A Double Life in Black and White

The two volumes of Persepolis, the implacably witty and fearless “graphic memoir” of the Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi, relate through an inseparable fusion of cartoon images and verbal narrative the story of a privileged young girl’s childhood experience of Iran’s revolution of 1979, its eight-year war with Iraq, her exile to Austria during her high school years, and her subsequent experience as a university student, young artist, and wife in Tehran after her return to Iran from Europe in 1998. That Persepolis 1, a book in which it is almost impossible to find an image distinguished enough to consider an independent piece of visual art, and equally difficult to find a sentence which in itself surpasses the serviceable, emerges as a work so fresh, absorbing, and memorable is an extraordinary achievement.

In the cartoon world she creates, pictures function less as illustration than as records of action, a kind of visual journalism. On the other hand, dialogue and description, changing unpredictably in visual style and placement on the page within its balloons, advance frame by frame like the verbal equivalent of a movie. Either element would be quite useless without the other; like a pair of dancing partners, Satrapi’s text and images comment on each other, enhance each other, challenge, question, and reveal each other. It is not too fanciful to say that Satrapi, reading from right to left in her native Farsi, and from left to right in French, the language of her education, in which she wrote Persepolis, has found the precise medium to explore her double cultural heritage.

She is a rare kind of artist, one who makes use not only of her talents, but a disciplined, deliberate use of her imperfections as a verbal and visual stylist, not attempting to conceal them, but to incorporate them as part of her subject. In Volume 2, in a chapter called “The Socks,” there is a poignant, absurd, and enraging sequence that explains the source of the odd truncation and awkward gestures of Satrapi’s images, particularly of bodies. The art department of her university in Tehran, under the supervision of mullahs, was forbidden to offer traditional anatomy classes. Female models posed covered head to toe in sheets like black chadors, while male models were allowed to pose in marginally more revealing street clothes. When Satrapi, an indefatigable student, stays late to draw a seated male model, she is challenged by a supervisor, who tells her it is against the moral code for her to look at the man she is drawing. When she asks with incredulous flippancy if she should look instead at the door while drawing the man, the supervisor replies, “Yes.”

Satrapi herself has said in an interview, “There were many things I didn’t do because I couldn’t do them. But I was clever enough to take my lack and make a style of it.” It is precisely this quality of inventive limitation, the visible struggle with the accidents of restriction …

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