"And if you make me your religion / I'll give you all the room you need / I'll be the drawing of your breath / I'll be the cup if you should bleed"
I'm always hesitant to review a volume one when I know there will be more (three, in this case), as I prefer to review the entire story, but I also know that it's better to get the word out about volume one so that people might buy it and thereby make it more probable that we'll actually get a volume two and volume three. Such a dilemma! Persia Blues is probably not large on many people's radar, so I figured it would be good to let you know about it.
Persia Blues is a strange comic, because parts of it feel far too familiar, but parts of it are wildly original, and I can't decide if it's just because Naraghi happens to set the book in Iran, so it feels more exotic. Naraghi doesn't do the greatest job with dialogue, because some it is just too on the nose - his protagonist, Minoo, is a 25-year-old Iranian woman who chafes against the strictures of the Islamic Republic, and she argues with her father about the way life is in Iran. Her father, Bijan, is a liberal who tries in his own way to fight against the mullahs who run the country, but he's also older and has seen what happens when you challenge the regime (Naraghi drops hints about what has happened, and it's well done because he's not overt). He's also the father of a young woman, so of course he's going to be a bit more conservative about her, even if it's just to warn her about punks with flashy cars. The problem with this part of the book is that the dialogue often feels a bit too staged, as if the characters are just speaking in declarations rather than the way people actually speak, which makes it less compelling. Early on in the book, Naraghi does this a bit to give us information about Iranian culture, and I don't have a problem with it (although it does speak to a shameful ignorance of other cultures that many Americans have), but when he's writing about Minoo and her father, it becomes less defensible. It's not too big a deal, because the story is good, but it does drag the book down a little.
Naraghi's story follows two separate plot lines, and both are interesting.
It begins in a "peculiar town on the outer reaches of the Persian Empire," with Minoo and her lover retrieving something that was stolen - we find out later that it's a holy text of Zoroastrianism. Minoo then dreams of a strange epic with wild mythological creatures, and she also thinks the priest to whom she gave the book is dying. She rushes to him and finds out that he is indeed dying after being attacked by the demon Ahriman, the opposite of Ahura Mazda, the supreme creator of Zoroastrianism. Minoo is told by a strange creature that she needs to go to Persepolis, the capital of the empire, to find her destiny. Minoo is angry at her father and hasn't seen her mother in years, but the priest and the creature tell her that she'll learn more about her mom in Persepolis. At the end of this volume, she's reached Persepolis and discovered at least one important thing.
Meanwhile, the parallel story is about Minoo, a typical Iranian woman. She lives in Shiraz and studies architecture, which we learn later was a compromise with her father. Minoo is a spirited woman, and early on she helps a woman get away from the police, who have accosted her because her hijab isn't covering her entire head. Her father doesn't think this is a good idea, but she points out that he once went to jail for standing up to the regime. We also find out more about her mother and her brother, but we don't know too much about their fate. We only know that Minoo's mother is dead, but not much else. This volume is about establishing the relationship between Minoo and her dad, and Naraghi does a pretty good job with it (with the aforementioned problem with some of the dialogue, of course). It's interesting seeing two people living in a world that is very restrictive, because while many of their problems are fairly standard for a father and daughter, the added layer of repression makes every small event feel more important, as one or both of the characters could find themselves on the wrong side of the religious law at any point. At the end, Naraghi begins to pull the two stories together - the Minoo in the "old" story says that she's from Columbus instead of Shiraz, and in the "new" story, Minoo's father gets her into Ohio State in Columbus.
Naraghi had already made it clear that something was up, because in the "old" story, Minoo's lover is named Tyler, and one character comments on the weirdness of his name. We don't know what's going on, but it's a clever way to tell the story.
Bowman's art is quite good, but it's also rather fascinating. In the "real" world, he uses a thin pencil-and-ink line that looks flat on the page, making it more "realistic" and even somewhat drab. He does a nice job with the characters, as often the way they react to each other is quite subtle - he does a fine job making Minoo a feisty young woman, which is reflected even when she's a teenager and a child, and he makes sure Bijan is both kindly yet exasperated at Minoo's exuberance. It's very interesting seeing how the characters dress in public and private, and of course Minoo has to act just a bit more submissive in public, but Naraghi and Bowman do a good job showing how that grinds against her. When Bowman illustrates the "old" story, he uses a more intricate inking style - some of it looks like it's brushwork - and he uses far more tones to suggest a richer, deeper world. Everything in the "mythological" world is coded with meaning, as is usual in those kinds of worlds, and Bowman does a fantastic job making that world a lusher, more vibrant place than the repressive Iran of the present. His skill with facial expressions and body language is still there, so he can still do some interesting work in that regard, but he can also be bolder and more imaginative, because the story demands it. It's a nice contrast between the two narratives, and it's nice that Bowman decided to tell the stories in those ways.
Obviously, this is the first part of a larger epic, so it's impossible to judge whether everything Naraghi puts in this volume will pay off, but so far, this is a solid beginning with a lot of cool cultural tropes that we don't usually see because we're not reading comics about Iran. It's fascinating to compare the "old" story with the "modern" story, because in the "old" one, Minoo's prowess as a warrior is just taken for granted, and no one questions whether she should be running around fighting creatures. I imagine Naraghi will continue to examine the way women are treated in Iran as opposed to this odd quasi-Persian empire where Minoo is a fearsome warrior, and I'm looking forward to that as well as continuing with both quests that both Minoos are on. Let's hope volume two is on the way soon!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