Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel about a young girl growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. It’s a coming of age story unlike any other I’ve ever read, because the changes in society during this extremely turbulent time affected every aspect of daily life and had a significant impact on her worldview and upbringing. It is a very personal story, but also about much wider issues such as freedom of speech and censorship, rebellion against authority and cultural change.
There are a number of autobiographical and coming of age comics available from writers across the world. Some are very personal stories about an individual’s journey through their difficult teenage years and focused on their local town or area. It’s usually easy to relate to these stories as we may have had similar experiences and may have gone through the same gamut of emotions. Other autobiographical comics come from writers in parts in the world we rarely hear from. (Or when we do it’s usually on the news and not a story from a local’s perspective.) Joe Sacco, for example, is a journalist and artist who has written graphic novels about his time spent in places such as Palestine, where everyday funny stories are mixed in with tales of tragedy.
Persepolis strikes a similar tone in regards to funny idiosnycracies and tales of tragedy. The autobiography chronicles Marjane Satrapi’s life as she grows up in Iran during and then after the Islamic Revolution. The graphic novel is a collection of vignettes that are touching and tragic and they tell you a great deal about the people living in Iran; their culture, heritage and history. They are a proud people who rebelled against one oppressive regime only to find themselves struggling against a new and even more repressive government. As Marjane grows up, the civil liberties of her and those around her erode away. By the time she becomes a teenager, women have become less than second class citizens and all power and authority rests with men.
At the start of the story, Marjane’s parents protest the new regime vigorously but are soon cowed into silence as it becomes clear that the new authority in Iran punishes dissidents with beatings, imprisonment, and execution. (At one point, Marjane relates a story about an entire cinema full of people locked inside by the police during a fire.) In contrast to her relatively carefree youth, as Marjane grows almost every family she comes into contact with, friends and people at school, suffers some kind of a tragic loss. Satrapi is not immune to this. After he tries to feel the country, her own uncle is imprisoned and executed under the charge that he is a Russian spy. Marjane ends up being his last visitor in prison.
Growing up, we all experience teenage angst and growing pains. We don’t think the world understands us. There’s a lot of thrashing about and shouting at those in authority as we stumble towards adulthood. For a great many in the developed world, this angst pales against the threat that Satrapi lives under, should she be judged as someone rebellious. Marjane is a very outspoken and intelligent young woman that chafes against these restrictions and undoubtedly the events she experiences while growing up shape her as an individual in ways we can’t really understand, but which Satrapi makes elegantly clear in her book.
Having said all of that, the story isn’t all doom and gloom. On occasion Marjane does complain about not getting the latest pop culture fashion item or music cassette (this was long before CD players and iPods) and her parents do their very best to appease her. Her family have parties in secret and a friend brews wine so they can still have a few drinks, and something resembling normality, behind closed doors.
The situation eventually becomes so troubling that Marjane’s parents feel it’s safer if she lives abroad and part of the second half of the story is about her life in Austria. Living without the restrictions imposed by the Iranian government unmoors Marjane, however, and goes through a number of changes. She struggles to remain faithful to her parents and culture, while also experimenting and indulging, as most young people do, with her newfound freedom.
Unfortunately she never seems to find a natural equilibrium where she is happy with herself and who she is, and comfortable in her surroundings. When Marjane opens up and relates events in Iran to her friends they sound so horrific they think she is making it up to sound cool. They simply can’t believe people could be stopped, beaten, imprisoned, and executed for the smallest of reasons.
It’s obvious she enjoys some aspects of life in Vienna, getting to experience many every day freedoms denied to her in Iran, but she also unmistakeably feels like a square peg in a round hole. After four years she decides to return home, only to find that her time abroad has “westernized” her to an extent. Even Iran doesn’t feel quite like home any more. As much as this story is about the changes in Iran, it’s also about Marjane finding her place in the world. Just as importantly, Persepolis humanizes the people living in Iran without glossing over the realities of living under its current regime.
Persepolis is a funny, touching and very emotional story which speaks to the audience on many levels about freedom and the consequences of change. In 2007 an animated adaptation of Persepolis in French received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and brought an even greater level of attention to this fascinating and eye-opening autobiographical graphic novel. The story itself is a powerful example of how comics as a medium can educate while entertaining.