I haven’t read many graphic novels. In fact, the only one I’ve read (aside from Persepolis, which we’ll get to in a moment) is At A Crossroads by Kate T. Williamson. It’s a genre in which I find it difficult to choose a book that really grabs me, so I’m really not sure what made me suddenly decide to order Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir The Complete Persepolis from the library and dive right in.
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is the author’s memoir of growing up in Iran. It was originally written in two parts but was compiled into one (hence the “Complete”) after the 2007 movie Persepolis (which I did not see). My start as an independent bookstore employee roughly coincided with the release of the movie version and subsequent increased popularity of the book, so Satrapi’s memoir has been on my book radar for as long as I’ve had one.
The memoir is done in stark black-and-white illustrations, with comic style strips broken into chapters. It follows Satrapi’s life from the time she was a small child in Iran in the 1970s through her school years in Austria, her return to Iran, and her ultimate move to France. Throughout, Satrapi struggles with the constraints of her country’s laws and religion and chaffs — understandably — under the extreme restrictions placed on women. She makes her share of bad decisions and learns her lessons. Alongside her life are bits of Iran’s turbulent history, which are woven seamlessly into the narrative of her life.
I definitely learned a great deal about Iran from reading The Complete Persepolis. I enjoyed the book because of its graphic format, but also because, though it is born out of and told in the midst of turbulence, war, and oppression, so many pieces of the story are relatable. Unlike some memoirists, Satrapi gives attention to the ordinary bits, allowing them to be colored by her background but not so constrained by it that the reader cannot link his or her own experience to it. For example, there is the universal issue of a teenager trying to be accepted. For some, that might involve making the right friends or wearing the right clothes. For Satrapi, in her school in Vienna, it was balancing her Iranian background with the culture and expectations of her peers. Or take the issue of middle school rebellion: for some teens, this involves piercings or wild parties, but for Satrapi and her friends, simply wearing a bracelet or a bit of makeup was enough. Anything more extreme would have resulted in unimaginable punishment.
I just have to say, I really liked Satrapi’s grandmother. She makes several appearances in the book, though all are brief. Yet from her body language, her comments, and the way Satrapi’s graphic self relates to her, she becomes this level-headed, tough, awesome grandmother who clearly influenced Satrapi and who Satrapi looked up to throughout the memoir. The other important characters were equally well developed, but my favorite was definitely Grandma.
At 341 pages, the book took me a respectable amount of time to read. Though there is less text than in a traditional memoir, I found myself taking time to study the illustrations, enjoying the way they worked with the text to tell a story. It feels like I’ve just finished a “real” book, and yet, somehow, it is different. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what, exactly, the difference is.
I think it lies in how the book is structured, which affects which elements are emphasized and how information is conveyed. Before you say “Well, duh!” hear me out.
With a traditional memoir, the details are described for you in words. Memoir, in general, seems to be a genre where lush description is prized, so that the taste of food, the sounds of war, the smell of a fresh cut meadow, and other sensory memories are given special attention. If a character walks into a room, most memoirists will give you at least some description of the room. If the room is populated with friends who will have speaking roles in the story, they tend to at least be assigned a name and maybe a little background, for the sake of clarity.
With a graphic memoir — at least, with Persepolis — the reliance on pictures to tell the story automatically highlights different elements. A whole page of pictures with captions describing one sensory memory would be both hard to draw and probably a little boring, not to mention that a book composed of such drawn out descriptions would get very long very quickly. With fewer words overall to work with, Satrapi (and I would imagine other graphic memoirists) use captions and dialogue to advance the plot instead of delve into details. So the details are instead expressed through the pictures. Instead of describing someone’s reaction through a string of words, Satrapi only needs to draw an appropriate face. If a setting or character is important, she can draw with greater detail and perhaps a caption; otherwise, no explanation is needed for the reader to understand that the scene is taking place in an anonymous room or that the extra people in the frame adding to the conversation are friends.
I also find I am rarely aware of how the passage of time physically affects the people in a traditional memoir, unless some detail is singled out and described to me. Yet in a graphic memoir, the passage of time must be obvious if the story is to come across as real. In Persepolis, Marjane changes appearance several times throughout the course of the story, and each permutation is tied in my mind to a phase of her life. Instead of hearing about it, you actually watch her grow from a cute kid to an awkward, rebellious teen to a graceful young lady. Kind of cool.
I am declaring my seconds foray in to the world of graphic novels a success. I have to get back to reading the books on my actual shelf, but I hope to pick up another graphic novel in the near future. Suggestions are welcome!