Reading Persepolis: Comically Inept?

persepolisMe, not Persepolis, of course. Because Persepolis is highly acclaimed (from the cover blurbs: “brilliant and unusual,” “superb,” “a mighty achievement,” “a dazzlingly singular achievement”) and widely considered an outstanding example of its kind. So the truth must be that if I read Maus badly, I read Persepolis very badly — despite having dutifully read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the meantime.

I enjoyed Understanding Comics. I always like the feeling of starting off down a path that’s new to me while being guided by someone smart and, in this case, also fun. I think I got a lot out of it, too — not just some basic vocabulary for talking about the art and craft of comics (terms like “closure,” “gutters,” and “motion lines,” for instance) but a better, if obviously still superficial and preliminary, appreciation of comics as part of the broader landscape of both pictorial and textual art. I was intrigued and largely convinced by the argument that comics are a form that requires a high degree of audience participation to make meaning, and by the theory that “by de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” — in other words, something that might seem from a different perspective to be a flaw in comics (their more or less iconographic rather than realistic style of representation) is better understood as a feature of the form (not unlike the formulaic plot structure of the classic mystery). I was interested in the histories McCloud provided of various comic-like forms, and in the connections he made between developments in other theories and practices of art and things comics do and don’t do. I was both engaged and amused by the ecstatic tone of the book’s final chapter, which rises to a crescendo of enthusiasm about how one day “the truth [about comics] will shine through!” It’s a long way from reading my first book about comics to claiming any expertise, but by the time I finished Understanding Comics I thought I would at least read my next graphic novel with more appreciation.

04-persepolisBut I didn’t! If anything, I found Persepolis less satisfying to read than Maus. From start to finish I felt as if I were reading a child’s picture book about Iran: an illustrated oversimplification, rather than a sophisticated verbal-visual synthesis, which is what the euphoric conclusion of Understanding Comics holds up as the form’s highest potential. Satrapi’s decision to tell the story strictly from her childish point of view is one obvious reason for that: the book does effectively convey the frustration and confusion she felt, not just at events themselves but at people’s often puzzling and contradictory responses to them. I really missed the kind of framing perspective we get in Maus from both Art and his father, though; compared to Marjane the character, Marjane Satrapi the author certainly knows much more about, or understands much differently, the world of her childhood, but I struggled to find evidence of that in the book. Maybe it’s in the drawings — but if it is, I wasn’t able to perceive it. The art was often dramatic and sometimes beautiful, or disturbing, but it also seemed incongruously cartoonish to me, and it distanced me from the emotion and action of the story as a result. McCloud proposes that more generic drawings allow us to identify with characters rather than being preoccupied with their specificity, their difference from us, but since in this case the characters are highly specific, the degree to which they looked similar was frustrating and seemed to flatten out the narrative. I could see at times that the effect was appropriate: stamping out individuality in favor of conformity was clearly a goal of the Islamic regime, for instance, and being unable to tell which veiled girl in the group was Marjane played into that. Overall, though, I couldn’t shake off the desire to have a more rich and complex written text; for me, even the most complex of the pictures were not sufficient compensation for what I felt was missing.

understanding-comicsI think what I may be running into here is a limitation created by my own love of words. Though I can tell even from one reading of Understanding Comics that there is a grammar to the art work and a language and style (or rather, many languages and styles) to the combination of words and images in comics, I am by both training and inclination a different kind of reader, a long-time devoted reader of a different kind of texts. Right now it seems unlikely I’ll ever become an avid reader of comics, partly because so far I haven’t enjoyed them that much and partly because there is so much else I want to read (so many novels that aren’t ‘graphic’) that I can’t really see putting in a concerted effort to get better at reading them. If I did end up choosing to teach an example of the form, I’d have to put my personal preferences aside, of course, and do the work. I’ve done that often enough with other texts I have felt obligated to teach that I know I’m often led by obligation to appreciation and then to genuine liking. I’m done with comics for now, though, as I have to write up some notes on Middlemarch for tomorrow’s seminar … no shortage of words there! And on no occasion have I ever wished the novel had pictures, either.

16 thoughts on “Reading Persepolis: Comically Inept?

  1. Rebecca H. October 25, 2015 / 8:54 pm

    Have you read Fun Home? If not, and if you get the urge to try a graphic novel again, I hope you give that one a try. I fell in love with it, and I’m not much of a comics/graphic novels reader. I think in that case the text and pictures both were complex and suggestive. It felt rich to me. You’ve certainly convinced me to try Understanding Comics at some point.


    • Dorian October 26, 2015 / 12:41 am

      As I was reading your post, I too thought: Fun Home! She ought to give that a try, for the reasons Rebecca eloquently states. I think it’s a great book for “word” people that is also brilliant for “picture” people.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 25, 2015 / 11:22 pm

    Didn’t Middlemarch have picture at some point? Or was that just other Eliot novels?

    I wish more novels today had illustrations.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 26, 2015 / 8:33 am

      You might be thinking of Romola, which had pretty illustrations by Frederic Leighton.

