AS A CHILD IN IRAN, and an adolescent in Europe, Marjane Satrapi harbored no wide-eyed hopes of being a cartoonist.
“It was really not my childhood dream, not at all,” Satrapi, speaking from Paris, tells Comic Riffs. “I knew I wanted to draw and knew I wanted to write. The idea I had was that comics were for adolescents.
“But then you read ‘Maus’ and realize comics are just a medium for expressing yourself and it was a revelation. ... You see it’s possible to make that.”
So from Art Spiegelman ’s landmark graphic novel, it’s possible to draw a direct through-line to Satrapi’s breakthrough work more than a decade later: “Persepolis,” her own illustrated memoir of growing up during the Iranian revolution and of being sent away for schooling in Vienna.
“Persepolis,” of course, would win the Coup de Couer Award at Angoulême , where Satrapi has also been honored for her subsequent comics “Embroideries” (nominated) and “Chicken With Plums (Poulet aux prunes)” (won). And her beautiful animated adaptation of her “Persepolis” books would bring a 2007 Special Jury Prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination the next year — helping to anoint Satrapi as a star within comics and animation.
The life she had never dreamed of found her.
Today, Satrapi comes to Washington — and speaks tonight at 8 at George Washington University — as she tours the United States in support of her live-action film adaptation of “Chicken With Plums,” a 2011 release in France that re-teams her with “Persepolis” co-director Vincent Paronnaud. The film — part dark comedy, part bittersweet drama with nods to everything from German Expressionism to “The Wizard of Oz” — stars Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) as the character inspired by Satrapi’s real-life uncle and tar virtuoso Nasser Ali Khan, a “great musician,” she has said, who “died out of sadness.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Satrapi to talk comics-making vs. filmmaking, her American influences and prejudices — and even why she prefers Mitt Romney to George W. Bush:
MICHAEL CAVNA: You seem to seldom tour the United States these days, Marjane — what’s appealing about doing an American tour now?
MARJANE SATRAPI: Generally I like to come to America and see colleges. You can’t change someone who’s 60, but you can open another door [with young people]. ... It’s always extremely interesting to speak at colleges. My books are taught in many colleges in America and are part of the educational system, so it’s really important to me. I don’t believe in so many things in life, but something I believe in is education. That is the key to whatever future we’re going to have in this world. ... It’s always a joy to come and see young people. They make me feel super-cool.
MC: Reaching the youth of America. Feeling super-cool. Why not tour U.S. colleges more often?
MS: Traveling to America is not the easiest thing. Because I’m French, I have to go through a special service, be stopped for 1 1/2 hours. I have to register and re-register. It’s very complicated. I have to have many things to do [here] to want to come to America.
MC: So what are some of those many things this time?
MS: I’ve got the Tribeca [Film] Festival, then Boston, then D.C. I have to go to the San Francisco film festival and then back to New York. [Unfortunately] I’m not going to any new places. [For example] I like to seek the juiciest burgers [in America]. The most greasy, disgusting thing. ...
America is a very special place. In this country, you have the best and the worst at the same time. Whatever you can imagine. Culture and image. ... For me, it’s an exciting place to come. Every time, I have so much amazement. I have prejudices about everything. ... I think the Texas Republicans are going to kill me, but then I go [to Texas] and it never happens that way. It’s always better than I thought.
In America, there are many countries in one country. ... Most of the culture comes from somewhere [else]. America is recent history.
MC: So what will you talk about with these young Americans [tonight] — do you have talking points or a set agenda?
MS: No, this is more like a conversation [with author Azar Nafisi ]. Many of them are 18 or 19, and they want to know things. I try to share with them a point of view about what I’m thinking about the world, about art. To just let it open up. I’m very open and never write what I’m going to say. Speeches bore everybody else. I have to freestyle. Every time, from one program to another, everything changes and I improvise.
MC: What differences do you experience between the audiences you speak to here and those, say, in Europe?
MS: In America, [I have toured] a lot of bookstores for this kind of event. That would never happen [this way] in Europe. The reason for that, I think, is that intellectualism in France is a very cool thing. Intellectualism is a plus. You don’t need a special space — it’s a part of society. But in America, people don’t consider it cool to be an intellectual. You’re ‘elite,’ and that is anti-democratic. If you read books, then you are a nerd. ...
We have a ministry of culture [and communication] in France. But here, it’s private funds — there is no ministry of culture. The state won’t pay for it. But some of the best concerts and contemporary art I’ve [seen] was in America. [The touting of anti-intellectualism] doesn't stop people from being cultural. ...
In France, if you are intellectual and have no money, everyone will respect you. Sometimes in America, there is too much God in people’s heads. So if you have money, [they say] God is with you — that’s why you’re so successful. But most of why you’re a successful person is because you’re such [an expletive]. ...
I’m not like a communist or socialist, but there are a few things that are the basis for society. ... Because we are human beings, we have to be open and not scared. The majority is always wrong — and the minority is sometimes right. If the majority were right, we would live in a good world.
MC: But when it comes to American culture, you do like some American cartoonists.
