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.