we as human beings are defined by this struggle between black and white, which extends from a cosmic level to the very make up of our souls. I think, thus, that Satrapi is using this balance of black and white to show how conflict, whether it be cultural conflict is the foundation of her identity, and likewise our whole world.

That’s my best guess, anyways. We are shown early on that she and her family are very proud of their country’s Zoroastrian religious roots, despite the fact that Islam has long been the dominant religion. Add to it her obvious admiration for the Achaemenids, and the title, Persepolis, and it isn’t the most crazy conspiracy theory. Conflict shapes every theme in her story; West vs. East, innovation vs. tradition, isolation vs. inclusion. And what’s more, by the end of the book, none of them are resolved, and everything is still tenuous, up in the air. Just like it would be for a real person. Because it is about a real person.

Only one more comic to review, but that won’t be for a few weeks due to vacationus interuptus. Have fun two weeks free from my crazy meanderings!