Every now and then, a work comes along that reminds you just how great the potential is that comic books have as a literary medium. I don't mean things like "Watchmen" or "Kingdom Come" that show you the potential for superhero comics, but works like "Maus," that remind you that comic books are just as rich a medium as the novel.
Something like "Persepolis."
Written by Marjane Satrapi, "Persepolis" lifts the veil on a country that is unfamiliar to most Westerners, and does so by telling the story of her childhood and coming-of-age experiences in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. The book is striking for its depictions of her Westernized family, which valued its freedoms and found ways to protect and safeguard them during a time when the nation was publicly moving sharply to the Right; for the personal touches it brings to light of Iran during its lengthy war with Iraq, including the cynicism and distrust that some Iranians came to view their government with; her lonely time as an adolescent attending school in Vienna, away from the strictures of the fundamentalist regime and the dangers of war; and the bittersweet years when she returned to Iran.
I've never been to Iran, and like many other Americans, I know very little about the country beyond what I read in the newspapers. Reading "Persepolis" made me realize just how hungry I am to know more about its history, its literature, and its people, whom I see I can relate to much better than I ever would have guessed.
I'm around the same age as Satrapi, which made it interesting to see her recollections of the Iranian Revolution that precipitated the hostage crisis of 1979-80. I especially enjoyed discovering that she has the same affection for Islam that I have for Christianity, albeit she had it at a much younger age than I did; and I found that I identified with her disdain for what fundamentalists have done to, and in the name of, her religion.
If the book shows the human toll of fundamentalist Shi'a Islam -- and it does, make no mistake -- it also shows the failings of Western culture. Satrapi's life in Europe was often a lonely one, where her experiences were disbelieved, where people took advantage of her vulnerability however they could, and where her normal adolescent drift was heightened by her deepening sense of alienation from the world around her.
"Persepolis" tells a remarkable story of hope in the face of oppression, of a girl's search for her own identity in a world lost in tremendous upheaval, and, ultimately, it is the story of her pride in that identity as she finds the freedom and the strength to forge it for herself.