When Persepolis was first published by Pantheon two decades ago, Iranian expatriate French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi brought North America a child’s-eye view of revolution in the middle east. She also changed the future of comics publishing. PW’s starred review named the first volume a “timely and timeless story,” comparing Satrapi to Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco.
Ever since, almost any graphic novel with literary ambitions gets compared to Satrapi’s—some clearly imitative, flattery that Satrapi shrugs off as “shameful” copycatting. The phenomenon of Persepolis and its conversion of general readers to become a breakthrough bestseller opened the gates to today’s diverse graphic novel landscape. Now, Pantheon has put out a 20th anniversary edition of the complete Persepolis with a new introduction by Satrapi.
Satrapi roundly declares, though, that she’s left comics behind. The artist, 53 years old, is now a filmmaker: she adapted Persepolis into an animated film in 2007, and is currently directing a forthcoming slice-of-life, Robert Altman–style homage to the street life of Paris, a city she’s lived in for many years since leaving Iran.
The ferocity and passion of the little girl who came across so vividly in Persepolis remain in full force. Brash and unapologetic, Satrapi proudly names herself a “very badly behaved woman, but a free one.” The irony is not lost on her that her comics documenting how, as a schoolgirl, she snuck punk cassettes past morality police have topped banned book lists in America for a decade. But her own focus is back on Iran. Between filming, Satrapi speaks internationally about the uprisings in the country, raising awareness and support for women-led protests that heightened after the killing of a young woman in police custody in 2022. But while she accepts the mantle of liaison for a western world wooed by Persepolis, she points to the courage of the young activists on the ground in Iran as her own inspiration.
Satrapi spoke to PW while on vacation in Stockholm about her shift from comics to film, the banning of books in America, and her pride in Iran's young revolutionaries. (Read to the end for a short excerpt from Persepolis.)
Is raising awareness around the protests in Iran a big part of your life?
As it has always been! I’m making clips, going to demonstrations, radio, TV. If you have a voice, if you are somebody who people will actually listen to, then you have to go. But you can’t talk too much, either. Too many words equals zero. I calculate when I can be efficient.
Comics is an efficient medium, right?
Comics is good, and I've been making lots of drawings. But I will never make comics again. That chapter of my life is behind me. And I've always been like that—I’m like a car that you can’t pull back.
The problem with comics is—and it will sound like I’m sending myself flowers, but—from the first comic I made, I got all this press and hoopla, hoopla. I made a couple more and it was the same. It’s something I know how to do. It’s not that I know a secret ingredient—I can’t give a formula to someone else. But it’s not challenging anymore because I know how to do it. My life is about the search, not getting comfortable. I like the chaos. I'm not going to live another 300 years. I have to explore everything I can before dying.
Clearly you have a restless spirit. Do you think it came from growing up during the Iranian Revolution and the risks you took then?
No, because millions had grown up during the revolution, and most did exactly the contrary: they longed for something stable, calm, no chaos. It’s been a part of me since I was a child—even before the revolution I liked fear and challenge, I did all the dangerous stuff.
But this new generation has changed. It’s not that the regime changed, but the new generation is doing what we did not: they fight back, and they want freedom. The context also is that many factors of society have changed. In 1979, maybe only 40% of the Iranian people could read and write, and now it’s more than 80%—for women, close to 100%. And not only secular people, also religious people today, they want separation of religion and government. They believe religion is something very personal.
It's not that I’m anti-anything, really. Persepolis has its own story in America, too. It went through waves.
You mean the book banning?
First it was all these stupid Republican parents, because they claim it has “sexual scenes.” I don’t know how these people made children themselves, because if there is sex in there, show me where? And “scenes of torture”—a frame where, as a child, I imagined what torture could be like. Kids of these same families play war video games.
Then the liberals banned it as Islamophobic. The shift between the conservatives and the liberals, that was amusing, because it was the same kind of stupidity. What are they scared of? Don’t they count on people to have any intelligence?
Books are under constant assault in the U.S. Persepolis was once one of the top 10 banned books in the country.
It shows how cool I am. What a neighborhood: Oscar Wilde on your right and Mark Twain on your left. A banned book is always a good book. It makes the kids want it more. Like in the Bible, God says to do whatever you want but forget about the apple. What did they do first? They ate the apple.
Banning books is a dive back into the darkest moments in the history of human beings.
You wrote in the new introduction that Persepolis was first published at a time where “it seemed that humanity had somehow learned from its mistakes,” but that changed in the aftermath of 9/11. Do you hold hope for the new generation?
I don’t just have hope, I have certainty. Freedom and self-awareness is part of Iranian culture now. Not like George Bush bombing Afghanistan and putting a Coca-Cola machine there and poof, we have a democracy, and in seven days the Taliban come take it back. In Iran, we are in a unique historical moment. Frankly it’s the first feminist revolution in the world that is supported by men. It’s a society that has come to understand that for democracy, the basis is first that men and women are equal. 90% of this revolution, which is cultural, has already succeeded—and 10% is politics.
It’s not a question of whether, but of when. And I don’t think it’s going to be very long coming. You have to be aware of the history of dictatorships, which rarely last more than 50 years. And with information circulating now so much more quickly [due to technology], it will be much faster.
When I wrote Persepolis, I thought, "In four years, who will want to read this? Everything will become better." And then came George Bush. Because Trump, the clown, is so bad, people forget that Bush is a war criminal. If he and Cheney were in Yugoslavia or another country, they’d be in the international courts.
You also suggested that things might have been different if you grew up in Iran like the teens today. Would you have stayed?
Before, I was in the minority, and today, they are the majority. There is nothing more beautiful than freedom except fighting for freedom. When I see the young people of my country, girls and boys but especially our girls—the way they are brave, the way they stand—their courage is so beautiful, it's mesmerizing. As an aesthete, I love beauty, and their courage is the highest degree of beauty.
I would have gone for this fight.