Last Post, Last Thoughts

Well the time has come to say goodbye to what has truly been an amazing class. I  was not sure what to expect given that we did not study any particular time period or genre of literature, but I suppose that is fitting given that this is the capstone experience for the Literature program. Instead we got to talk about why we exist and then prove we can apply our passion for analysis and communication of ideas to something that personally matters to us. I wish we got to see everyone’s projects on Monday, because the people who did present gave a really good cross-section of what Literature majors can provide to the world. We had projects about heritage, dance, the literary canon, criminal justice, fandom, what it means to write someone else’s intellectual property for fun rather than for profit, art and public expression, the place of graphic novels in the literary community, digitizing literature, and a variety of others. I know I had fun doing my own project and combining two disparate forms, so I hope everyone else enjoyed rising to the challenge as well!

 

We got to examine two very different works of literature, My Name Is Red and Persepolis. Through them, we got to see post-modernism, cultural clashes, what it means to write non-poltically yet be interpreted as very political, differences in voice and time, how the form of episodes or vignettes can affect a text overall, cultures rooted in tradition having to adapt and the pains of doing so, and what “east vs. west” really means, if it means anything at all. I am glad we got to work a graphic novel into the syllabus as well. I know I probably seem biased given my final project topic, but I truly believe the medium is only going to increase its share of the market as well as increase in quality. The challenges and ideas that can be explored and addressed in the uniquely hybrid form of graphic novels deserve to be written and perhaps more importantly analyzed. We discussed all term what exactly it is that literary people do in today’s world, and I think this is one important direction we can go.

 

I loved the challenges posed to us throughout the semester, such as engaging with such a disparate collection of ideas and mediums in which to present them. We had to define our own histories with reading, hopefully causing everyone to examine how much we discovered it on our own and how much we were forced into it. We had to master an essential literary genre, the resume, perhaps the single most important test of writing and communication ever devised. I loved that the class had a practical component focused on career and higher education paths, and I feel a lot more confident now about graduating as a Literature major (and Children’s Literature minor, no less!) and doing something with that. It has been a truly remarkable class, and I want to thank everyone for making it so great. Good luck in wherever your paths lead next J

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Queer Comics: A Little more Elaboration

For those who were interested, I wanted to expand on my mini-presentation about queer representation in comics from the final exam day of class. The Rick Remender incident in particular is worth some elaboration. He is the current writer for one of the many X-Men series. The X-Men have traditionally been mutants, a group of people in Marvel comics who are ostracized from mainstream society because they are genetically different from homo sapiens. Some mutants look exactly like humans, and a casual observer could only tell the difference if these mutants used their powers. Many mutants, however, have something like different colored skin, extra limbs, or the inability to touch people without hurting or killing them that clearly identifies them as mutants and therefore dangerous in the eyes of most humans. The tensions between the two groups have been plot points for decades, and mutants have thus been read as a metaphor for all sorts of minorities since nearly their beginning in 1963. Queer people in particular have fixated on the X-Men because they didn’t choose to be different, and many of them would choose to be human if things were that simple. There was even an AIDS analog story called the Legacy Virus, which at first was believed to only infect mutants but was eventually discovered to be able to infect humans as well. The queer metaphors have been both blatant and subtle, but they have always been there.

 

Remender wrote a story in March about the X-Man Havok, a blonde-haired blue-eyed very human looking mutant who has become the X-Men’s spokesperson within the Marvel universe. He made a statement about mutants bringing division from humans upon themselves by insisting on differences, stating that even the term mutant is divisive and should stop being used. He essentially blamed the victims for all the discrimination and violence brought against them rather than ask humans to consider why they hated mutants so much. While this sort of assimilation rhetoric can look good on the surface, especially to the dominant group in power, it’s ultimately a terrible way to look at things because it demands that the minority group give up anything special and unique about it. It’s ironic that the United States has always loudly proclaimed itself to be the melting pot where all cultures blend, yet the reality of melting something is that it loses all sense of form and just turns into a congealed mess. The homogeny of culture is not an admirable goal; it’s a horrifying one, and this is why queer fans were so upset with Havok’s statement. It was also problematic because pretending to be human is very easy for someone like Havok and very difficult for someone with, say, green skin or five arms. The same problems exist in the queer community, particularly among transgender people who already have to go so far out of their way to even exist much less thrive in an overwhelmingly cisgender society.

