When you think of Marjane Satrapi, chances are you think of comics about her family and her native country of Iran. The Sigh is neither a comic, nor is it about her family or Iran.
Rather it is a short, illustrated prose fairy tale, and one that, while original, is heavily inspired by and contains elements of many other familiar fairy tales, although not necessarily Iranian ones, with Beauty and the Beast and the story of Cupid and Psyche informing much of the early part of the book.
While it’s not the sort of work Satrapi is best known for, it’s not exactly a departure either. Her 2006 graphic novel Chicken With Plums featured some fairy tale-like sequences embedded within it, even if it the overall story was inspired by stories of a real relative of hers, and that same year Bloomsbury published a children’s picture book of hers entitled Monsters Are Afraid of the Moon.
The Sigh was originally published in Satrapi’s adopted country of France, and Archaia re-published it in an English-language edition late last year. Edward Gauvin handled the translation, and it’s a very lovely-looking book the publisher has put together. I’m not speaking of the art, necessarily—we’ll get to that in a moment—but as in an object.
The story is less than sixty pages, so the volume is quite slim, and, at eight-inches-by-six-and-a-quarter-inches, it’s also small, looking like a child-sized hardcover. There’s a black and white (and blue) image of the heroine and her love on the cover, evocative of the style in Satrapi’s best-known works, although the designs are less flat and have greater weight and depth about them.
They are on a title card embedded in an ornate silver border that is in and of itself a piece of art. Sexy is not really the right word for a book, as I think even most bibliophile’s would agree, but this is one of those too-rare books that’s so well-designed it inspires a feeling that can only really be described as book lust.
The story is that of Rose, the youngest of a merchant’s three daughters. When he offers them each any gift they choose upon returning from his travels, the older sisters both wish for something expensive and fancy, while Rose, who is interested in botany, requests the seed of a blue bean.
He fails to find it for her, and when she hears this she sighs “Ah,” which summons a creature who introduces himself as Ah, The Sigh. He serves the Prince of the Kingdom of Sighs, and delivers Rose to him to be his wife.
It’s a good match, but things go terribly wrong, and to make them right, Rose must serve as a slave in three different households, each of which has its own unique, fairy tale-derived problem that she must solve.
The world Satrapi creates is an interesting mix of timeless fairytale and modern times, and while so many of the elements borrow from individual older stories, many others simply adhere to certain tropes (three repetitions, for example, or the youngest child being the cleverest child), and it is obviously penned with a modern understanding of psychological reading of fairy tales, perhaps most obviously in a bit about a man’s son who becomes a dragon.
The most obvious difference between Satrapi’s art here and in her memoir comics like Persepolis, Embroideries and the aforementioned Chicken and Plums, is that it is in color (as was the art in Monsters Are Afraid of the Moon), but as the cover image suggests, her imagery is a lot less flat. One could certainly be forgiven for not recognizing it as the art of Marjane Satrapi.
The figures are all rounder, and she suggests a depth of dimensions through shading them. It may be because they aren’t based on real people as those in her graphic novels are, but the characters are also more generic looking—the main characters remain distinct from one another, but the incidental ones don’t look as particular as most of Satrapi’s characters do. That is, a drawing of a man will look like a man, rather than a particular man.
It is seemingly drawn in crayon—fancy artists’ crayons rather than the Crayola sort—so the lines all have a gritty texture, and the coloring reveals the bits of the white of the paper below, so the illustrations have a more hand-made, immediate quality than the machine-like precision of her black and white comics epics.
It’s a lovely book, judging by its cover, its contents and the meaning of those contents, and you can’t really ask for more than that. It’s not comics, of course, but the simple, familiar but individual sounding writing—with a voice suggestive of a great storyteller improvising something based on memories of a half-dozen other stories—is strong enough that you barely miss the panels and dialogue balloons.
It makes for a nice addition to a little shelf of Satrapi’s books, even if it’s not quite like all the others.
The Sigh by Marjane Satrapi, Archaia Entertainment, 56 pages, $11