The Complete Persepolis
Marjane Satrapi, writer/artist
Pantheon, October 2007
The first two-fifths or so of The Complete Persepolis is a pleasurable, even gripping read, coming across like a ground-level view of a real-world 1984 played as farce instead of tragedy. The euphoria of revolution giving way to factionalism and repression, the first ominous signs that something really bad is on the way, the lack of a coherent “and then this leader did this and this city did this” historical through-line (the Ayatollah Khomeini is never mentioned or even alluded to), the story told instead through only the glimpses of the avalanche of history available to a little girl—all this is reminiscent of Winston Smith’s memories of the dawn of Ingsoc and Big Brother in Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. In this way Persepolis does those of us on the outside of
Oceania Iran a great service as it reveals that this regime’s thought police is a miserable failure: Beneath the veils and behind closed doors, people live the most normal, hopeful, free lives they possibly can. The breezy cartooning and young Marjane’s precociousness leaven the proceedings with the kind of humor you’ve got to figure is anathema to the benighted thugs who’ve forced otherwise regular people into an ongoing nightmare of political prisons, bloody fanaticism, and hypocritical sexual repression.
But when the second chunk of the story rolls around, the seams start to show. Teen Marjane’s misadventures in Europe are a lot less compelling as narrative than li’l Marjane’s Revolutionary childhood–they’re not a whole lot more exciting than any kid you ever knew who smoked weed a lot in high school, in fact. And it’s at that point that you start to really notice the weakness of Satrapi’s cartooning. Her line seems chunky but without purpose, like it’s simply out of shape, while she either has the most limited ability to draw clothes and figures I’ve ever seen or she actually does know more people who dress head to toe in black all the time than you’d find in the audiences shown in Depeche Mode 101. Juxtapose both aspects of her art with the frames of the animated feature based on the book that populate this edition’s cover and the comparison is not flattering to the source material: The cartoon’s line is cleaner, the character designs tighter, and the graytones give the backgrounds (frequently nonexistent in the book itself) a lush life of their own. Satrapi also proves to be an unreliable editor for her own biography, as a lot of the juiciest material (losing her virginity, dealing drugs, the “hours of hallucinations” she suffered after a suicide attempt) are almost completely elided, in favor of countless stories about how tedious she finds her friends. (Hey, I’m with her there!) The book rambles on structurelessly, but not in a way that evokes the randomness of life–it’s all just there, and then it all just stops. The bummer of it is that when it does, you can still remember a time earlier on when you would have wished it didn’t.