It’s much easier to charm people with the story of a childhood than when you’re an adolescent,” says Marjane Satrapi. “You know, you’re full of hormones and covered by pimples, and not very intelligent either.” She’s referring to the contrast between her first graphic memoir, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and her newly translated sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. In the former, a strong-willed Iranian preteen—Satrapi—watches in horror as her country is hijacked by Islamists, her Marxist relatives transferred from the shah’s prisons to the ayatollah’s torture chambers. “There,” she says, “I have the benefit of being cute, and not really responsible for the world around me. In the second book, I’m absolutely not cute anymore.”
Satrapi loses her cuddliness in exile in book two—first living in a boardinghouse run by Austrian nuns, experimenting with sex and drugs, and winding up homeless on the streets of Vienna. She returns to Iran, goes to art school, marries briefly, and finally—chafing under ridiculous strictures—leaves Iran for good. (She now lives in Paris and writes in French.) Satrapi’s gawky adolescence brings a feminine perspective to a mostly male genre populated by poets of teen humiliation like Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Craig Thompson. But her sales have far surpassed those of her contemporaries—450,000 in France at last count—and in the zero-sum game of graphic-novel tokenism, Satrapi is racking up highbrow cred internationally. At her only New York appearance, the Chelsea Barnes & Noble overflowed with fans, including a larger than usual complement of nose rings and ethnicities. In a loose-fitting dress and black platform boots, Satrapi turned a reading into a lecture-discussion. “Now I’m in the Axis of Evil,” she declared, “so it makes the book even more interesting.”
Satrapi’s calling card—her accidental trump card—is world-historical significance: not just a penetrating inside look at a closed society, but a perspective on the very timely subject of the East-West divide. Her artistic hero is the man who pretty much invented the genre: Art Spiegelman, whose new In the Shadow of No Towers—a memoir of September 11—is his first major work since Maus. From Satrapi’s perspective, Spiegelman’s got the broader scope. “He can spread it from his point of view to a much larger sphere,” Satrapi says. “My work is more constructed on anecdotes.”
But if Satrapi’s stories are simple, almost fablelike, the best capture the complexities of a girlhood out of step. Amid her anarchist buddies in Europe, Satrapi comes off as a prudish, self-loathing nerd (but one fully aware of her exotic allure). Back in Iran, she strikes her art-school friends as a whorish rebel (though to her husband she’s at times a goody two-shoes). In other words, she is suffering from a sense of misunderstood uniqueness—a feeling perhaps universal, but more justly earned in this context than the ennui of your average post-adolescent East Village latte-swiller.
“In Europe, Satrapi comes off as a prudish, self-loathing nerd; in Iran, a whorish rebel.”
“I’m not interested in politics—it is the politics that is interested in me,” Satrapi now says. “If people made choices and suffered for it, it wouldn’t be my problem. But every political decision has a direct effect on my life. That is why I cannot stop talking about it.” In talks and interviews, Satrapi rails at length (in a still-girlish rasp seasoned by heavy smoking) on political wrongs past and present. She is every bit the round-faced 6-year-old in whom the ambition to become Islam’s first female prophet seemed adorable—until, in later years, it became something more defensive.
“I’m all the time angry,” says Satrapi, betraying her French idiom. “Probably the work makes me a little bit less angry, because I can say what I want and not make too much destruction around myself. But the mortar of my existence is my anger.”
The bricks she’s built with that anger are swiftly stacking up: Currently, Satrapi is working on an animated movie of Persepolis, and her next book is about a man who, having failed to replace a valuable musical instrument, decides he wants to die. Satrapi promises its craft will be much improved. “When I finished a page,” she insists, “I thought, Jesus Christ, did I do that?” Another book, Stateside in April, is called Embroideries and follows women storytellers seated in a circle. (The title also describes Iranian women’s practice of surgically repairing themselves after sex to look like virgins.)
Critics have credited Satrapi with giving Persepolis 2 greater visual complexity than its predecessor. “Everybody thinks I did it on purpose,” she says, “but in the second one, I just learned how to draw.” But for all of her humility, the simplicity of Satrapi’s work may be what makes it universal: Her cartoon icons represent the conflicted self, the veil of identity politics hiding the lonely navel-gazer within.