Marjane Satrapi loves cigarettes and refuses to call herself a feminist. Those two things alone would get my attention on paper, as it were, even before what Satrapi actually is on paper—a gifted graphic novelist—enters the equation. Author and artist Satrapi this year saw the release of Persepolis, an animated feature adapted from her graphic novel of the same title—four volumes that tell the story of her upbringing in 1970s Iran, her coming of age in exile after the Islamic revolution, and her return as a woman.
Working for the first time as both an animator and a director (along with fellow first-timer Vincent Paronnaud), Satrapi turned down offers for a live-action feature and a soapy television spinoff, and recorded the dialogue in French (using the voices of Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni), a language now more natural to the Paris resident than her native Persian. "When you make a book like that," Satrapi said in 2004, pondering the options given to her to adapt her story, "you have a big responsibility, you cannot give it to anyone who will turn it another way. So I thought I would give it to the French people."
Persepolis, then, feels like a triumph on several levels. Inventively, poignantly beautiful and engaging, it is visually unlike almost anything happening in feature animation today. Satrapi's story, exotic and intense as it may seem, never loses its leveling gaze on the funhouse passages of youth and the struggle for identity. And though she may balk at terms like "feminist" (preferring to be called a humanist), one cannot help but bask in a portrayal of girlhood and young-womanhood that is more ingenuous in two dimensions than the majority of the brittle, shrugging, hair-tossing young women who pass for ingénues can manage in three. The fact that she smokes like a grease fire and will throw down over semantics as readily as geopolitics just proves she is a force I would be glad to reckon with.
Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook, a story collection found in Issue 22 of McSweeney's. Currently the reviews editor for The Reeler, she is a frequent contributor to City Pages.