 

Remender’s response, “Go drown yourself in hobo piss,” is blatantly disrespectful and needs no further analysis. His response to his own response, however, is arguably more problematic. He deleted that tweet and said he apologized for not realizing the larger cultural context in which people were criticizing him. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of a very long-running franchise that means a lot of things to a lot of people. The X-Men had the comic world’s first major queer character (Northstar) and have always been champions for the underdog. Hopefully Remender learned his lesson and will be more mindful of what the characters represent in the future, but this sort of disrespect rooted in a lack of understanding is unfortunately what queer fans have come to expect over time.

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Persepolis: Women and Control

The scene about The Makeup (12) was one of the most disturbing in the entire novel in my opinion. The complete and utter lack of control over one’s own life depicted in the scenario of Marjane getting the innocent man arrested in order to hide her illegal use of makeup was truly troubling. Obviously the man loses control because Marjane has him arrested for a crime that did not even happen, but it also shows how out of control Marjane’s life has become as a progressive woman in Iran. Her compassion and empathy are completely subservient to her own survival instinct, turning her into an amoral, dehumanized entity with little regard for how her actions are perceived. The man’s haunting stare as he presses his face against the back of the police van has absolutely no effect on the Marjane drawn on the page, though the reader can feel how much he has affected the Marjane who drew her years later. This whole scene begged the question of what sorts of ways do Iranian women, and perhaps all women in a patriarchal society (so all women), exert little acts of rebellious control in their lives?

 

The scene in which Marjane draws the different shapes of women as clues to how they express themselves was an interesting example of individuality in a system meant to suppress any form of gaining individualized attention. As Marjane says, “With practice, even though they were covered from head to foot, you got to the point where you could guess their shape, the way they wore their hair and even their political opinions. Obviously, the more a woman showed, the more progressive and modern she was,” (294). The cross sections of fully covered women compared to the clothes and hair they wore underneath were fascinating looks at how much layering really goes into external appearance, itself an aspect of self-identification. Marjane’s small victory with the designing of the uniform goes to show just how much a little bit of freedom can mean in a totally oppressive system, a system in which her jiggling butt attracting attention from unscrupulous men as she runs is somehow her own fault.

 

The panels on page 302 in which Marjane discusses all the little things women have to keep in mind just to survive a daily walk on the streets of Iran really showed how much we allow the little things to distract us from major concerns. She walks toward the reader wondering about things like her trousers and veil, whether her “rebellious” makeup can be seen, and her most significant worry of physical torture because these are the things she must expend effort to care about lest she invoke the wrath of the patriarchy. Her character is turned away from the reader when she wonders about freedom of speech, a livable life, and political prisons because she has no time to think about such things. When she mentions freedom of thought, the reader is struck with the chilling notion that perhaps women in Iran have never been able to even think about these things, let alone discuss them.

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Persepolis Part 2: Initial Thoughts

We begin to see a lot more of the “graphic novel as literature” in the second half of the book. It is much more text heavy, arguably relying less on the drawings than the first half did. The drawings are still an essential element of the narrative, but there are far more traditional methods of reading that become apparent in the second half. This book is a popular “baby’s first graphic novel” for people who did not grow up on comics precisely because it is easily interpreted via lenses like feminism and colonialism, yet the multitude of possible interpretations leads to the healthy amount of discussion and debate any quality work of literature worth studying needs to have. I applaud the people who do not want to forsake the potential of an entire medium just because they did not grow up on comics, and I hope people found Persepolis to be an engaging if a bit challenging read!

 

Marjane’s travels back and forth between Europe and Iran begin to highlight the east and west dynamic hinted at but never deeply explored in the first half of the book. The different meanings of living in a safe space versus living in a war zone (even though this would have been reversed just a few decades before) and different concepts of things like anarchy bring to life how torn between two worlds Marjane really is. While elements like her discomfort with how rapidly her body is changing seem to appeal to universal themes like the difficulty of adolescence for everyone, the reality is that there is no such universal understanding of what adolescence is or should be. If we cannot come to a consensus about what it means to be a teenager even within our own nation, what hope could we have of coming to a consensus with a nation as different from ours as Iran? And yet we can sympathize with Marjane’s body woes because the ideas of not fitting in do seem to transcend language and cultural barriers.

