Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls discussed “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi’s complex graphic novel about her maturation in Iran. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
“Did you ever read the book that it was based on?”
“Like, the comic?”
“The graphic novel, yeah.”
“I did, actually,” Eleanor said.
“Really?” Gwen asked.
“Sure,” Eleanor said. “I mean, I should probably re-read it, but I remember most of it. The story is mostly the same between the comic and the movie.”
The trio had just watched Persepolis – the animated film, not Marjane Satrapi’s original graphic novel it was based on. But with Satrapi having co-written and co-directed the film, it was one of the more faithful adaptations of its kind. Even the art style was developed from Satrapi’s distinctive black and white illustrations.
“I remember it spending more time on her as a child – the book, I mean,” Gwen said. “She only became a teenager in the second of the four books.”
“Isn’t it just one book?” Dania said.
“Volumes, really,” Gwen said. “Did you read the one with the teal cover? The one with the family in the center?”
“Yeah,” Dania said. She had remembered the stamp on the front – Now a Major Motion Picture – hinting at the film she had never seen, before tonight.
“So when the movie came out,” Gwen explained, as Dania walked to her room, “they released the entire series as one book. Originally, it was four shorter comics, but they packaged them together after the fact.”
“Like Watchmen,” Eleanor said.
“Precisely,” Gwen said. “Lots of graphic novels do that.”
“So you’re saying that this…” Dania said. She stood in the doorway, holding out a copy of Persepolis – black and teal cover. “This is actually four books?”
“You have a copy?” Gwen said.
“I Amazon Prime’d it a few days ago,” Dania said. She handed the book off to Gwen, who paged through it. “You mentioned wanting to watch the movie, so I figured I should read the book first.”
“Eh, you don’t have to to get the movie,” Gwen said.
“Yeah, the movie was easier to follow,” Dania said. “But I enjoyed the book too, a little.”
“A little?” Eleanor asked.
“Yeah, well…” Dania said. “It’s super accurate. Like, I can tell she did a bunch of research and stuff beyond just remembering about her childhood in it. But sometimes it’s a little wordy. Especially in the opening.”
“It can’t be easy to make the whole history of the Islamic revolution readable,” Gwen suggested.
“I know,” Dania said. “Which is why I liked the second half, where she’s in France, a lot more.”
“I think it’s Austria?” Eleanor said. “She lives in France now, but I think she was in Austria before.”
“That’s right,” Gwen confirmed. She showed the page, in the second half of the book, where Marjane first met her foster family – in Austria.
“Right, right,” Dania said. “Oh, and she has the German roommate, I remember.”
“I forgot about the original illustrations,” Eleanor said, taking the book from Gwen. “It’s smoother in the movie, but I really liked how thick the linework is here.”
“She does great things with negative space,” Gwen said. “Look how the line of the arm changes into white-on-black there.”
“Why is the whole comic black and white?” Dania asked.
“Artistic choice,” Gwen suggested. “Keeps it looking simpler.”
“It definitely makes it look more like hieroglyphs,” Eleanor said.
“Hieroglyphs?” Gwen said. “She’s Iranian, not Egyptian.”
“I know that,” Eleanor said, with a look. “I just mean the drawings don’t even really look, you know, polished in the way a traditional comic would be. Look at the faces, it’s just a few lines. But you get it. It’s symbolic. Like hieroglyphics.”
True, facial designs didn’t vary much throughout the novel – a moustache added here, more pronounced lips on Marjane’s friend – and yet, the characters were still easily distinguishable. Dania took the book back.
“Yeah, it’s rougher than the movie,” Dania said. “The movie also cuts out more of the dialogue with the family about the war. Like…where’s the section…”
“There’s more a movie can do visually,” Gwen said. “Still, I don’t find the Islamic Revolution stuff in the first part boring. Perhaps a little confusing, but I think it’s supposed to be. She’s only a child at that point.”
