PERSEPOLIS is what has come to be known as a "graphic novel." In its purist form, a graphic novel is a story told through sequential art. A friend of mine, upon receiving a copy of THE ROAD TO PERDITION that I sent to him, called me and exclaimed in delight, "I didn't know they had these things! It's like a comic book!" And yes, it is. When it's well done, it's not as easy as it looks and not simply something for lazy readers. You must have an excellent writer, a sensitive illustrator, and empathy between them to make it work.
Marjane Satrapi demonstrates her writing and artistic skills in PERSEPOLIS, which tells the story of Satrapi's early childhood, with the main focus being on her life from age ten through fourteen, from 1980 through 1984. Those were particularly turbulent years for Satrapi's native country of Iran, encompassing the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), the installation of the Islamic Republic, and the war with Iraq. The story is told entirely through the eyes of Satrapi, the child, and how these events affected her parents, her relatives, her friends, and herself. In her introduction to PERSEPOLIS, Satrapi notes that writing this book was so important to her since her native country is associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism; she does not want the entire nation judged, in her words, upon the actions of a few extremists. She additionally does not want the victims of these actions to be forgotten. In this, she succeeds: Satrapi's stark black and white images cast an appropriate and memorable gloom over her story.
PERSEPOLIS has been compared to MAUS, and certainly Satrapi's topic is somewhat similar, but her artistic style is closer to that of Los Bros Hernandez, whose brilliant LOVE AND ROCKETS is sadly missed. While Satrapi's artistic technique tends toward the spare, she wrings every possible emotion out of each drawing, communicating with a few strokes and shades what might otherwise take paragraphs, or even pages of words. When, for instance, she learns of the execution of her favorite uncle at the hands of the Islamic Republic, her reaction, her emotional devastation, is communicated ever so eloquently in a single, stark panel. It is almost anti-climactic when she rejects the personification of God afterward. Even the images of playtime and recreation --- those things that we here in the United States take for granted --- are subtlety infused with somber overtones.
PERSEPOLIS ends with Satrapi's parents sending her to Austria to avoid the repercussions of the Islamic government. One is left wondering what became of Satrapi and her parents. Satrapi is reportedly working on a sequel to PERSEPOLIS, which undoubtedly will be most welcomed by readers of this volume.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 31, 2003