Book Club / My Interest and Skills in Plumbing are Almost Zero

by Marjane Satrapi




In this exciting installment of the London Graphic Novel Network we’re off to sample the sights and delights of Iran! Dealing with the following very important questions: is this book more like a headache or a migraine? How exactly should you mix the personal with the universal? And come on – how much of it did you manage to read exactly before you gave up? 


So: try not to all cry too hard but I’m currently laid up in bed (well – on the sofa) with a case of acute bronchitis (or as I like to call it: having a headache and coughing all the time). 

Why should you care? Well – it means that struggling to write more than a few coherent sentences is a little bit beyond me at the moment which means that this isn’t much of an introduction to Persepolis (and I’m hoping maybe some else can swing in and maybe do a better job?). 
But ok yeah to tell you truth: I’m not much of a fan of Persepolis – in fact the one time that I did try and read I gave up about 1 third of the way through (and hey considering how easy and not-at-all-time-consuming it takes to read a comic – I think that’s kinda really damning): in fact – I would say that my experience of reading it was kinda similar to the experience of bronchitis: kinda head-achey. A big part of the blame for that is the artwork which is just all these giant slabs of black that look like they’ve been cut out from card and then glued (ever so slightly haphazardly) on to the page. In fact yeah – it’s not like a headache – it’s more like a migraine.
And then there’s the story – which I can’t remember that much of: but yeah as far I remember is (for the first third at least) just a series of glum and depressing vignettes (maybe it all starts to come together as it goes along? Well – I don’t know: I didn’t stay around long enough to find out).
Of course of course I realise that Persepolis (Percy for short?) is a bit of a comics scared cow and for a lot of folk is up there on the same level of the bookshelf as Maus and whatever: but yeah – the cool stuff (for me) about Maus is his Dad being such an (understandably) unrepentant curmudgeon and the way that he’s depicted and blah blah blah – while Percy is what? I mean – the things people usually say when they praise it (at least to me) – is: “Oh – it’s not like other comics” which – well – isn’t really something that I have a lot of time for. I mean – just to put all my cards on the card – is it good that there’s comics being made by people who aren’t just straight rich middle-aged white men? And wouldn’t our culture be a richer and better place if it made room for more viewpoints? And all the rest of it? YES YES YES and YES (obviously obviously). But hey – if you want me to spend my time and read a comic – I need something more than just how right-on it makes me feel. And so – I guess – what I’m looking for over the next few weeks is a reason why Percy is so beloved and so good and worth the time it takes to read. And hey – if any of you are convincing enough – then maybe I’ll actually give it another go? 
Or you know: maybe we all agree that it’s kinda like reading a migraine. 
(ooh – look at that: I didn’t do too badly after all). 


Persepolis a scared cow – ha ha, gold dust!




I don’t get it – as in: you don’t think it is?




Scared, not sacred
That’s what it says in your screed
Calling Mariane Satrapi a scared cow, that should stir it up!
It’s a typo that gets me too



Oh no – I meant scared. 
As in – she’s a like a cow that you don’t want to frighten. Because she’s scared. 
A scared cow. 


I gave up Persepolis after a bit as well.  But that doesn’t stop me having plenty of opinions about it…  

It’s really good for what it is and every young woman I’ve given it to has loved it and connected with it but if ‘great’ means something so universal and profound that it deserves to be read by everyone then Persepolis doesn’t quite cut it.  As you say, Maus’s brilliance isn’t just down to the subject matter so much as the thoughtful way its handled, (both emotionally and technically) and this book is ‘just’ someone telling their life story although of course there’s nothing wrong with that!

Even so, it’s an interesting book culturally, I suspect it’s probably the main route through which westerners learn about Iran’s Islamic revolution these days.  I have mixed feelings about that.  Obviously, learning a bit of history is never a bad thing but Satrapi’s family were were far from representative of Iranians in that they had the means to leave the country after the revolution, (like my own Iranian relatives!) and I think ex pats’ opinions on a country generally need to be taken with a pinch of salt…

Reading all that back makes me realise I definitely need to shut up and reread it properly though!


