The Graphic Novel

"The Bicycle." Persepolis (14)

The graphic novel has entered the literary world and with its entry forces the reader to reconsider how a story can be told. The introduction of the image into any novel presents a new set of possibilities for the author and a new way to converse with the reader. Similar to a painting or a movie, each single panel is framed with attention to the specific perspective, and the emotion, position, and setting of the characters all affect the images’ level of realism. Each of Persepolis’ panels can be considered both individually as one casts a specific moment in time and/or single perspective as well as with section as a complete narrative block. A series of images can be read without their text to string their own narrative together, and they should be because Persepolis is told through multimedia. The text is in relationship to the panels it is attached to and yet if the choice to write a memoir in the graphic novel genre accomplishes anything, at the very least it challenges the role of the language. This is not to say the written Persepolis is any way lesser than the visual one, but only that the graphic novel relies on the image for effects of story it doesn’t find suitable for language. If this were not the case than the form would have no purpose and this collection could provide everything a traditional novel could, and all its movie does but without consequence. There will be panels in which the word completely over powers the image or the image out-weighs the text, and while they still work together it is vital to bring their relationship into view for the novel to be more fully understood.

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TEDxDartmouth 2011- Michael Chaney: How to Read a Graphic Novel – March 6, 2011

“How we trouble the easy way with which [words and images] coalesce. How we try to find meaning somewhere in between” (17:00)

This is a presentation focused specifically about the ways in which the graphic novel is able to create unique social representations between protagonists and their society through their visual juxtapositions. What the presenter Michael Chaney directs the audience’s attention toward is how graphic novels are structured to couple two distinct “symbolic systems” in words and images, and how even on the level of quantifiable plot details they can disagree with each other. He specifically uses Persepolis‘ first two panels to introduce how Marjane Satrapi “trains” the reader to disintegrate the image from the text in order to better understand her them both:

Persepolis: The Veil: panels 1 and 2

According to Chaney(~3:50), this panel shows Marjane’s character both internally and externally. Externally, both images open the novel with relatively little detail between these five people and especially as each girl wears a veil outwardly much of their character is indistinguishable from the other. Internally however, the first panel assures the readers that not only is our heroine one of these specific girls, but in having “This is me” be the graphic novel’s first three words, it rejects the expectation for this image to merely a representation of her. From panel one, this is in fact the author which gives the image the verisimilitude that carries throughout the text.

This idea of verisimilitude becomes more interesting in the context of the presentations previous analysis put forth by the graphic novelist Scott Mcloud on why many contemporary graphic novels including Persepolis choose to employ simplistic, undetailed cartooning. According to Mcloud, the more accurate, detailed faces actually detract from the novel’s realism, whereas in the more “cartoonified” depictions it is easier for the audience to project the mental state upon them. So in a sense, it is the reader who fills in the image’s detail thereby achieving a greater believability in the character by the reader (~2:50). So with this in mind I want to add something beyond Chaney’s analysis of the first two panels, and say that the veils accomplish something more for the reader here: they draw us straight to the character’s expressions and so to their internal characters.

*One last quick point I think is worth taking from this presentation is the distinction Chaney draws between graphic novels and cinema. For Chaney, graphic novels demand that the reader is constantly engaged in connecting the images to their text and the single panels to the novel as a whole. And it is because of this effort he says that while the cinematic audience remains a passive spectator, in graphic novels they must be something else entirely (~8:45).

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The Child’s Perspective

Persepolis: The Heroes: 52

I’ve included this panel from book one of Persepolis to demonstrate how Satrapi was able to develop Majane’s childhood self. Although the caption clearly narrates a torture scene, the image of the victim doesn’t portray the gruesome details an adult reader knows the narrative would have contained. There is no blood, no skeletal system, and with the positioning of the body it maintains a sense of its whole. The unreal and unimaginative depiction of the torture then becomes a way of showing the reader how much the child narrator understands about the war she’s living through. Satrapi uses an image that can only be read as from the character’s own perspective which is a characterization tool for the reader.

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Image Echo

Persepolis: The Socks: 310

This image that comes near the end of the book when Marjane and her friends have been arrested, and shows them all lined up sitting in a cell. But what does this remind you of? Think back to the very first panels of the novel, and you’ll see a striking resemblance between this panel and the first one (Panel is shown two posts earlier if you don’t believe me). Again we have a series of women who, because of their veils, share a common appearance. There is also nothing in either of these panels to distinguish setting, so what connections the reader can make come only from their expression. In juxtaposing this image to the novel’s first one, the entire arc of Marjane’s character is highlighted. Ironically in how these two images parallel each other, they draw our attention to everything that had to occur and change for the character to make her come full circle.

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One Last Thing

Persepolis: The Socks: 308-9

Lastly, I want to show the panels of Farzad’s death in which for three full pages there are no words save for “And then one night.” It seems that after three hundred pages of balancing image to text Satrapi is finally willing to let the text go and allow the reader’s training to take over. With only images left we become responsible for writing the narrative, and yet its easier than it was before because throughout the graphic novel the reader learns to rely on images for information equally with the text, if not more so. So the effect is almost a reverse from the onset where now it is the words that are incapable of telling the real story, and Satrapi as both author and protagonist affirm the image’s significance once and for all.


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