“It’s confusing at the end, though, too,” Eleanor said. “Like, I wouldn’t recommend this to someone and say, ‘read this to understand about the Islamic Revolution.’ It’s focused almost entirely on the people.”
“Which is the point,” Gwen said.
“Yeah, I mean you don’t watch Titanic to learn about the ship,” Dania said. “Here’s the page.”
She showed Gwen and Eleanor – it was the chapter just after Marjane’s return to Iran after four years in Vienna. The pages were thick with text, speech bubbles over images of the family at dinner, discussing everything Marjane missed about the revolution while she was away.
“Like, it’s just a lot of info,” Dania said. “Not all of which is relevant to the story.”
“I feel it’s relevant,” Gwen said. “That she’s out of touch is what drives her from Iran in the end. So it’s information overload for her, and for us. And besides…” Gwen turned the page. “The next page has images of the battle.”
“But she’s right, the drawings aren’t doing much in this chapter,” Eleanor conceded. “Every now and then, there’s a powerful one, but you do have to really focus on the dialogue if you want to understand.”
“Maybe you’re not supposed to,” Gwen suggested. “You said as much, you wouldn’t recommend it to people as a lesson about the region. And I said maybe it’s intentionally a lot of information. Maybe both are true.”
“I mean, that would explain why I’m more interested in the Vienna chapters,” Dania said. “It gets away from the politics.”
“I don’t know about that,” Eleanor said. “She’s still experiencing prejudice and guilt while she’s away from Iran.”
“Not ‘politics’ then, bad word,” Dania adjusted. “How about ‘facts?’ She has to deal – we have to deal with fewer ‘facts’ in Vienna than in Iran.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “The whole book is full of facts, it’s hard to follow everything that happens with the revolution.”
“So you have to focus on how it affects her,” Gwen said. “It’s certainly more of a human story than a story about Iran specifically.”
“It’s about Iran specifically,” Eleanor defended. “Don’t try to universalize the experience.”
“Sorry,” Gwen said. “Though you know what I meant. The emotional feeling of being pulled between multiple identities, or having to shoulder your background – it’s rough.”
Eleanor looked to Gwen – white, American, able – and considered how universal the struggle of shouldering your background could be. But she did, silently, agree that Satrapi’s novel made at least that point clearly: even adults struggle to make sense of their place within the politics of the world.
“She doesn’t really get an answer, though,” Dania said. “Like, even at the end, she’s doing the same kind of standing up to authority like in the first half, with basically the same result.”
“That feels intentional,” Eleanor said. “This idea that she’s searching for some understanding of her background as a kid, and fails to achieve it as an adult. Here, I think the scenes are even drawn the same.”
Eleanor found the two pages in the book: from “The Dowry,” in Book One, and “The Convocation,” in Book Two. The dual images, of Marjane standing up to a teacher as a child and as an adult, were not mirrors of each other, but their sentiment certainly seemed to be. In both cases, however, calling out the state for their lies led to the same result: Marjane’s punishment. Regardless, the book – as any reader would – framed them as noble moments.
“That’s the discovery, as the book goes on,” Gwen said. “She spends her childhood trying to lean about the Islamic revolution so she can participate in it, and her adulthood discovering that there’s no one way to do so and be done with it. Reconciling yourself to the history of the region is an ongoing process. And it’s not easy.”
Dania sighed. She had enough reconciling with her own cultural history to do. “Well,” she said, finally. “It’s a very good book. Maybe not my cup of tea, but very impressive, for sure.”
“It’s brilliant,” Gwen said. “I think it’s a fascinating dive into her own story – the story of the revolution, sure, but focused on Marjane specifically.”
“I suppose, if this is your argument, Gwen,” Eleanor said, “that the confusion regarding the politics is all intentional, then it certainly does its job very well.”
“I think so. Naturally, figuring out your place within any cultural identity is rough. Or it should be. I mean, look at how difficult it is to place yourself within an American identity.”
“Oh, I know,” Eleanor said, with a glance towards Dania. “Yeah, I think I know.”
Image Credit: Pantheon Graphic Novels