Reading what you wrote I have a few questions:

1. “It’s really good for what it is and every young woman I’ve given it to has loved it and connected with it” = huh? That makes it sound like you walk around with copies of Percy in your pockets and just hand them out on the street. I just wanna say that if that’s not case then you should rectify things immediately. “Oh yeah hi. Sorry – I know we haven’t met – but here’s a copy of Persepolis. You’re welcome. Have a nice day.” 

2. “Representative Iranians” – erm: I mean – maybe I should just shut my mouth: but I think you’ve touched on a really interesting thing there. Because – what? – the only stories we should listen to are the ones that are most representative? Because that’s kinda a crazy idea: because every story is it’s own story and has it’s own view-point. And well – the idea of making a story that’s really representative of a particular group of people or demographic sounds like a recipe for some watered down bowl of boredom. (This I think is my main point of contention with “worthy” narratives that aim to set the record straight and speak for a whole people instead of just one or two persons – they’re boring which for me is like a comics cardinal sin or something).
3. And yeah – sorry – just to set the record straight about Maus: it’s not the subject matter that makes it good for me (although I’m sure other people will feel differently and want to throw out words like “important” and “necessary” and etc) or you know – talk about how the mice are jews and the nazis are cats like that’s the smartest thing anyone’s ever thought of ever (urg): It’s just that his dad is a really cool fully-realised character (I think it’s his speech patterns that I love the most). But yeah – maybe that’s a thing for another time if we ever decide to do Maus…. (hmmmm).  


Gah!  You’re right, that sounded really odd! I mostly meant my extended family like it more than I did! I read that back afterwards and it all looked like a bit of a stroppy screed about a pleasant,heartfelt book that definitely doesn’t deserve that!

I think it just deeply irritates me that’s we don’t hear many other stories about that period but that’s obviously not her fault!  

As for Maus, it’s another discussion, but it would have been remarkable enough, had it even been a straight novel.


I’m reading this as a person that has general (basic) knowledge of the historical events depicted in the story. I liked the perspective this brought to my existing ideas/knowledge on the subject. I found the artwork to be simple but effective, which allowed the story to shine through stronger.  

I feel it would be hard to judge this the same way I would judge a comic I was reading for excitement or purely for pleasure (not to say I didn’t enjoy reading it). This is a good example of the diverse stories that can be told through this medium. If I had read the story as a novel instead of a graphic novel, it probably would have lost some the impact it had. In this case, it is retelling (mostly) true life events so my imagination may not have been an ally in picturing what things were like. Having the illustrations there, made the story more informational and (to me) accurate. This is probably one of the few cases where I think the reader should get as much assistance from the author as possible, when immersing themselves in the story. 
Was this depressing? A little. I imagine things were a depressing during that time so no surprise there. Am I the only person who checks what the story is about before reading it? I suppose since we’re reading it in this group this is one of the comics that consistently appear in the popular top [insert number here] lists of comics to read before you die? Maybe that is why people who ordinarily wouldn’t bother with it have attempted to read it? I think the book delivers what it sets out to do and does it well. I don’t know if it’s “representative” of what “most/normal” Iranians experienced, but then again I’ve always found it difficult to define what normal is. Even if this story was told from the eyes of an even smaller minority, like her Jewish friend, the story would not have lost it’s impact. I appreciate this window into events that I may not have looked at otherwise. Those that didn’t manage to finish it the first time they read it…what put you off or where did you get stuck? No judgement, just curiosity. I apologise for all the questions, feel free to ignore them 🙂


Huh? You check what the story is about before reading it? Then why read the story at all? 


Erm, yes I check the synopsis. Other times someone might tell me it’s a really cool book/comic and tell me a little bit about it without providing spoilers. Sometimes it’ll have cover art and I can guess what it involves and what genre it is. Am I to assume you just randomly pick up books/comics/movies making sure you know absolutely nothing about them? 

I still read the story because a 4 line synopsis is not usually enough to match the experience of reading the actual book? Should I not have done that? I find my current approach helps me read things that I generally like or have an interest in. I also hate to not finish books so imagine me picking up a book about the correct way to fit a u-bend…My interest and skills in plumbing are almost zero – I’d be screwed 🙂


A quick non-Commercial break here.