      The problem (for some of us) with illustrations (when they really are supplementary to a rich and complex text rather than, as in comics, meant as an equal partner) is that they fix images that otherwise are up to us to imagine — in their own way, after all, novels that aren’t graphic novels also require a lot of reader participation to complete the experience. I remember my PhD supervisor steadfastly refusing to watch the BBC adaptation because he didn’t want to “see” Dorothea as the actress forever after. As Will Ladislaw says, “the true seeing is within.”


    • Amateur Reader (Tom) October 26, 2015 / 10:17 am

      The way Marly Youmans has been collaborating, in her recent books, with the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins is close to my ideal. The illustrations complement elements of the work but are not of specific scenes.


  3. Concerned Reader October 26, 2015 / 1:42 pm

    Since you find yourself having problems focusing on the artwork when you have spent your life being trained to focus on the text, maybe you should consider trying a wordless comic to see how you can appreciate comic book artwork when it’s unaccompanied by text.

    I personally recommend Jim Woodring’s Frank comics, available in a handy best-of collection under the name “The Portable Frank”. For something more adventurous, consider “Congress of the Animals” and “Fran”, which are two halves of a cyclical comic, and which will give you two different experiences depending on which you choose to read first.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 26, 2015 / 7:57 pm

      Interesting idea: that might indeed make a difference. Thank you for all the suggestions!


  4. N. Savory October 27, 2015 / 12:05 am

    To truly like and appreciate comics, you have to on some level appreciate DRAWING.

    And because comics are a visual medium you also have to have a highly developed sense of visual imagery.

    Without both of these things, even if you like and appreciate stories or storytelling, you’re not going to truly ‘get’ comics.

    In the end you’re probably better off sticking to text.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 27, 2015 / 8:32 am

      Forever? 😦

      Seriously, I take your point about the importance of the visual elements, but presumably this kind of appreciation can be learned — I make a living, after all, helping people understand written texts better and appreciate them more, and my department offers a course (not taught by me, obviously) on “Cartoons and Comics” which is premised, I assume, on the same pedagogical expectation for them. Part of learning about something new is discovering how alien it is; that’s where I am in this journey so far. When or if I go further remains to be seen!


      • N. Savory October 27, 2015 / 12:47 pm

        Point taken.

        Here’s something you might like to read when you consider where you might want to go next:

        Because with Maus and Persepolis, you are really at the more simple end of the spectrum (and I’m talking about complexity in the approach to the way the stories are told rather than in the content).

        Because Maus and Persepolis are pretty linear books in the way they tell their individual stories.

        As a next step, something like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar (if you can find a copy) or even Jaime Hernandez’s Locas (The death of Speedy or The Love Bunglers are really good books).

        But I hope you do continue your journey with comics.
        The medium is deep and diverse, and can be infinitely rewarding.


        • Dorian October 28, 2015 / 1:38 am

          I would not describe Maus’s storytelling as straightforward.


          • N. Savory October 28, 2015 / 4:45 pm

            It’s pretty straightforward.

            It doesn’t have a large cast of characters or different settings.

            The story isn’t multi-layered where different things are happening in different places to different characters that you need to mentally keep track of.

            The narrative isn’t chopping and changing in time or tense or place apart from the storytelling trope of the story being told in the present about incidents happening in the past.

            The story in Maus is told in a simple easy to follow grid format.

            The art does not largely change in technique from panel to panel nor page to page.

            So, respectfully, I think Maus is relatively straightforward.


          • Dorian October 28, 2015 / 11:20 pm

            Maybe we are using the word straightforward differently.

            But it shuttles back and forth between three times: the time of the event, the time of the telling of those events, and the time of the creation of the artwork.

            Its visual style shifts between the documentary and the expressionistic. Its style of drawing and its lettering (uppercase versus lowercase) changes depending on which of those three times is being shown. It incorporates an entirely different visual aesthetic when it includes Spiegelman’s earlier work (“Prisoner on Hell Planet”). It spreads images across multiples frames/grids. It intersperses full or half page images with its more usual grid.

            Most interestingly, it keeps interrogating and revising its central conceit, especially between volume 1 and 2, becoming more and more self-conscious about its use (most significantly in the “Time Flies” section).

            I agree that Maus is not disorienting. But I still wouldn’t call it straightforward.


  5. Bill from PA October 27, 2015 / 1:08 pm

    Have you ever followed or regularly read newspaper comics? In my youth, these were the only type of comics that I ever saw adults reading; it was even intellectually respectable to be a reader of Pogo, Li’l Abner, or Peanuts (for its first two decades or so at least) and, before my time, Krazy Kat. I don’t know if there’s anything equivalent being published anymore; perhaps Doonesbury, which can be rather heavy-handed and which I’ve never found visually pleasing. The only strip I make a habit of reading anymore is Mark Tatulli’s generally wordless Lio, whose often macabre humor would appeal to someone who has enjoyed the cartoons of Charles Addams.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 29, 2015 / 8:42 am

      The only comic series I have ever really read is Calvin and Hobbes, and that mostly in the collected volumes. Bloom County too. It has been a long time since we subscribed to a newspaper.


  6. Rohan Maitzen October 29, 2015 / 8:43 am

    N. Savory and Dorian: this is great. Really. It’s like having two graduate students drop in on my u/g seminar.


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