Drawn From Her Own Life
Marjane Satrapi can laugh now, but 'Persepolis,' her graphic memoir adapted to film, explores the horrors inside Iran and the heartache of exile from it.

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- "She could be a stand-up comic," says one of Marjane Satrapi's friends. This is an understatement. To spend any time with the Iranian-born author of "Persepolis" -- the internationally best-selling graphic memoir that Satrapi has now turned into an animated film -- is to see that she can be a sit-down comic as well.

Here she is, planted in a chair in her Manhattan hotel room, tossing off laugh lines with each puff of her nonnegotiable cigarettes. "If you have asthma or something, you tell me," she says. "Then I go into the toilet and smoke and we have to speak through the door."

Wouldn't dream of it. We'd miss the visuals that way.

Satrapi, 38, bounces in her chair like a 6-year-old on a rocking horse as she talks about the ignorant Westerners who assume that her Iranian relatives ride camels. She joyfully slaps her armpit at the punch line of a joke we can't print (you'll find it in "The Complete Persepolis," Pages 258-66). She brandishes an invisible semiautomatic while recalling her initial horror -- as someone accustomed to drawing solo -- at having to work with dozens and dozens of people to get the film version of "Persepolis" made:

" Shoot shoot shoot," she whispers, miming the mayhem she wanted to inflict. " Going to kill them going to kill them."

Okay. So why did she take on the project in the first place?

"Good question! I always thought it was the [expletive deleted] idea in the world to make a movie out of this book."

The first of four French installments of "Persepolis" -- Satrapi has lived in Paris for many years now -- was published in 2000. In the United States, her work came out in two volumes. The New York Review of Books called them "implacably witty and fearless."

In simply drawn black-and-white panels, "Persepolis" tells the story of a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. Before her widening eyes, the country transforms itself from a brutal secular dictatorship, propped up by Western interests, to an equally brutal, anti-Western theocracy. Her leftist, upper-middle-class parents had opposed the shah, but they fear for the safety of their outspoken daughter under the regime of the ayatollahs. Eventually they send 14-year-old Marjane to live in Austria, where she confronts the twin demons of adolescence and exile alone.

Satrapi didn't think Hollywood could get her story right, especially the complicated mix of love for her country and antagonism toward the current Iranian government. She turned down various proposals to adapt it. Then a couple of French producers (later backed by Hollywood powerhouse Kathleen Kennedy) made her the proverbial un-refusable offer.

Imagine, Satrapi marvels: "Somebody comes to you and tells you, 'I will give you all the money you want, you don't need to make any compromise, and you can make the movie exactly how you want.' I mean, how many times does that happen?"

All the money she wanted turned out to be around $8 million, which she thought was plenty. Worst-case scenario: She might make a bad film. "This is not the end of the world. I am not dead." So she signed up a co-director, Vincent Paronnaud -- "my best friend since ever" -- and plunged in.

"Persepolis" shared the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It is set to open in Washington on Friday.

The hardest thing about her new medium, Satrapi says, was learning to work with a small army of collaborators ( shoot shoot shoot). Eventually she grew to respect and admire her colleagues, but that didn't stop her from drawing all 600-plus characters herself, in front view and profile, before turning the animators loose.

Fearing that the emotional truth of her creation would be overwhelmed by Disneyesque technical virtuosity, she also insisted on acting out all the scenes for the animators -- and had herself filmed doing it. That way, even if a new animator took over a scene, he or she could see what Satrapi intended.

As she describes this process, we find ourselves hoping she'll rise from her chair to demonstrate. We wouldn't expect one of the more gut-wrenching scenes, such as her solo prison visit with a beloved uncle the night before his execution by the fundamentalist Iranian regime. But might she act out her teen-rebel encounter with the Guardians of the Revolution, who confronted her for wearing a Michael Jackson button?

No such luck.

She does burst into song -- "Rising up! Na-na-na!" -- as she describes the "aerobic kind of dance" she performs at a key point in the narrative. After becoming more and more miserable in Austria, she has returned to Iran, but finds that she now fits in neither place and tries to kill herself with pills. Waking up not dead, she accepts that she is fated to live and rocks out.

"I had to make a very silly dance," she explains, "the most silly possible . . . because it is an irony." It reached such heights of silliness that she became shy about doing it in front of the animators and ended up filming it with just one other person in the room.

For Satrapi, such moments of reticence are rare.

New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly, the friend who said Satrapi could be a stand-up comedian, tells of accompanying her to West Point when she was invited to speak there a few years ago. Satrapi was greeted warmly by cadets who had been required to read "Persepolis" and loved it. But she minced no words, Mouly said, in denouncing the Bush administration's Middle East warmaking -- and drew some aggressive questioning along the lines of: How dare you come here and criticize us?

"You are here because you love your country," Mouly remembers her telling the cadets. "You wouldn't want anybody to impose solutions on it."

Mouly and Satrapi met through Mouly's husband, Art Spiegelman, whose graphic classic "Maus" exploded the prevailing notion that comics were not for grown-ups. Satrapi first encountered "Maus" in Paris at a time when she was getting nowhere trying to sell children's books and other artwork.

Supported mainly by her Swedish husband, an economist, she was sharing a studio with a number of comic artists whom she regaled with stories from her Iranian childhood. "The whole day I was eating their brains: 'Nya nya nya nya nya,' " she says. "In order to make me shut up, they told me: 'Why don't you make your story into a comic?' "

Spiegelman's masterpiece showed her that it could be done.

Much later, after "Persepolis" took off, Satrapi found her work compared endlessly to "Maus" by people who didn't know there were any other comics for adults. Embarrassed, she phoned Spiegelman to apologize.

Spiegelman was used to such comparisons. "For a good 10 years," he says, "any comic more ambitious than 'Beetle Bailey' got compared to 'Maus.' " Satrapi's apology charmed him and they became friends.

Their work is, in fact, quite different. "Maus" was a 13-year project steeped in "the grammar of comics," Spiegelman explains, while "Persepolis" has a far more casual style. But never mind that: "What she had was a great story to tell and the verve to tell it."

Ask Satrapi whose graphic work she admires and she mentions a number of Americans. "Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco, all these people for me are amazing," she says.

She admires Sacco, whose books include "Safe Area Gorazde," about the Bosnian war, and "Palestine," because he does extensive on-site reporting: "He actually goes there, he lives with people, he takes his time to be with them," and as a result, "he really makes deep work."

What does she think about the future of the graphic novel form?

"If the same thing that happened to the cinema happens to the graphic novel," Satrapi says, "that would be very good." Cinema started as entertainment "but very quickly it became art." Progress has been slower for the graphic novel, she believes, in part because people think drawing is for children. But it's coming.

Meanwhile, she's got the cinema thing going, too. It's "an amazing feat for one of us poor maladjusted comics people," Spiegelman says, to actually get a film made.

Is Satrapi happy with her new creation?

"I never get bored by seeing this movie, and I have seen it like one thousand times," she says. But the best part of having re-imagined her story as an animated film is that she can sit in a darkened theater and listen to the audience react.

"When I hear people laughing," Marjane Satrapi says, "that is the biggest reward for me."

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