Thursday, September 16, 2010

Looking at Pretty Pictures 1: Non-Persepolis Marjane Satrapi Books

This being the first installment of Looking at Pretty Pictures, I’m going to explain a little about the column before I start with the real content. As far as I know I’m going to be writing this series for the near future about comics. I’m mostly planning to write about awesome things that people may not hear about because they don’t go to the comic book store once a week (or three times a week). Occasionally there will be bits about superheroes, but for the most part I’m going to try to write about other things. So now that I’ve gotten that little introduction out of the way let’s get to the comics.

This time I’m writing about two books from Marjane Satrapi. She is probably best known for making the Persepolis books, and while the Persepolis books are really good I think it’s probably worthwhile to focus on two of her lesser known works Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. Embroideries is a series of short stories told by a group of women drinking their noon tea, and Chicken with Plums is the story of the last days of her great uncle Nasser Ali Khan.

In Embroideries, Satrapi uses a series of short stories to show that Iranian women are real people. It’s similar to how she used different anecdotes in her life to both tell and humanize the story of the Iranian revolution. For every story told in Embroideries, Satrapi describes a different Iranian woman. However, each story is roughly based around a basic concept of modern equality versus old-fashioned values. Every story is necessarily complicated as well because it would be unfair to say that modern values are strictly better than the older values just because they're more modern.

Having already read Persepolis the art of Embroideries was unexpected. Satrapi still has the same cartoonish style that was displayed in Persepolis, but the page layouts are very different. Embroideries has a very noticeable lack of gutters which would normally act as the separation for panels. Instead Satrapi tends to use the dialogue to separate the pictures into a generally easily followed sequences. This style of layout helps to make the book feel more relaxed and puts the reader more into the mood of having afternoon tea with the cast of the book.

In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi tells the story of the death of Nassir Ali Khan. It begins with Khan attempting to replace the tar (Persian stringed instrument) that was broken by his wife. After deciding that he’s ready to die, Khan spends his remaining days alive in his room. Satrapi uses the last eight days of Khan’s life to tell the story of how Khan came to play the tar and also the story of what happens to his family after his death.

Despite the darker tone of the story Satrapi still manages to maintain a very dry humor. This humor makes the story bearable. That isn’t to say that the story is just barely good, on the contrary the story reads very well. However, without the humor that Satrapi brings to the book the story would probably end up being too sad to be enjoyable in any way.

Visually Chicken with Plums is much more like a standard comic, with gutters and everything, but Satrapi’s cartoonish style makes the book very visually interesting. Marjane Satrapi’s style as seen in Embroideries and Persepolis as well is a testament to how much can be done with very few lines. In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi manages to make some beautiful scenes and bring out a lot of emotion in the characters using no color and what are deceptively simple character drawings.

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