Tuesday, November 8, 2011


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003).

This was an entertaining, albeit occasionally frustrating experience. Marie and I saw the film version ages ago when it was playing at Cine Athens, and we kept intending to pick up the comics from which it was adapted, but just never found the time or pennies to do so. Fortunately, the market took care of that for us. Since the books have been assigned in so many college courses - probably that recent wave of "Graphic Novels 101" that comp lit departments have been offering - there are second-hand copies all over the place now.

You can see why this material really appeals to academics. If you're unfamiliar with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it is a memoir of a young girl's childhood in Iran in the mid-1970s, as the Islamic Revolution begins the overthrow of the Shah. Autobiography! Important recent world events! A female writer! Graphic novels! This thing ticks just about every conceivable box of the lit department's diversity checklist. In the defense of the hundreds of undergraduates who have dumped their copies of this book, I can see why it might not appeal to audiences who really want to believe that comic books are synonymous with superhero action.

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus, this is a work that has found so much academic and critical approval that other peoples' opinions get in the way of forming your own. Frankly, it's a book that I wish that I could love, but I really do find it quite cold. I do love her art style, and the bold, clean lines and the stark black and white. I like the simplicity of the flat character designs, but at the same time, they are so simple and so without depth that all of the art is just a breath away from dissolving into random polygons on paper. There were moments where the simplicity got in the way of really connecting with the emotions; young Marjane's immature rant at, and rejection of, God really did not resonate with me.

There are certainly elements and anecdotes that I liked a lot. I love the little tween rebellion that goes on with young Marjane embracing western pop music like Michael Jackson and Kim Wilde and getting grief for it from grown-ups, and I love her character's ongoing naive hero-worship. But after finishing it, I was left with a feeling of curiosity rather than satisfaction. I would like to read more Satrapi, and certainly will, but the elevation of this slight, often whimsical tale into the award-winning juggernaut that it became leaves me utterly baffled. It is cute and charming, but probably not a book that I'll be diving back into any time soon. Recommended with reservations.


BPP said...

Hey GG - excellent review, as ever, and one of the few on this book that hints to a wider problem.

I belong to a book club that is entirely made up of 30s-50yo women. Some of them a quiet into Sci-Fi, several were open to reading a GN, several were a bit 'ho-hum' but the group bonhomie got them to.

The general feeling of this non-comics audience (and also significantly, I suspect, non-hyped audience) was that the first part is charming, the German sections onward just a slog. Most of them thought Marjane is just an unlikable individual and with so few genuine insights that the book became uninteresting.

My own feeling is that the book is very poor in terms of what comics can achieve internally. There are few examples where the page or layout is cleverly used, the simplicity of the drawings doesn't always convey the emotions of a scene and the overall character development isn't there (such as the way one day the German punk is great, the next time we see him he's a dick BUT there is no explanation or consequence). Unlike you i'd no real wish to read more of her stuff. Nor had the book group.

In two months time the book group is reading Tardi's Are You There (ici meme).Thats why more comics people should join book groups - getting 20 copies of Tardi bought by 40 year old women. Hurrah.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Getting *one* copy of Tardi, by me, is something that needs doing. I really need to check out his stuff.

But this is interesting... this is the second comment that I received this week, following one in a Facebook group where I posted the link, that said the second part was the weaker of the two. When I reread Book 2 next week before writing a review, I'll see what I can do about pumping up its reputation a little. Thanks for writing!