Comic Studies: "Persepolis" and "Fun Home"

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

The topic we covered this week is one I'd been looking forward to since I first applied for the course: Comics and Identity. Two autobiographical comics were chosen to explore this avenue through -- "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi, one of my all time favorites, and Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home," which I hadn't yet read despite enjoying her "Dykes to Watch Out For" strip.

In this case, of course, identity also covered sexuality and feminism, though both in very different ways. I first picked up "Persepolis" in a book shop after being asked to submit a comic review for a feminist website. It seemed the ideal choice, and as I started to read it in the shop, I ended up buying the book with my finger still inside to keep my page. While I found the second part of the story (Book 2 in the UK and US, Books 3 and 4 in France) a little less absorbing, the first half is still one of the most accessible comics I've ever come across.

The illustration style is iconic; sharp, black and white, simple drawings, very little facial detail, occasional exaggeration and frequent trips into the imaginary and surrealist mind of the young protagonist. Satrapi narrates the story of her youth in a turbulent period of Iranian history, using both her adult voice and that of her child self. Unlike the autobiographix we studied in previous weeks, "Persepolis" is written and drawn by the same person. The portrayal of events are not filtered through a collaborative artist, yet it's still hard to remain certain whether everything in the comic actually happened as described. This is particularly true when the real combines with the unreal, such as Marj speaking with God and Karl Marx.

But to focus on that would be to miss both the point of the comic and one of the key reasons why it has been such a successful title, critically and sales-wise. "Persepolis" explores numerous controversial issues, from the wearing of a veil and the oppression of women in Iran, to the horrors of war and fundamentalism and even the loneliness of the West. The writing alone opens autobiographies such as these are to criticism as religious treatises, but the use of art to suggest and provoke feelings and responses rather than demand them leaves the work far more open to interpretation by the reader. The reader plays an active role, which results (sometimes!) in a far less judgmental reaction.

What is meant by an "active role," though? Marshall McLuhan was one of the most influential scholars in early media theory, perhaps most famous for proposing that "the medium is the message." Highlighting the fact that different media have a different influence on how their content affects society (well actually, he insisted the content didn't matter, but I digress...), McLuhan also developed the concept of hot and cool media. Hot media are those that require minimal participation, such as film, for example, where the viewer can simply sit back and let their brain fill with information. Comics, however, are cool media, requiring a huge amount of reader participation to deliver their content.

You may think reading comics is easy, and like me, you've probably been sneered at for reading such low-brow material, but, in fact, they require the reader to do a lot of work. Comics are composed of still images, broken across time and space. If Superman is on the street poised to jump in one panel, and the next has him looking as though he just landed on top of the Daily Planet, your brain quickly fills in the missing action and movement that the gutter (space between the panels) implies. It's a simple example, but take a look at the next comic you read and you'll realize that much of the story and action is down to reader interpretation. Subtle pointers, hints of emotion or expression, slight evidence of movement or motive, changes in tone and meaning -- comics are really bloody clever.

Incidentally, novels and literature count as hot media. Something to remind those high-brow readers! Poetry, however, is still cool.

So because "Persepolis" suggests, provokes and implies rather than rigidly demanding a specific response, the experience as a whole is far more subjective and less threatening to the reader. It is, in fact, that much easier to identify with, as our own opinions and experiences color our understanding of the story.

The art style used also makes "Persepolis" a very easy comic to identify with. Satrapi wrote it specifically for a Western audience, and the very simple rendering of faces, for example, allows the reader to relate to the characters despite the very real differences between Western living and life in Iran. "Persepolis" is an almost textbook example of Scott McCloud's theory of "amplification through simplification." (McCloud is one of the most prominent comic theorists, best known for his fantastic "Understanding Comics," a comic theory text written entirely in comic format.) The simpler the image, the more powerful the impact it can have. A more realistic drawing has more information to process about the details of the image itself, rather than what it represents, while a simple abstract image, like a smiley face, has very little to process, allowing us to discern the meaning far more quickly and powerfully.

Throughout "Persepolis," simple images convey very complex messages and the art does not distract from Satrapi's meaning. The simple images also mean that the reader can relate more easily to the story, which is important as people will often shut off if something seems to foreign to them. Given that non-Western people are often thought of as "other" by Westerners, it's important to remember that Satrapi wrote "Persepolis" for Westerners: it's the Westerners who are the "other" and therefore need things to be simple and accessible. You learn a lot about the political upheaval in Iran during the 70s and 80s (and further back than that, even, in one single page) without realizing it. It's interesting that by using more abstract art, Satrapi has overturned the notion of Iran being an abstract concept.

