I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
Though she writes in the graphic genre, Marjane Satrapi provides the kind of literary experience found in classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and John Dos Passos’s U. S. A. Trilogy. The art she uses can be traced to such disparate places as painted caves, Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the daily comics. But it is the graphic form, its leaps from strip to strip like the back-and-forth, hopscotch jumps in a child’s logic, that suits to her narrative.
Satrapi’s Persepolis books (2000-2003) are the memoirs of a girl growing up in revolution-era Tehran. Reading them had apparently inspired Daisy to try her hand at graphic writing.
“Everyone seems to be working on memoir these days,” I said. “What’s your angle?” “Yeah,” Daisy said, “I’m thinking of our time at the Failing school.” I agreed our Failing school experiences would make good comic fodder. Daisy looked away. That was the wrong thing to say to her.
How do we access literature? Theory, a land where nothing is what it is (not that it should be), unravels comprehension and confidence. It may deprive the the common reader of the literary experience itself. So what do we want to read: how, where, when, why, and by whom?
The Times has three subcategories for “graphic books”: hardback, paperback, and manga. The development of the graphic genre probably includes the original Classics Illustrated comic books. These were abridged, cartoon-like versions of works of literature parents or teachers might have thought worthier than Mad Magazine. But few thought they carried the same weight as the originals, or believed the experience of reading them comparable to sitting with the fat unabridged tomes.
In the context of today’s reading crisis, though, does the graphic genre offer a kind of salvation from the drift toward a society that is truly classless but only in its illiteracy?
Around the time of the setting of Persepolis, Daisy and I were both at the Failing school teaching basic reading and writing skills, including tutoring and work with students in English as a second language. Foreign students often dropped in looking for help in preparing for the TOEFL.
Sometimes, friends or relatives of students joined us, happy to find a quiet place to read with a library down the hall and a café downstairs serving cheap coffee. One day, a student came into my classroom looking for placement for his mother.
I kept thinking of her as I read Persepolis. She had reached out and taken my face into her hands, and she said I looked like her son. Not the son looking aghast at his mother as she touched the teacher’s face but the son, I later understood, she had spent days in Tehran looking for, going through freezers, searching through body bags… And I had reminded her of him.
She was a doctor, and she studied with us for a few months before returning to Iran. We exchanged letters after she went back, but I lost touch with her. In one letter, she mentions working with soldiers wounded in the Iran-Iraq war. Most of the soldiers were children.
Satrapi’s graphic works are distinguished by black and white drawings that might remind readers of early television, but glanced through, the books look like comic books, like newspaper comics, the shadows and lights shifting from one strip to the next, the text white on a black background or black on a white background.
But Satrapi’s writing employs fiction, drama, and poetry: the three-legged reading stool. Persepolis, the memoir, is a personal and a cultural history. The comics page of most newspapers includes serial stories with plot development — as well as protagonists and antagonists; flavored settings; individual tone and style; history, psychology, and philosophy; comment; sarcasm, satire, irony, and farce. And it is these elements that define literature.
But it is the ballast of newspapers, advertising, that resembles graphic writing most of all. The ad works like a comic strip, the text blended in ironic form with the visuals. Part of the irony comes from the text’s unexpected juxtaposition with what is depicted by the image. This is how cartoons work. Advertising renders argument into a popular vernacular. It is almost always a form of propaganda, where the product is contextualized as fiction. And that makes it anti-literary.
Some readers may find graphic writing, like advertisements, anti-literary. The pages lack traditional margins, discouraging the scholarly habit of marginal notes. Marginal notes in a graphic novel are absorbed by the form, they become a part of the graphic text, another irony. Maybe graphic writing is the revolution that will free readers from literature?
There is an ironic, self-reflecting comment in Persepolis. Marji is talking to her uncle Anoosh, who mentions his “doctorate in Marxism-Leninism,” and Marji asks, “Dialectic materialism?” “What?” Anoosh asks, surprised. “You know about that?” “I read the comic book version,” Marji replies.
I did not read many comic books when I was a kid. I was thinking the Satrapi books are the first, book-length graphic writing I’ve ever read, but I remember reading Archie and Mehitabel in paperback form. In any case, the idea of accompanying text with illustrations is not new to me. What might be new, or newer, is the idea of accompanying illustrations with text.
