March Author Spotlight: Marjane Satrapi
Learn more about the author behind Embroideries and the power of graphic novels.
Image ID: A black and white photograph of an Iranian woman looking directly into the camera. She wears a fur scarf, hat, and a slight smile.
Marjane Satrapi allows us more than glimpses into her world– her autobiographical works immerse us in “Marji’s” eyes through the masterful combination of illustration and storytelling in her graphic novels. For this month’s author spotlight, we’re going to be giving you some insights to the power of illustration in graphic novels along with our exploration of Satrapi’s career. While we all know the power of written language here at Hardcover Hotties, illustration provides an alternative viewpoint for authors to convey meaning to a wide range of audiences. Images have the ability to conjure emotion and atmospheric feeling differently from words– graphic novels harness the power of both as they work in tandem. This March’s Book of the Month, Embroideries, exemplifies the power of this relationship as it works in service of greater meaning– Satrapi’s novel doesn’t shy away from the politics of post-revolutionary Iran, but rather integrates them through imagery.
Satrapi was born in Rasht, Iran, in 1969. Her first graphic novel, Persepolis, details her upbringing in Tehrān during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. This period marked vast cultural change, and Persepolis provides Satrapi’s point of view on this time. Her Marxist parents opposed the shah’s regime, and initially supported the Revolution. Upon the religious rule that followed, however, they shifted their support and became concerned for their daughter’s safety due to her rebellious nature. In part due to their teaching, she often questioned the propaganda taught to her at her French high school in Tehrān. So, they sent Satrapi to Vienna, Austria, and after a brief return to Tehrān, she moved to France to study art from L’Ecole Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs in Strasbourg. Satrapi moved to Paris, where her foray into graphic novels truly began. She met the comic artist and novelist David B at the L’Atelier des Vosges, home to France’s “new wave” comic book artists. David B was one of the initiators of the French alternative editorial house, L’Association. Satrapi was inspired by the crowd at L’Atelier des Vosges, and began to see how her personal stories might work as a graphic novel.
Image ID: A panel from Persepolis. Three versions of a young Marji hold a scale, a hand sign for love, and a sword and a shield.
Before we uncover Satrapi’s particular influence and style, let’s reel it back. Graphic novels came around in the 1970’s– but before that, starting in the 1930’s, comic books were the dominating mode of sequential art. Sequential art hasn’t really ever been something new, but it’s been packaged differently throughout the ages. If we look back to early humanity, we can find examples of sequential art in cave drawings, painted pottery, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and more. Comics have a deep political history as well– one of the first examples is Martin Luther and the Montgomery Story, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1957, which focuses on the events of the Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks, as well as Martin Luther King Jr, and is considered to be a primer on nonviolent resistance.
The most pronounced difference between graphic novels and comic books lies in their packaging– graphic novels look and feel more like traditional books, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily follow a traditional beginning, middle and end. The combination of literary plot line and illustration opens the door to nearly unimaginable creative possibilities, allowing graphic novels to span a vast array of genres. We all know authors have their own writing styles–but authors of graphic novels often have this two-fold, in the forms of both a written and a visual style. Through their visual style, authors can convey meaning by combining the principles of design and literature. Contrast, color, emphasis, proportion, movement, and harmony are all examples of design principles which can emphasize plot and meaning. For example, different meanings are construed by Marjane’s minimal comic style versus an intricately detailed work. That’s not to say more is more, instead, it highlights the importance of style and lets us examine what artistic style can mean when coupled with a plotline. Scott McCloud’s 1993 graphic novel, Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art, details the importance of visual style in conveying meaning in comics. In this analytic article, Susanne Vermeeren applies McCloud’s comic theory to Persepolis.
Image ID: A panel from Embroideries. An adult Marji talks with female members of her family, all rendered in black and white.
Satrapi heralded in her style of abstract black and white imagery paired with personal and political narrative in Persepolis. When analyzed in the context of McCloud’s comic theory, this choice to render images minimalistically emphasizes their meaning, and therefore, the plot. This is intentional, and works in the service of increasing the novel’s audience. In a video interview, Satrapi highlights the importance of her style and explains how she chose it because “she wanted as many people as possible to be able to read her book and understand the meaning behind it, and see the different truths that exist.” Where Persepolis focuses on the events of the Iranian Islamic Revolution as they affect Satrapi’s life and her family’s lives, Embroideries incorporates the political atmosphere of Iran more covertly. The novel alludes to the sexual politics of Iran in the conversations and clothing of its characters– its engagement with post-revolutionary politics is implicit, all made possible through the format of the graphic novel. By de-emphasizing the formal details of her imagery, Satrapi emphasizes the language of her novels. Because of this, she presents a view of women’s relationships which is far more complex than instant camaraderie. The depth of her characters and their relationship building is all explored through the combination of visuals and language.
Since graphic novels provide a different mode of viewing and understanding stories, they can also reach wider audiences. Images appeal to a wide array of readers for many different reasons– perceptual and physical accessibility is often enhanced with images. For those with perceptual or print disabilities, the combination of imagery and language in graphic novels and comics can increase comprehension– there are also multiple forms of accessible comics, such as human narrated audiobooks, image description, and tactile braille. Graphic novels also help train readers’ visual literacy by utilizing sequence, nonverbal gesture, and plot inference through images. Images offer another entryway into the story, and when combined with language, work to create an immersive experience. We hope this brief introduction to the world of graphic novels and artistic mind of Marjane Satrapi can guide you through your reading of Embroideries - happy reading Hotties!