Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we're looking at the output of a cartoonist that in the past decade has captivated an audience that has largely avoided comics, Marjane Satrapi.
Why she's important
In a word, Persepolis. Her memoir of her life in Iran during the revolution came to American shores at exactly the right time -- no doubt many would have been interested in a look at growing up in Iran regardless, but Persepolis arrived fresh after the horrors of 9/11 and a new interest in the Middle East. It also came just as comics were starting to gain a bit of traction in more literary circles and the notion of reading a comic -- sorry, graphic novel -- memoir about life in Iran held appeal to those who had previously turned up their nose at anything that resembled a comic book.
Beyond that, Satrapi, at least as a cartoonist, can be a very direct and powerful storyteller. There's a reason we included Persepolis on our list of the most important comics of the last decade. Here's what I wrote about the book then:
But Perspolis’ success — indeed, it’s continued success — in a large part is due to Satrapi’s simplistic, bare bones style and direct, unfussed storytelling. The very elements that turn off some, more experienced comics critics are the very things that make it perfect for the unwashed masses. It’s simply a very easy book to engage, about a subject that interests a great many of us. Perhaps I can best sum it up this way: Very few of my non-comics reading friends — family members, co-workers, etc. — ask to borrow my comics. They don’t want to read Watchmen (even if they’ve seen the movie), they don’t ask about Captain America getting shot or even express an interest in Maus. Everyone asks if they can borrow Persepolis.
Where to start
Well, duh. While Satrapi has continued to produce many engaging and thoughtful works, Persepolis remains her finest and most influential work to date. True, the book does stumble a bit when she leaves Iran to study abroad as a teen, but the contrast between the two cultures only serves to heighten the horrors she endures when she returns home as a young adult. Save yourself some cash and opt for the complete version, rather than the two individual volumes.
From there you should read
Satrapi returned to Iran, at least in spirit, with Embroideries, a novella involving Satrapi, her mother and her mother's friends, who all meet for coffee and swap stories, mostly involving the no-good men in their lives. The book offers a rather pointed rebuke to the religious extremist notions about the purity of women or that sexual attitudes can be brought into check by the government and religious forces. Embroideries was initially done as part of French publisher L'Association's sketchbook line and thus has a looser -- even at times sloppier -- feel than Persepolis. Some American readers, ignorant of the book's origins, criticized the book for that, but I think the style gives the work an intimate feel and it remains a thoughtful, powerful book.
Satrapi followed up Embroideries with Chicken With Plums, a heavily fictionalized account of Satrapi's uncle, a musician who decides to commit suicide by wasting away after his wife deliberately breaks his beloved instrument. Served with sizable dollops of magical realism (the angel of death is a significant character in the story) the graphic novel tells and re-tells the musician's story, slowly revealing more of his tragic story and unrequited love. It's one of Satrapi's trickiest and most challenging works to date, a meditation on the importance of art and pleasure in life and how our own selfishness and suffering can blind us to the needs of others.
Satrapi's latest work isn't a comic at all, but an illustrated short story entitled The Sigh. The story concerns a young woman who is whisked away to a magical kingdom and finds true love, only to lose it through her thoughtlessness. She subsequently must go on a quest to try to set things right. Satrapi draws on a lot of classic fairy tales for The Sigh, especially Beauty and the Beast, and the influences loom a bit too large for the story to find it's own unique identity, the way, for example, James Thurber's fairy tales did. The psychological underpinnings of the story are a bit too on the nose at times as well (a boy hides in the skin of a dragon to protect himself from the world). Satrapi's color illustrations, however, are lush and vibrant and arguably worth the price of admission.
Satrapi has also written a children's book, Monsters Are Afraid of the Moon, about a little girl plagued by monsters and the trouble that ensues when she tries to get rid of them. I wasn't able to get a copy of the book in time for the purposes of this post, but the online samples seem quite charming. And fellow Robot 6 contributor J. Caleb Mozzocco seemed to like it well enough.
In recent years, Satrapi has made the move from cartoonist to filmmaker, first with her adaptation of Persepolis, a movie she co-directed with fellow cartoonist Vincent Parronaud, a.k.a. Winshluss ("Pinocchio").Though considerably streamlined, its an exemplary adaptation, and has probably garnered a larger audience than the original book.
Satrapi and Parronaud have a new film out right now, an adaptation of Chicken With Plums, this time with live actors, though I understand some animation does crop up occasionally. The film has generated favorable reviews for the most part, especially from critic Roger Ebert, who liked it quite a bit.
There's really nothing in Satrapi's bibliography that I'd recommend avoiding. The Sigh is her weakest book to date and can be saved for last, but it's not so terrible I'd suggest skipping it altogether.
Next month: David B.