It’s ironic really. Back in the day (he said hoping not to sound too much like an old duffer), the struggle was convincing people that comics had relevance as a medium that adults could relate to.
Graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen proved you could do smart superhero stories, but it was stories like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which recounts the true-life story of the author’s dad’s experiences in Auschwitz that really led the way out of the cultural ghetto. Now it seems the Hollywood boom has put us back where we were, thinking only of comics in terms of Marvel and DC.
Fortunately, not everyone is slavish to that notion. Heading down the path of left-field comic adaptations led by Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and the astonishing, seminal and genius American Splendor, the Oscar-nominated Persepolis once again reminds us of the medium’s potential power.
Visually stunning, emotionally powerful and never less than compelling, Persepolis tells the story of Marjane, a high-spirited child brought in Iran up by a politically aware family under the rule of the Shah. The family are cheerleaders for change, but when that change comes, it proves a more oppressive and unjust society, with women’s rights being a major victim.
Proud of the political activism of her family – many of whom are made example of by the ruling party – and a rebellious, free-thinking teen who loves Western culture, Marji’s parents urge her to escape the country before she too falls foul of the regime.
Arriving in Vienna proves a mixed blessing, providing her with a freedom she never dreamed off, but putting her in a society where she struggles to adapt. Bonding with some wannabe anarchists seems to offer her a sense of kinship, but their superficial beliefs only serve to highlight the true activist qualities of those she left behind. After a failed love affair sets her off on a road to homelessness and depression, she begs her parents to come home, where she again struggles to live within the constraints that society has placed on her and her compatriots.
It’s meaty stuff that also provides a potted history of Iran’s recent history, yet it is never weighed down by its subject. This is partly due to Marjane’s dynamism and strength of character, and the smooth editing, but is mainly thanks to the stunning animation. Despite being presented almost entirely in black and white, there is a visual vision that is truly breathtaking.
Taking the original novels as a starting point and recalling anything from German Expressionist films like Dr Caligari, shadow theatre and 70s cartoon sitcoms like Wait Till Your Father Gets home, it is conveyed with a poetic and blue-sky mentality that means it is always truly captivating, as dreamy as things like Yellow Submarine and a child’s picture book.
The idea of people struggling to find their place in the world, and of discovering that what they dream of isn’t all it’s cracked up to be may not be an uplifting one, but its illustration of the depth of the human spirit can’t fail to inspire.
A strikingly powerful, yet refreshing story, one that shows that cinema – and comics – don’t have to be ruled by soulless fluff.
Starring: Chiarro Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Sean Penn, Iggy Pop
Directed by: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
Extras: Making of, interviews, animated short.