I can count the number of comic books I have read on one hand, maybe two hands if I focus. And I certainly haven’t read any comic books in the last twelve years. Though, to be honest, that’s only because the more serious comic books, those sans Donald Duck or Captain Planet, are now referred to as “graphic novels.” And I’ve only read two of those, so that would bring my total up to both of my hands plus a couple extra fingers.

In this section of the newspaper, I do my best to show you new books and new authors, but most importantly, to tell you about what I find to be good books. And Marjane Satrapi is definitely on the short list of good authors. So don’t be turned off by the fact that, despite the glossy cover and that it’s 153 pages long, it’s still a comic book. This book is also the best selling comic book of all time, quite an incredible feat considering the prowess of manga and the Pulitzer Prizes of Art Spiegelman.

Persepolis was the ancient capitol of modern-day Iran. Persepolis is the author’s true story of growing up in Iran during the time of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Her simple black and white drawings so accurately capture what it was like being a child in a context as foreign as that. She conveys not only historical facts, but emotional facts as well. Satrapi puts a face with a historical situation, letting us experience those days for ourselves.

And, comic book or graphic novel, it’s the best way to see history. I heard Marjane Satrapi interviewed at the Wisconsin Book Festival this fall. She talked about how drawings are able to communicate so much more than words when it comes to the more distant reaches of life. There are some things you have to see to fully know. Art, no matter the form it comes in, bridges that existential, Kierkegaardian gap between what we know about something and what that something really is.

We watch, quite literally, as young Marjane begins to grow up. She learns about the injustices performed against her family by the Western-supported governments of Iran. She stays up late at night and speaks with God when he visits her and sits by her bedside. We see the discontent with Shah Reza overflow to a national flash point and then see the populist revolution hijacked by the Islamists. Freedoms are curtailed, purges are carried out, dreams are crushed. And then when it seems that life in Iran can get no worse, it does. Iraq, under the rule of a now dead Saddam Hussein, put in power by the West to control their interests in the region after they lost Shah Reza, invades Iran. This is, of course, the best possible situation for the West, as most countries supply both Iran and Iraq with weapons to facilitate as much destruction as possible. But as the war grows worse and worse, Marjane, 14 years old, is sent to Vienna to continue her schooling thousands of miles from any family she has. And that’s where the book ends.

The second greatest aspect of this book is what it tells us about Iran. The first is the artistic level of the drawings and the clarity of the story. Most of us don’t understand Iran at all. It’s important that we do understand it as much as possible, especially as it grows to dominate more and more of our news coverage. It’s similar to how we never quite grasped what the Soviet Union was all about. We knew some, but we got so confused by all the propaganda on both sides and our reactions came to define far too much of our foreign policy. Ahmadinejad might not be saying the he will bury us, but the similarity is more than striking.

Marjane Satrapi, living in the West as she does, knows this knowledge gap quite well and works to correct two specific aspects of it through this book.

The first point she stresses is that Iran is not an Arab nation. Her ancestors were not living in tents 100 years ago until oil was discovered. The Persian civilization is older and better advanced than the Jewish civilization we draw our religion from. And so, correspondingly, Satrapi is emphatic that Iran not be treated as an Arabic nation, barely recovered from 300,000 years of nomadic living and tribal warfare.

The second point she makes a great deal of is that Iranian culture and public opinion is not a unified bloc. It is very stratified with great differences in opinions. For instance, right after 9/11, two million Iranians met in Tehran in support of America. At other times, different Iranian crowds shout “Death to America” and “Nuclear power is our unalienable right.” So Iran is not all one big angry Ayatollah, drinking the blood of white American children. And if you are uncomfortable with a multi-faceted view of Iran, it’s a minor part of the story. Most of it is about being a person and living a life, something we do every day.

We all grew up reading the funnies in the Sunday paper. But most of us have traded that in for John Grisham or Janette Oke. And that’s a definite loss. So try a different type of memoir on for size. Give a comic book a chance.

Nathaniel Jonet

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