But I hated Superman. I hated the curl and how he was like super-right and so nice. I really didn’t like him at all. But Batman is dark and full of hate — and he had the Batmobile. Though I didn’t always know what was happening between him and Robin....
But America has done so much for comics and cinema. ... You also have the best law to defend freedom of expression. But the reality is, in fact, [in the United States] you have to be careful of having an extreme point of view. But I have an accent and talk funny, so I can say whatever I want — the Outsider can say more.
MS: I speak six languages (including Farsi, Swedish, German and Italian), but I have always written in French. Almost all my scholarship was in French schools. When I started drawing, I worked in French. I tried to write in English, but it’s a matter of a way of thinking — and of words that don’t exist in other languages. The French don’t have a word for “fun.” French people have “irony,” but not fun — you have to use the English word.
MC: How has film — especially American film — affected your sense of American language and culture?
MS: My father, who was born in 1944, is a big cinephile and he loves movies — he introduced me to cinema and the golden age of American cinema. I used to say [expletives] every second word after seeing American films, and people asked me if something was wrong with me. ...
American people have made a lot of [cinematic contributions] — and not just ”Transformers” 1 and 2 and 3 and 12. [Roman Polanski’s] “Chinatown” is such a great movie. ... But look at American film today. The smoker is now a bad guy. “Casablanca” would be impossible now! They make horrible films like “Juno.” That is supposed to be an independent cool film, but it’s actually an anti-abortion conservative film. This is a Republican film. .... Look at the message.
MC: Speaking of the intersection of politics and art, can you speak to what life is like now for artists in Iran?
MS: I would very dishonest if I tell you I know something [about now] — it’s been 13 years since I’ve gone back. I know that cartoonists and writers have a very hard time [under] totalitarian regimes. Images have the power ... so every dictator’s regime goes after the cartoonists and filmmakers. All big changes of the world come from words. Everybody who expresses something that doesn’t go in the direction of what the thinking should be — if it doesn’t fit the propaganda — they try to stop them.
[IRAN CARTOONS: Political cartoonist Nik Kowsar launches new site]
MC: In this election year, what’s your take on the United States’ approach and policy toward Iran?
MS: Obama is sending a message to Iran: You have to make a difference. ... The truth is, the Iranian people are the most pro-Wesstern people in the whole region. But we’ve had this idea of going to war to institute democracy. The result of all this war is crap. In Afghanistan, nothing has changed. In Iraq, people are dying. ... [Starting] a war never has given a good [resolution]. ...
In America, of course, there is a big difference between Obama and Bush. ... And this Mitt Romney is still better than Sarah Palin. She believes dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time because someone found their bones at the same place. This is not possible. I think Mitt Romney has some culture.
MC: Growing up in Iran in the ’70s and early ’80s, did you want to be a cartoonist — political or otherwise?
MS: There were a lot of translated comic books, but they were really written for boys. I looked at drawings, but I didn’t grow up with comics. It was really not my childhood dream, not at all. I knew I wanted to draw and knew I wanted to write. The idea I had was that comics were for adolescents. But then you read ‘Maus’ and realize comics are just a medium for expressing yourself and it was a revelation. ... You see it’s possible to make that.
MC: You’ve had great success as both a cartoonist and a filmmaker. For you, how do the challenges differ in those fields — from creatively to procedurally?
MS: With [most] American comics, no one else in involved [in the creation]. Compare that with film — there's the American expression: “Money talks, bull---- walks.” The big difference in cinema is that no matter what you want to do, you still need some money — you need people to give you the money. When you make a comic, you have your paper and ink and you make your book and you [might] give it to the publishers and publish 2,000 books for a couple of thousand of dollars.
.You have all the joy and pressure to yourself. Making comics is a moment of peace. This is the process you have in comics.
When you have cinema, suddenly you have a team of hundreds of people. ... Three years of your life are [condensed] into three months [of production]. Cinema is hard drugs. When you go down [emotionally], you swear you will never touch this [expletive] again. But later, you only remember the time you got high, and that it was really cool. ...
I was the only child growing up, in my lonely world, and suddenly there’s the joy of working with other people [on a film]. But sometimes after I do that, I then need to be all alone.
MC: Between comics and film, have you mapped out your next projects — and do you plan to work on one more than the other at this point?
MS: I don’t make a career plan.I take things the way they come. I’m 41 years old and I'm a big smoker. So let’s say I live another 30 years, on the optimistic end. A project takes two or three years of my life — 10 percent of my life. I can only choose so many projects and then my life is finished. I have to be extremely careful what I do. When time goes, it goes.
I don't need so much money to live. ...I’m extremely careful about what I really want to do, and I have to be happy doing it, so I haven’t just wasted my time and my life.
A career plan is not everything. You can never eat more than two steaks in a day. You can’t drive 10 cars at a time. And I like to buy shoes, but I can do that anyway.
[ART SPIEGELMAN: The history of the comics medium in one tidy night]
[THE INTERVIEW: Exiled Iranian cartoonist Nik Kowsar]
[‘RIFFS GALLERY: Best of the “Twitter Iran” cartoons]