The illustrations are foremost, the text working like explanatory notes. Satrapi uses footnotes, too, to clarify or explain obscure references. Her books contain full-page drawings as well as pages with multiple sections.
Sometimes there is no text, and the drawings alone convey the sense and carry the narrative. The drawings are often very subtle, a simple twist of the line of a mouth suggesting a change in tone or feeling. Characters form the heart of her writing. The pages are full of faces, notable characteristics — a mole, for example, or a hair style — distinguishing one character from another.
But we did read the funny papers in my family. “Where are the funny papers?” Pop might ask, about a decade before the beginning of Persepolis, Pop speaking plumber patois, prattling off to the privy. Standard families called them the comics, but everyone read them in the crapper carrel, which, like watching television, was a leveling experience of the era.
Pop read the newspaper, preferably a pro-union one, and the Bible – no, he listened to the Bible, as it was read in church on “Sundy” morning, but no books, no magazines, though Mom often read Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and the like. Reading the daily newspaper fostered organic talk.
Satrapi’s Embroideries (2003) brings together a group of local women who gather for an afternoon tea and talk. Stories within stories are told in a timeline that weaves in and out of the present. The tone is ironic and satirical. The women laugh and cry, argue and hug. They talk of men, of women, of children, of families, and of bodies. Expectations, aspirations, disappointments.
Reading is about being an individual, lobbying silently for a legislation of one’s own. Having time to read suggests free time, leisure time, unless you are a student, in which case you are forced to do it, but if you are a literature student, work is play. What is leisure?
“It’s such a perfect day,” Lou Reed sang. “I’d like to spend it with you” a book?
Satrapi’s early, difficult efforts to find herself and to draw and to write do not necessarily suggest privilege. Her days are full of anxieties, doubts, worries. But is freedom to read and to write privilege?
The graphic novel is a literary gift to readers without much free time. An hour spent reading a graphic novel is of course equal to an hour spent reading any other kind of text, but readers may want to be able to finish works of literature within what they consider a reasonable time frame, to feel and blend the movement of the story within their own sense of a day or a night. This is one experience of literature that’s beyond the experience of reading the newspaper.
But now that newspapers are disappearing, what do we read? Readers used to glance through the want ads even when they didn’t want anything, just to see what was going on in the marketplace. The wants and the hunts have moved on. I bought my first guitar for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze.
I thought about that guitar while reading Satrapi’s Chicken with Plums (2004), about an Iranian musician who plays a tar, a Persian string instrument. In the film version, the musician is a violinist. The film has a lovely musical score. A girlfriend jumped off the top bunk and landed on my guitar, after which it played slightly flat. Read or view Chicken with Plums, and you’ll get the connection.
Persepolis was also made into a film, animated. The film version is remarkably close to the book. The graphic novel is closer to film than to a traditional literary text.
Later on a war invaded our living room, its ordnance the newspaper, television, and magazines. “One Week’s Dead,” the influential article in Life Magazine, showed thumbnail photos of a week’s U.S. dead in Vietnam. 1969. As it turned out, our pro-union paper wasn’t so pro-union after all, nor was its news all it was cracked up to be. The daily news noir was cancelled. What do folks read today, on the edge of the disappearing newspaper, disappointing television, and magazines that merely entertain?
“We live in a class society,” Marji’s father tells her in Persepolis. Were the funny papers literature? It’s a question that did not and need not worry readers.
Enter the radio, Top 40, popular music, the three-minute song, which you could listen to even if you didn’t have the time. And working-class families were doing folk music, folk songs, in their living rooms, house parties, and school concerts, sock hops. The original Catholic folk mass was developed, a kind of revolution that might make a good story to illustrate within a graphic novel. Would that be literature, though?
I suggested these ideas to Daisy, who was busily drawing in her notebook as I rambled on about my first guitar and our early hootenanny efforts. But it seems Daisy already had an idea for her graphic novel. She would call it The Failing School. “You’ll have to write your own,” Daisy said. “Yeah,” I said to her, “but I’ll need an illustrator.”
I got up to get us a couple of coffee refills while Daisy was working. I looked out the window into the rain, thinking of the Failing school. After a time, the rain let up and I said goodbye to Daisy and went back outside to find Lily.
I had jotted down “Marjane Satrapi, graphic writer” in my notebook.