"Persepolis" is a wonderful comic about identity, covering many different interpretations of the concept of "self." Marjane is liberal, independent and rebellious, but also loves her culture, her female bonds and is wise to the false freedoms of the West. Satrapi steps forward to tell her story of a life in Iran, and in doing so blasts our assumptions about the fabled "oppressed female" monolith that resides there (ie the trope of "Eastern women need the enlightened Westerners to save them"), and equally, that not every woman who steps forward is anti-veil, or particularly unique in their views.

But what spoke to me the most about "Persepolis" was Satrapi's outright rejection of feminism. That's not to say that "Persepolis" isn't a feminist text, as in many ways it very much is. However, I feel that it is hugely important to respect Satrapi's choice in avoiding the term. She identifies as a humanist, resisting a male/female dichotomy, but has also commented that if she was still in Iran, certainly she would be feminist. She is, however, scornful of feminism in the West, stating that the beauty myth is the veil of the West.

Her rejection of the term is something Western feminists would do well to take note of. For decades, Western feminism was dominated by privileged white women, and its language was appropriated by privileged white colonialist men. As recently as the first decade of the current millenium, President Bush invoked feminist rhetoric to justify the war in Afghanistan, yet he could hardly be described as a feminist with regard to his home policies. It's very easy for privileged white women to react in outrage at events in other countries, without first checking the glass house they're throwing stones in. It's no wonder Satrapi was disgusted by the banning of the veil at schools in France, her adopted country. While "Persepolis" shows time and time again that Satrapi does not like the veil, it's also made very clear that her objection is to the enforced wearing of it, not the veil itself. Freedom of choice was what she was denied, and she saw the same thing happening again, in reverse, in a Western country.

These subtle complexities play out across "Persepolis," making the graphic novel a must read for everyone. In terms of comic theory, I could easily discuss it all day! Satrapi makes clever use of mirrors, repetition, frames within frames and contrasting images of joy and horror. I do believe I may have found the subject of my essay!

What, then, of "Fun Home," written by Alison Bechdel, an outspoken queer feminist who introduced the world to the infamous Bechdel Test? This comic isn't simply Bechdel's autobiographical account of her own childhood, but a deep examination of the relationship she had (or lacked) with her father and the devastating impact that he had on her life. Despite "Fun Home's" subtitle being "A Family Tragicomic," it's interesting to note that very little information is ever given about Bechdel's mother and brothers. Her father pulled everyone into orbit around him, and the comic, too, almost folds around him and his secret.

"Fun Home" is incredibly text heavy, but the prose is skillfully handled. While it takes a while to get through the book, the discursive (and recursive!) timeline, along with a lot of literary references and even a homage to Harvey Pekar, keeps everything bubbling along nicely. By going back to events already described, layering more and more detail upon important emotional moments, Bechdel builds up very intense picture of her early years.

Unlike "Persepolis" 1, which is illustrated in such a way that the reader can almost understand the entire story without ever reading the text, "Fun Home" seems almost complete without any images. The two or three lines of text above every panel, combined with the dialogue inside, gives a memoir that would work very well in text alone. So why tell it graphically?

In Autobiographix, there is always a tension between the Narrating I and the Narrated I. The Narrating I is the author, in the present day, describing their past, which in "Fun Home" is always placed above the panels. The Narrated I is the author as they were in the past, which in "Fun Home" is represented through the illustrations and dialogue. Interestingly, in "Persepolis," Satrapi occasionally speaks as her present day self through the mouth of her younger avatar. But in "Fun Home," things are kept distinctly separate -- the text is Bechdel's narrative, much like a regular autobiography, and her art is her narrated, how her younger self saw things.

There's a lot of fun to be had with "Fun Home" (pun not intended!). Upon multiple re-readings, you realize how many clever little hints and clues litter the images, along with all the various literary references that have their own multiple meanings as the story plays out. Unlike the iconic illustration of "Persepolis," "Fun Home" is far more realistic in appearance, Bechdel meticulously posing all her images photographically before illustrating them. The two texts are fantastic to compare and contrast.

But for now, it's onwards to Comics and History! Until next time, true believers.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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