Over the last ten years graphic novels have undergone a transformation in the collective literary consciousness. Readers, editors and publishers alike have evolved their understanding of the form and its production from that of speedily consumed, largely superficial juvenilia to a serious-minded and technically complex undertaking.
Groundbreaking titles such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine earned the format a privileged place in the critical mindset by offering new representational possibilities for treating autobiographical accounts of conflict, war and trauma. Their work paved the way for a new generation of graphic novelists whose success in addressing these topics has raised the profile and standing of the graphic novel in the global literary arena.
The most prominent of this new generation is the Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi, whose autobiographical work on the 1979 Islamic Revolution has sold over two million copies, been translated into twelve languages, and prompted a film featuring Catherine Deneuve. Given its subject matter, such stratospheric success was unanticipated by its author, who has described how she had imagined simply distributing a few copies of the finished product among friends. Yet, in 2000, the first instalment of her four-part work Persepolis was published in France by the alternative comic press L’Association to critical acclaim and commercial success. Three further instalments were published annually, and by 2003 the work had been picked up by Pantheon Books, translated into English, and went on to achieve global fame. But how is it that this individual story of conflict could have such universal appeal? And why are graphic novels so adept at conveying stories like Satrapi’s?
In order to understand the form today it is necessary to briefly reflect on its history and appreciate the vast development in the philosophy behind conflict illustration since World War II. Drafted artists such as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby were enlisted (with varying amounts of enthusiasm) to depict archetypal heroes who represented and validated the policy of the nation-state, whilst also serving the more practical function of instructing the troops in everything from weapon care to safe sex. In the post-war period, the mood inevitably developed into one of satire as wartime propaganda disintegrated when confronted with returning troops’ experiences. Over the next fifty years artists experimented with heroes, anti-heroes and superheroes, but it was not until these conventions and their associated value judgments were reconsidered that the form lent itself to autobiography and reportage. Given the form’s history, this of course provoked (and continues to provoke) critical suspicion of their political agenda, but the move in philosophy we have seen from archetype to individual, from individualism to community and from the lone voice to the polyvocal, has opened up a wealth of artistic possibilities that seem particularly adept at relating autobiographical tales of conflict.
In recent years, this has been made evident by the boom in comics production across the Middle East, with practitioners from, among other countries, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Syria receiving wide attention. Lena Merhej, co-editor of the multilingual, Beirut-based comics magazine Samandal and author of I Think We Will Be Calmer in the Next War, sees Persepolis as ‘a voice for many artists who are from the Middle East, especially those who live in the diaspora and are experiencing this cultural conflict,’ and Satrapi as ‘a role model for empowering personal narratives of a Muslim living outside [her country] and exposed to different cultures’. Reflecting on her own experiences, Merhej underlines the pragmatic aspect of comics’ success in the region: ‘Because comics combine words and images, and images allow you to insinuate a lot of things, the medium is very appropriate. Instead of directly saying “I was hurt”, you can show this in an image and the reader then has to do a lot of work to take [depictions of trauma] out. This allows you to talk about things which otherwise would have been censored.’
The genesis of Persepolis is familiar to its readers. Upon leaving Iran, Satrapi studied in Strasbourg at the École supérieure des arts décoratifs before moving to Paris. It was here that she became a part of L’atelier des Vosges, a comic book collective that counts a number of prolific French artists amongst its members. This period was a formative one for Satrapi, as it consolidated her dedication to comics as her chosen artistic medium, and, significantly, provided her first introduction to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. She has since cited this as the turning point at which she realised comics could be used to tell serious stories, and began to consider the form as a way to tell her own: ‘I realised that comics is not a genre, it is just a way of telling a story where I could feel exactly what was going on. Drawing is much closer to a human being than a photo, because you create the world in your own image: it’s very personal, it’s an international language. Before humans started talking, they first started drawing.’