When fans of comic books want to prove to doubters that such things are not “just for kids”, as so many people seem to believe, there are a few examples they always use to demonstrate the point beyond doubt. The first is Art Spiegelman’s masterly Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the unbelievably powerful story of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
The only trouble is, despite the deadly serious subject-matter, some comic book sceptics will still be put off by the fact that the events depicted have been anthropomorphised, with Jews portrayed as mice and Germans as the cats persecuting them. Even though this is the last comic you’d want children to read, so harrowing is the subject-matter, the presence of animals wearing clothes will always make the more stubborn insist that it can only be for kids (which conveniently ignores the existence of George Orwell’s Cold War parable Animal Farm, but never let fact get in the way of a good prejudice).
And so we turn to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, of which this film is an adaptation. No animals dressed as humans here – just stark black and white drawings of people going about their lives. Yes, they may look slightly… cartoony – but rather than acting to lessen the seriousness of the subject-matter, these friendly, jolly visuals become a welcome softener as the story progresses, aiding our ability to identify with rather than alienating us from the main character.
Because while Persepolis may not deal with something as powerful and serious as the Holocaust, it nonetheless does cover one of the most momentous events of modern history – a tragic period of upheaval, the effects of which are still being felt (and are arguably becoming increasingly important as time goes on).
Persepolis is the autobiographical story of Satrapi’s experiences as a young woman growing up in Iran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s introduction of militant Islamism to the Middle East. For a young girl – especially a young girl from an educated, upper-middle class background – the sudden introduction of strict interpretations of Islamic law and the suppression of women’s rights was a truly world-changing event.
But, of course, it was not – and is not – as simple as that. The impact of the Iranian Revolution is still reverberating to this day with the ongoing stand-off between the USA and Iran, and constant allegations that the Iranian regime is sponsoring Islamist terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world. But within Iran itself, despite hard-line religious leaders overseeing affairs, there are countless strange contradictions, with a booming (if sometimes censored) artistic scene, women being allowed far more freedom than in the likes of Saudi Arabia, and a level of development – in urban areas at least – among the highest in the region.
Where Persepolis excels, is in humanising this whole insanely complex affair, removing the focus on the endemic arguments over the politics – with every man, woman and their dog having an opinion on Middle Eastern politics and the nature of Islam these days, we’re surely all somewhat bored of it now – and showing what daily life is like under these regimes in a deeply affecting, heart-warming way. Both timely and strangely, given the subject-matter, enjoyable, never mind reading the paper or buying serious books promising in-depth analysis of the political situation – in Persepolis you will get the best background on modern Iran that you will find pretty much anywhere, with this faithful, affecting and Oscar-nominated film version more than doing justice to the comics. Go see, and then go buy the comics. You won’t regret it.