I thought I would draw your attention to todays Alex as it comments on the Charlie Hebdo incident in a mildly meta way that is quite unusual for the comic (and funny, check out the computer screens) (the comic is just back from the holidays today).



P.S. Is this too random? Do we want to stick to JUST the book we are talking about?



god, no, Christine
personally speaking, I’m all for the diversions
so thank you for sharing that
I’m just gobsmacked Alex still goes…must be what, 30 years or more…


Really good point Christine

Actually I’ve long found Alex fascinating.  In some ways it’s very underrated.  I think it gives a fairly honest and perceptive account of bankers and is probably been the best chronicle of finance in general and the credit crunch in particular; I’d be willing to bet historians will use it as one of the main sources when they look back on our era.  But, on the other hand although it’s satirical, it never really takes a stance and it’s hardly anti banking, (and nor would you expect it to be, since it’s published on the financial pages of the telegraph…) treating it all as a bit of a lark and is a good example of the uncomfortable fact that despite what we’ve been hearing in recent days most satire doesn’t really ‘afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted’ as it’s supposed to.  So today’s strip is interesting to see the creators addressing this, though characteristically remaining on the fence about it….


Yes, “Outreach program” computer screen in the “Persepolis break for Alex” side-thread was particularly funny. Christine’s post also reminds me that Marjane Satrapi wrote Persepolis in French and she lives in Paris.

I think this is a great choice of book to talk about. I did not exactly know it had become a comic sacred cow (whether a nervous one or otherwise!). I thought Persepolis was so good that I bought Satrapi’s follow-up book Embroideries in Gower St (being doubly rewarded with a quizzical look by the assistant in Waterstones). I can see the frustration experienced by those closer to the story that it has quite likely become the main prism through which Westerners view it. This might be changing with David B’s recent “The Best of Enemies, the story of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East” – like Persepolis also first published in French (and reminding everyone that France and Britain also had a hand in deposing Mossadegh, Iran’s lawfully elected prime minister).


Quick note.

All this discussion about whether Satrapi’s family was a ‘typical’ Iranian family, or whether her experience was a ‘typical’ one seems  decidedly wrongheaded, to me.

She wrote and drew THIS story because it was HERS. This is what happened to her and her family.

She wasn’t trying to create an overall view of events in Iran, or a balanced piece of journalism, she was trying to talk about the Iranian revolution and its afternath as it affected her.


I hope I’m pointing out the bloody obvious here.



I like Mark’s point about Satrapi writing HER story, not about a ‘typical’ family.

Gretchen Rubin also argues in her ‘memoir/year of a project’ book that we pay more attention to intensly personal stories about how that person achieved/overcame something, rather than a scientific analysis of the best way for everyone to achieve/overcome X. Her own happiness project takes the scientific/literary research and turns it into lived experience.

Also you know more about your own family than the ‘typical family’.

I stopped reading Persepolis when I go the bit about torture and people having their toenails ripped off. Apparently they don’t grow back very well (too evocative!). Unfortunately that put me off a bit, and I was worried to read about more dreadful injustice. I prefer to hear about awful things in the context of fact book, that puts them in perspective, shows how and why they happened, and also dampens down the awfulness of the inhumanity by mentioning it rather than evoking it (e.g. Naomi Klein on Pinochet’s regime in the Shock Doctrine). Though I suppose you are more likely to read such a book after getting interested by a book such as Persepolis.

In the part I did read I could see that Satrapi was not doing a good job of going underground as the country got increasingly strict and it really forshadowed her being sent away, you see it as the only safe thing for her parents to do. How lucky her mother had a trusted friend outside the country.

In the absence of any more of my own opinions I will quote Douglas Wolk, from Reading Comics, which I am reading now.

