I’ve only read two graphic novels in my life. The second one was Persepolis, which I finished last week. It’s by Marjane Satrapi, and it’ll be part of my teaching curriculum next year. I wanted to write about it first because Satrapi has an interesting take on graphic novels. There’s some argument, I guess, regarding whether graphic novels are “just” comics, or much more. Satrapi falls on the comic side, without addressing the bigger question of “are graphic novels literature?” Ultimately, my personal take with regards to the first question, is that it doesn’t much matter. Persepolis is a fantastic read, and whatever you call it, you can’t say it isn’t engaging.
I think the pushback against “simply” calling graphic novels collected comics is because traditionally comics haven’t been seen as completely respectable. Persepolis is the story of Satrapi growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The narrative’s strongest point of the narrative is Satrapi’s nuanced portrayal of Iran. It wasn’t—or probably isn’t—a place where fundamentalism completely rules the day. Many people rebel against the government; they have parties, drink alcohol, wear Western clothing, and aren’t always religious. The work is engaging, fun, and education. I loved it, so in short, if this is a comic, I really like comics.
I finished Persepolis in two days, and I’m itching to read the sequel. Persepolis was made into a movie in 2008, which copies the comic’s high-contrast black-and-white style. Also, Satrapi directed the funny (but barely watched) Ryan Reynolds 2014 movie The Voices. Which is a nice segue for talking about the first graphic novel I ever read, which is Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I first heard of this work through the movie adaptation in 2009. I liked it, but apparently the film was polarizing. Watchmen was famously the only graphic novel to make Time’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list in 2005, and this reflects its huge following.
It would be easy to say Watchmen’s the story of superheroes living in the 1980s, but that’s the same as saying “Game of Thrones” is about knights and villagers. The novel is about relationships—and that sounds hokey—but when I read it last year it was the first novel in a long time that made me feel really happy when romances bloomed and really sad when people fought or characters died. Where Persepolis is really about one character, Watchmen is about six, and it’s fair to say Watchmen’s about six times longer than Persepolis, too. Both novels are, however, deadly serious, and both hit on many of the same themes.
Perhaps some of the themes are universal—heartbreak, violence, separation, and even fascism. I do think the novels have more than just a slim connection, however. The social anxiety that permeates Satrapi’s Iran absolutely crawls over Watchmen, and both works wear their blood on their chest, so to speak. Watchmen is violent, but there’s something perhaps more disturbing about Persepolis, because we know the violence actually occurred. That’s a dark note to end on, but I do think some of the best works of literature stir deep emotions. Which begs the question; are graphic novels literature? Well in the case of these two works—yes, absolutely, definitely.
–Jeff and Leah