Monday, July 03, 2006

The Feminist Fangirl In: “Escape from Persepolisopolis”

This past spring, the Seattle Public Library system sponsored a program called “Seattle Reads Persepolis,” which culminated in several appearances by the author, Marjane Satrapi. Earlier this month, I attended a question and answer session with the graphic novelist.

Of course, I had previously read “Persepolis,” but it was by sheer coincidence that, a few days before the reading, I ran across a back issue of the ‘New Yorker’, in which appeared an article by Peter Schjeldahl. This article consisted of a very odd attempt to explain and justify the existence of the graphic novel to an imagined readership of middle-aged white men.

While I won’t go on at length about the content of the article, I will note that any information about the graphic novel contained therein should be taken with a grain of salt, because the author labeled it an art form related, yet superior to the comic book, and (with this definition in mind) identified those at the forefront of the genre (Spiegelman, Clowes, Crumb, and Ware,) while excluding most of MY favorites,( i.e. those who actually seek to bridge the divide between comics and graphic novels, including Moore and Miller.

Chris Ware in particular was singled out in grandiose terms (something to the effect of “simultaneously the T.S Elliot and the Picasso of the modern graphic novel.”) Upon reading this, I responded with a slow, unbelieving “riiiiiiiight.”

Anyway, Schjeldahl had this to say about Satrapi:

“The best first-person graphic novel to date, “Persepolis” (2003), and the second-best, “Persepolis 2” (2004, both Pantheon), are by a woman, Marjane Satrapi. They suggest a number of rules for the form: have a compelling life, remember everything, tell it straight, and be very brave…. Drawn in an inky and crude visual style that is as direct as a slap, the books track her imaginings and her passions, which are wonderfully responsive, though usually inadequate to the realities of the situation...Satrapi’s unforced empathy contrasts with the self-pitying tendencies that are common to first-person comics written by men.”

In the hours before the lecture, I began formulating the questions that had been raised by these brash statements, and picturing myself posing them to Satrapi: How did she feel when the American critical establishment labeled her style ‘crude’? Was it an unfair burden to call her the greatest living autobiographical graphic novelist, particularly when this praise came attached to the idea that the quality of her work was somehow a product of her ‘femaleness’, or else her ‘eastern-ness’ which left her less open to the attacks of solipsism suffered by our garden variety western/male/comic book artist/geek? And what of the assumption about the inherent truth of her narrative, the ‘tell it straight?’ Isn’t all memoir essentially half fiction? If the memoir is political in nature, does the assumption of accuracy need to hold if it is to be considered legitimate?

As it turned out, I asked no questions, because I realized as soon as the Q and A session began, that it would be an excise in futility. I should have realized that Ms. Satrapi’s limited command of English (She is fluent in several other languages, including French and Farsi), would negate any discussion in that language of such subtleties.

I was also not prepared for the general stupidity level of the audience, which was complete with the kind of liberal twits who would goad Satrapi into making disparaging remarks about President Bush, and then treat her to thunderous applause,

In spite of this, I did enjoy myself at the event, mainly because of Satrapi’s remarkable humor and wit, which transcends language, and is conveyed mainly through her voice modulations and facial expressions, in much the same way that it is in her comics.

I came away with the feeling that the majority of the people who attended Satrapi’s lecture fell into the same camp as the man who penned that article in the ‘New Yorker’. Satrapi writes (and of course, draws) in a genre that is marginalized by the critical mainstream, even as it is consumed in mass quantities by the American public. But Satrapi, with her already marginalized (in the American imagination) identity, becomes (perversely) for these people the most legitimate of an illegitimate group of artists.

I must say, that perhaps it is this doubly outlawed status, along with Satrapi’s commanding personal presence and unique identity, that renders her appealing to me as well. Indeed, this combination of factors lends the autobiographical character that she creates an almost super-heroine-like quality. On the other hand, any comparisons to Superman (all untenable homelands notwithstanding) would land me squarely in the realm of uncomprehending white male criticism, and so I will restrain myself.

The full insanity of Schjeldahl’s article is available at