[What P is about] … Still, it’s hard for me to see Satrapi’s artwork in Persepolis without being distracted by its obvious debt to Epileptic. Her deliberately flat, two dimensional images are almost homages to B.’s fiercely squashed perspective and military-tapestry figures, but they’re usually just simplified representations of real perception: they don’t have B.’s scary mystery or sense of raging, overwhelming floods of imagination. My ambivalence about Satrapi in this context has a lot to do with the fact that her success in English has overshadowed B.’s; when I show people Epileptic, they often note that it takes after Persepolis a bit. (Vice versa!). In her more recent books Embroideries and Chicken with Plums, though Satrapi’s drawing style has evolved into something more her own.



Before it is too late I want to counter the suggestion I heard the other evening at the Barbican Comic Forum that Persepolis is just a “boring history lesson” (or words to that effect).


First, it is correct (see below) that Satrapi writes “about the Iranian revolution and its aftermath as it affected her (as an individual)”.


But as a national story, Persepolis is no mere chronicle either. This is evident in artwork openly fusing the naïve and the symbolic, complementing the narrative as the Chorus adds to the dramatic action in a Greek Tragedy.


For example, when the Shah’s army is called in to suppress a crowd, it is depicted as serried ranks of soldiers maintaining exactly the same stance and holding rifles at the same angle. In their turn, the members of the crowd facing and throwing stones at the army are depicted in the same uniform way – both clearly echo the relief sculptures visible in the ruins of Persepolis (and in the British Museum, I think).


This works on loads of levels. It makes Persepolis a work of art in itself but it also acts as a commentary on the vainglorious Shah’s inability to control his people with the style and symbolism of the Persian emperors. Yet, the crowd being depicted in the same way, the revolution is also stylised as a classic people’s revolt of ancient times, at least at first.


The story that follows, much of it political and some of it personal, shows how world-historical and individual narratives intertwine. It is always extremely difficult for autocratic regimes to control people’s lives to the extent they characteristically demand – because the more conformity is enforced, the greater the symbolic impact of even the smallest deviation from conformity. The small personal details in the narrative thereby tell a universal story.


This is a lot more than just history.


As a side note, looking though my edition again, I notice David B wrote the introduction…





I met with a woman this afternoon who began our meeting by showing me her Iranian birth certificate and then by telling me what Iran was like now and then, when she was growing up. I told her that I my only real knowledge of what Iran might be like to live in came from reading Persepolis. “I love that book,” she said, “it was perfect.”


I read the French version years ago and I really enjoyed it. One thing that delighted me was the fact it reminded me, on a graphic level, Iranian antique things I had seen and liked in museums (especially at the Louvre museum). It’s simple and sophisticated at the same time, kind of naive and refined, which is, in my eyes, what makes the charm of Iranian things in general.

Also, regarding the layout, she turns things (cigarette smoke, God’s beard) and people into graphic patterns and organises them so that they don’t tell a story in a realistic way but almost in a decorative way, which again reminded me of those antique “low-relief” things describing armies, or processions, and such things. 

I am not an Art expert, this is just what her graphic style reminded me of. It made me think that she tells her story in her mother language, she criticizes things about her country but at the same time she’s faithful to its antique culture (which is also what indicates the title).

I also liked the female characters, who all seem so confident and so firm. And again, at the same time, she gives her childish vision/experience of them, especially regarding her grandmother with the anecdote about the shape of her breast, or the anecdote about the jasmine smell (this detail in particular deeply moves me).  

Regarding the black and white thing, and the influence of David B on her work, I think there is also something related to the initial publisher, l’Association. I am not absolutely sure of that, but I think David B was one of the co-founders of l’Association and they wanted their books to be in black and white, with sober powerful artwork inside and colourful covers. So if Marjane Satrapi was influenced by those guys who created a kind of renewal in the French comic milieu in the 90’s, that’s quite normal that she followed their style and she’s definitely not the only one. There are many French comic authors who use only black and white and a simplistic style.

I can’t remember what I was saying except for “I liked it”. Feel free to correct or erase anything that sounds rubbish. Here is how I would describe myself: 
I live in East London, English is not my first language so I am sorry for my grammar and my vocabulary. I work part-time in a school and I also write fiction. I used to work on a comic scenario for ages and, although our work never got published it was a great experience. I try to take part to the Barbican Comic Forum as often as possible.


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