Persepolis is one of those rare graphic novels that transcends the genre to become something that is read by people that wouldn’t normally touch such things. It has even been the subject of literary papers, making it one of the few graphic texts to become worthy of serious literary study. Satrapi’s work chronicles her experiences as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution and is quite funny at parts, sad at others, yet absorbing for all of it.
No wonder it’s become a widely read text in middle schools and high schools, and deservedly so. But it is also a useful way to look at the way comics pages in any genre are constructed, and you get just about every bit of information you need to know about the novel on this, the opening page.
First off, it is important to consider the style, which many might consider to be poorly drawn compared to other comic books of the day. One can of course assume two things: first, that Satrapi indeed can’t draw very well, or second, that this is a deliberate stylistic choice. Given that Satrapi studied graphic design, I’m leaning toward the latter (and would encourage everyone to do the same with any artist. Most can draw in multiple styles, and choose one for the occasion.) So why draw it this way? One reason might be that the style embodies the childlike view of the novel as we see the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of a child who lacks the experience of an adult to completely interpret event as we would. The other may be that because Satrapi was representing real people including herself, it was easier to do something more abstract that freed her from the limits of making things look incorrect. Or it also might be that Satrapi is better equipped to deal with the blending of the real and the imagined that she tackles later in the novel with this more “cartoony” style.
Now let’s take a look at the composition of the page and how the story is told. First off, we have the pictures and the narrative that accompanies them. Take a moment to read the narration by itself, and then examine how the illustrations, particularly the last one, add a new layer of narrative. The captions, which are young Marji “speaking,” have nothing funny about them – the illustrations add a layer of humor that wouldn’t exist otherwise. This page is an excellent example of something that comics can do that other genres can’t (although movies, with voice overs, can do something similar.)
Also, the composition of the page illustrates a couple of main themes of the novel. In the top two panels, we see Marji on her own in a school picture. The next panel is a group of girls; Marji is cut out of this panel, but the two panels together form a continuity separated by the gutter. Humor aside, this first panel illustrates right away the alienation that Marji feels throughout the book as she struggles to find a place in a world torn apart by politics and violence.
The next panel (the middle left) is interesting in that all the women look the same – same facial features, same posture. Again, we could assume that Satrapi only has so many faces in her arsenal (and indeed one of the challenges a cartoonist faces is making all the characters distinct.) But let’s assume that that isn’t the case. Why do it? It illustrates the way that political movements have a tendency to unify and create sameness. Look at page three for another example:
Here at the top we have the women on the left who are so linked together that not only are the in the same posture but there bodies are not even separated. Compare them to the women on the right – different postures, different features, joined by a political movement, but not in the same way that the regime enforces conformity (for another example, look at the beards in the last panel here, an upside down veil, as it were.)
I think that all cartoonists have to combat the notion that they are able to dash off their drawing quickly and complete a strip or a page in about an hour. However, a careful study of the craftsmanship of comics reveals that they are a painstaking amount of work. Persepolis is no different.
For more on Persepolis, go here.
And here’s an interview with Satrapi about Persepolis.