07 February, 2005

Don't ever forget who you are!

The most recent News and Observer (affectionately called the Blues and Disturber by some of us who don't care for how the news media always beat the drums of negativism, except when spinning a local story saccharine)...

Geez, what a terrible introduction. Let me try again.

The most recent News and Observer had a story in its book reviews about some graphic novels. For those of you who are not in the know, "graphic novel" is the latest euphemism for "comic book," although the term "graphic novel" generally refers to a story targeted to a less unsophisticated audience than that of general comic books. (I find it hard to write with a straight face that graphic novels target a "sophisticated" audience.)

Let me come right out and say it: I enjoy graphic novels. In fact, I like comics in general. One of the reasons I won't buy the New York Times or USA Today is that they don't publish comics. I'm proud that my culture has produced Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes; I'm not so proud that my culture has produced the newspaper that saw fit to run a front-page, above-the-fold, positive review of Kitty Kelley's smearfest of cheap shots on Nancy Reagan. (That would be the New York Times, although to its credit, the Times did later admit that that wasn't among its finer moments. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then God bless you.)

Back to graphic novels: one of my favorites is the Bone collection. Another one to highlight, although I haven't read it, is Road to Perdition, which was turned into an excellent, movie starring Tom Hanks.

One of the graphic novels featured in this review was Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi. Ms. Satrapi is an Iranian who now lives in France, and from the relative comfort and security of France she can write and publish a sort of autobiography that she could never, ever publish in Iran.

Fortunately, my good friend Mike, source of most of my information related to graphic novels, had a copy that he was more than happy to lend me, and I read it in perhaps two hours. (Even at 150+ pages, a graphic novel is not as difficult to digest as a written novel.)

I started to write that this graphic novel wasn't very political, but the more I think about it, that would be wrong. The novel is charged with politics: a number of characters are communists, and it discusses the political history of Iran, dating back several centuries. It touches briefly on America's less-than-positive involvement in mid-20th century Iranian politics, but it didn't come across as a cheap shot.

The story does deal heavily with religion. You can imagine that religion does not play the most positive role in this novel. There is a message that we must forgive, and that the evil that other people do hurts them instead of us, but it comes off more as a humanist message than a religious one. God appears several times to the author when she is a child, but halfway through the book, after the regime executes one of her relatives, she becomes angry with him and expels her from her life. Whether God is to return, I'm not sure; some additional volumes are supposed to follow this one.

The Iranian regime is an oppressive, theocratic regime that employs a brutal militia to enforce religious edicts. Ms. Satrapi effectively portrays this enforcement, without resorting to gratuitous images; unlike the authors of many "adult-oriented" comic books, she understands that what you don't show is at times more effective than what you do show.

The basic story is the story of her childhood. In and of itself, it's interesting. While reading it, I frequently had the impression that the author was satisfying the obligation of a promise made to her father she left for Austria at age 14, when he admonished her: Don't ever forget who you are! The last page of the book (what she sees from the airport before she leaves) is heart-rending.

The story does shed light on human beings and how they cope with life in the middle of a repressive political regime that becomes all the more repressive during a brutal war. I've read quite a bit about the repressive regime in Iran, but not enough. This novel will teach you a few things; particularly chilling was learning how the Iranian regime gets around the prohibition of killing a virgin who has participated in dissent.

I would hesitate to say that the novel sheds light on "ordinary" human beings. No question about it, Ms. Satrapi's family was part of the Iranian elite: she attended a French school in Iran, and her family possessed the financial means to send her out of the country.

It's a quick read, definitely worth it if you're interested in learning about Iran from the perspective of an Iranian. I haven't decided yet if I'd like to spend money on acquiring it, as I have a few of the Bone series. I may purchase it, if only because Persepolis seems useful for its historical and cultural lessons.

For those who are wondering: I'm still working on Oriana Fallaci's Insciallah. Now that I'm spending several hours a day writing my thesis, I don't have much energy to read a slow-paced Italian novel that is heavy on character development; it takes some effort to sit down and read 20-30 pages every few days. What I succeed in reading is still (so far) worth the effort, although I'm starting to get the bad feeling that Fallaci intends to advocate love as the solution to the miseries of war — not the profound, transcendental love of marriage, but the shallow, animalistic love devoid of commitment.

Maybe I'm wrong. We'll see.


Anonymous said...

The one-volume, 1300 page edition of Bone is quite affordable!

God usually gets the shaft in graphic novels, for some reason. Except for Doug TenNapel's "CreatureTech."


jack perry said...

Alas, I have in the last few years begun to insist on buying hardcovers whenever I can, and the hardcover of the one-volume is sold out. In any case, now that I have four of the series, I don't see much point in buying the one-volume :-)