Sunday, October 09, 2005

Persepolis 2: the asparagus of comic books!

Marjane Satrapi is an admirable person, as far as I can tell. Sure, she made some horrible choices, but she often didn't have much to choose from, and she was living in exile from everyone she loved, so it's not surprising that she might do silly things. She exhibited great strength in very difficult situations, and she was able to remake herself into an independent woman who didn't need to submit to society's oppressive standards.

She wrote about her experiences, too, in Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, which was published by Pantheon Books last year and was recently reprinted. I had heard really good things about it, and I ordered it, and buzzed through it. I haven't read Persepolis, but evidently it goes over Satrapi's early life and her flight from Iran in the early 1980s. The sequel picks up in 1984 with Satrapi in Austria, living at a boarding school run by nuns. I'm not going to go over everything that happens to her, because why would I ruin it for you?, but suffice it to say that the West is not all she thought it would be, and she begins to think maybe she'd be better off in Iran. She does return to Iran, but the West's godless ways may have contaminated her forever!!!!

This is an important story. We rarely hear about the actual normal people in the Muslim world, and the women are even less noticeable. Satrapi shows us that beneath the veil and black clothing, these are people who have dreams and desires and rebel in their own small way against the Islamic fundamentalists running Iran. We also get a sense of the horror of the Iran-Iraq War, which ran from 1981 to 1988, as Satrapi shows us how the war has affected the people at home. Soldiers are currently dying in Iraq, and it affects the people whose relatives are serving there, but there has not been a war on our soil in well over a century, so we might not understand what it's like. Satrapi shows us how it has an impact on even the smallest things.

This is also, in its way, a coming-of-age story. Satrapi has to leave Iran to grow up, and in doing so, she is exposed to Western thought and doesn't always like it. She feels completely out of place in Europe, because she is Iranian and the people in the West think of her only as "the enemy," but when she returns to Iran, they consider her a Westerner, and she is out of place there. She tries to fit back in, but she feels herself banging against the walls that the Iranian ayotollahs have put in place. In the end, she can't stay in Iran, even though she still loves her family. The Story of a Return is, ultimately, about letting go of your past.

So why don't I like it more? It's good for you, after all. It's an important story that should be heard. Nobody is shot in the head, although there are depressing parts, but the depressing parts just serve to show how noble Satrapi's spirit is. They aren't gratuitous, in other words. But it's just ... ho hum. The problem, I think, is that Satrapi isn't a terribly good writer. I mean, this is her life she's writing about, which is compelling in itself, so the book is a fascinating read. But it's awfully expository. Satrapi doesn't attempt to create a story arc, she just writes her experiences down like it's a diary. There are some funny and wry sections, and Satrapi makes the occasional nice observation about human nature, but essentially, this is "Next I did this, then I did that ..." kind of storytelling. Like I said, it's intrinsically compelling, but the writing is weak.

Satrapi also tries too hard to make her points. The characters speak like their speeches have been written for them, and although they aren't quite stereotypes, they do tread close to the line. They are all signposts along the way to Satrapi's self-realization, and it sometimes feels like they are simply saying the things Satrapi needs to react to in order for her to grow. There is too much telling, not showing, and it seems like Satrapi doesn't trust her reader to make the connections as they read.

There is a lot to like about Persepolis 2. I am glad I bought it, because it's interesting and tells a story we don't hear about very much here in the decadent West. But I'm warning you - it's good for you, but it might not go down so easy!

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Blogger Singles said...

But how will my pee smell afterwards?

Sorry, I had to do it. This is a great book, though.

10/10/2005 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Man, you got more balls than I do, Greg. There's folks out there would cut your head off for putting Heinz 57 on this sacred cow.

10/10/2005 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Nick Wyche said...

I think some of the traits you find to be dissatisfactory are some of the traits that make Persepolis so powerful. Satrapi is crafting an almost diary-like experience in her books. Her communication and craft is very direct and not-thought-out. She is letting us look into her private journal, basically.
I think if Persepolis were as well-planned and crafted as, say Maus, it would not have as much emotional impact as it does for most readers.
I, for one, love the burgeoning trend of "journal/diary comics" that are beginning to proliferate. AMERICAN ELF by James Kolckalka, the "journal" comics of Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, CARNET DE VOYAGE by Craig Thompson, all are very direct and creatively stimulating to me. My own work in my sketchbooks is currently moving in that direction. These "diary" works, alongside the ALEC stories by Eddie Campbell are, truly, inspirational comics.

10/10/2005 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger layne said...

First Owly, now this; whatsamatterwichoo, Burgas?

I agree. Another "good for you, just not all that good" book that some will tout as being an example of what the medium's capable of, but IMO squanders a lot of potential.

10/10/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Marionette said...

Looking at the information available on the website I am not moved to buy this book. I've seen several biographical works of this type, and the whole "relevence" thing seems to be an excuse for poor art and bad storytelling.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but when the story sample on the website that is presumably trying to interest me in buying the book gives me a scene in which our protagonist is shown as too shy to make friends and have fun, and yet so bored that she goes back and forth to the supermarket for something to do because she is too dull to come up with anything better, I am left unimpressed.

10/11/2005 10:27:00 AM  
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