That Pantheon has made Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis its flagship graphic-novel release for the year is no surprise. The story Satrapi tells — about her childhood in Iran, as the country transformed from a Westernized dictatorship into an Islamic theocracy and then went to war with Iraq — couldn't be more topical. However, the resulting book causes a mixed reaction.
Satrapi, now 33 and living in Paris, is a skillful storyteller. Persepolis is a breeze to read, her drawings are pleasing, and she has a keen eye for the details that comprise both personal and national histories. The problem is, Satrapi, the great-granddaughter of an Iranian king, grew up in a well-off family, which raises questions about how class can affect an artist's ability to depict political oppression effectively. And her breezy storytelling lacks the sophistication of some of Satrapi's nonfiction-comics predecessors — Art Spiegelman's Maus and David B.'s Epileptic — reading more like a book for teenagers than one for adults.
At the start of Persepolis, originally released in France, little Marji is 10 years old, and revolution is raging around her. Her Marxist parents and thousands more are protesting against the shah, eventually toppling the British-/U.S.-backed dictator. But in the wings wait fundamentalists, who quickly win over the Iranian people — "The Sheep," Satrapi calls them in a chapter title — and take power. The changes Marji notices first are personal: Her French school is segregated by gender, and the girls are forced to wear veils. "And that was that," she says.
Over time, the restrictions become harsher and more noticeable: Travel is restricted, parties and alcohol are banned, and the sassy Marji is taken in by the morality police for wearing sneakers. Many of the political prisoners who were released after the shah was toppled, including friends and relatives of Marji's family, are reimprisoned and/or executed by the Islamists. The Iran-Iraq war is constantly in the background, and Tehran is frequently bombed. Finally, Marji's parents send her to school in Austria, knowing she'll likely never return.
While Satrapi mostly ignores the differences between her family and the millions of impoverished Iranians, at one point — after the family maid falls in love with a neighbor's son, and Marji comforts the servant — she reflects, "We were not in the same social class but at least we were in the same bed." Persepolis is full of such observations, but Satrapi's draftsmanship is too iconic and simplified to define her characters' complicated emotions. Sadness, for example, is depicted with oversized, cartoony teardrops. And she employs the comics trick of repetitive imagery so often — for mourners, soldiers, protesters--that it loses its effectiveness.
Thanks to its timeliness, Persepolis is certain to be read by many. However, for Satrapi to reach the front of the autobiographical comics library — and to deserve the attention this book is receiving — she must improve her skills and lengthen her perspective.
Christopher Skokna writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.