The biographical graphic novel has proven, over the last thirty years or so, to be an effective way to tell a life story. Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor are grand, and greatly different accounts of their author’s lives; Art Spiegelman’s Maus blends Spiegelman’s own relationship with his father with his father’s account of World War II – with the twist that everyone is represented as an animal. Name recognition may stretch to two of those three titles, if I’m being optimistic, but I’m pretty sure that most people had never heard of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis before it became a film – and even then, most people still haven’t heard of it.
I don’t have particularly fond memories of American Splendor as a film, possibly because it was not so much personal as it was blazingly meta, but Persepolis benefits from a presumably direct translation into the animated form and, like Frank Miller’s Sin City, is co-directed by Satrapi herself. In black and white, Satrapi captures not just her own childhood, but the spirit of an age: Iran going from one peril to another, and how Europe reacted as outsiders looking in. In a few words, it’s pretty dang good.
Marjane grew up in Iran, in a time when the Shah was being ousted and an Islamic government was on the cusp of being elected. Everything changes for her, but the one constant in her life is her loving family unit: or it would be constant, if the Iranian governmental system didn’t consistently arrest or kill members of it. Her parents send her to Vienna, and eventually Marjane returns to find the country, if anything, worse than it was before.
From my understanding, this is pretty much just history. Persepolis, above anything personal that can be taken out of it, pretty much proves that history sucks – and that it still does. Despite the many horrible things that Marjane witnesses, however, there’s a certain optimism about it. There always is that optimism inherent in a graphical autobiography: no matter how bad an author’s life has sucked, they managed to come through and make a comic about it eventually. For some reason, the part where Marjane decides to re-engineer her life is a montage set to her singing “Eye of the Tiger”. In any other movie it would be too cliché, but a Frenchwoman singing the song in almost unintelligible English takes the edge off and makes it more amusing than derivative.
Of course, that’s getting ahead of myself, because Marjane has a whole childhood to live through, first: Satrapi appears to have always had a vibrant imaginary life, and the childhood segments of the film are frequently quite whimsical: no one does sheer malevolence like a child who believes that she is ineffably right. Marjane does not lead a life as charmed as she would liked to have thought it, and this is proved very early on with the frankly stunning gas-masked trooper march. One thing that I hated about the press for this movie was that they went on about how “simple” the animation was. They meant this in a positive way, but it’s practically impossible not to see just how much care went into the composition and fluidity of the entire movie. If it’s not harder to work in, then black and white is definitely harder for the eye to process complexities than colour, because there are less differentiations. The troops are a sea of black, but you get the impression of numbers from them. This movie is not an “attack of the amorphous blobs” proposition, and it shouldn’t be taught that way.
Satrapi is rather frank in her storytelling, not always showing herself in a positive light and plainly admitting that her reactions were coloured by what she was feeling at the time. She did not always make the right decisions but, again, she managed to get an autobiography out of it. The film has rightly been controversial in Iran, but it was released there, albeit censored for “sexual content”. It’s works like this that expose societies that audiences may have been ignorant of – and it’s certainly hard to believe that, whatever the Iranian government may say, Satrapi would have fabricated her family’s tragic history to such an extent.
There are important lessons to be learned from Persepolis: important, terrifying and charming, all. Simplicity is merely a deception in this sweeping and intensely personal story that manages to capture an era through the eyes of one woman and her love for the family and world around her.