 

Another concept that seems to lend this text some universality is the idea of being betrayed by people we considered friends. Marjane’s friends consider her an exotic eccentricity rather than having anything genuine to say about things like war and death, which is ironic because she is the only one who has experienced such things. Since Marjane does not immediately conform to all their preconceived notions of Iran, war, death, and foreignness, she is eventually dismissed as inauthentic and attention-seeking. Marjane’s adamant defense of her Iranian heritage and how proud she is of it is a bracing moment in the text that shows she can coexist in two identities, albeit imperfectly. Considering how often we are expected to live in two (or more) worlds ourselves, this is another one of those moments where Marjane’s story transcends culture and language. Ultimately, the character of Marjane does not represent Iran, the Middle East, or trying to bridge the east and west. She represents Marjane, a cool lady with some artistic talent and a story worth telling.

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Persepolis: The Bicycle

A fascinating vignette (chapter? story? episode?) from the first part of Persepolis is “The Bicycle,” pages 10-17 in the complete edition. Marji describes how her faith was “not unshakeable,” and seeing the children pretend to be famous and infamous political figures of the time is intriguing. It reminded me of the people in this country who buy Che Guevara t-shirts from Hot Topic and wear them as a generic symbol of counterculture without realizing that Che was both revolutionary and murdered. The kids spout off sayings like “The revolution is like a bicycle. When the wheels don’t turn, it fails,” and then Marjane depicts it as a literal bicycle in the next panel, with a mass of confused looking people on top (10). Some look dead, some look tired, none of them seem to be working together, and no one is actually powering the bicycle. Was this how Marji perceived the revolution or how Marjane views it in retrospect?

 

Marjane reads comics about Dialectic Materialism at the same time I was reading ­X-Men comics and pretends to be Che Guevara and Fidel Castro at the same time I was pretending to be Wolverine and Gambit. While I certainly argue today that X-Men (or at least certain titles and authors) explores much deeper social issues than people like to admit, I definitely was not picking up on that at the time, and it makes me wonder how much Marji was really understanding of all the advanced things she was reading. The fact that God leaves when she tries on her Fidel Castro and Che Guevara hats seems telling, but the message is less clear. Did He leave because He was disappointed in Marji, because she did not want to talk about religion anymore, or because He knew the revolution would only lead to an even worse system of government for Iran?

 

The horrific images on 14-15 about the burning theatre are very much at odds with the childlike depiction of revolutionaries and philosophers in the rest of “The Bicycle,” and the fact that Marjane goes out of her way to show the audience it is an MGM (and therefore American) movie seems telling as well. We see Marji sympathizing with the Vietnamese regarding the Vietnam War, leading readers to suggest she also sympathizes with Fidel Castro and Palestine as well in previous panels. Her recounting of the history of Iran’s suffering ends with a nod to imperialism, and Uncle Sam is very clearly visible walking in front of everyone else in that image. Does she therefore learn to hate our country in much the same way that we are currently training people to hate the Middle East without actually learning much about it? Or is she a child with her own interpretation of very complicated topics? When she says Marx and God look a lot alike, it made me notice how God is more often than not depicted with his limbs, robe, and beard all flowing together. There are a few scenes where his arms or legs are clearly visible, but for the most part he seems like a head and a floating, flowing, ill-defined body, like He is more of an idea than a person, and maybe that is what Marx was to Marji, too.

 

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Defining Persepolis and Graphic Novels

One of the first questions we discussed as a class is how we would define Persepolis. It really got me thinking about the term graphic novel and how much of a catch-all it has become. If it can be applied to titles as disparate as Persepolis and X-Men, it probably does not work so much as a genre as it describes a medium. The interesting thing is the term can trace its origins to as early as the 1940’s, with DC Comics calling their issues of Flash Quarterly “novel-length stories” and “full-length four chapter novels,” while the actual term graphic novel first appeared sometime in the 1960’s. The 1970’s saw a rise in comics published specifically as graphic novels, and the term became cemented in the lexicon of comic fans in the mid-80’s with the publication of Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns.

 

The problem is that the rise in popularity of graphic novels led to a new market of “more sophisticated,” older comic readers, and if there is one thing any industry loves, it is a new market. Marvel and DC, the big comics publishers, began collecting 4-8 issues of any series they were publishing, binding them together, and reselling them as graphic novels. This practice has continued to today, with comics being written specifically in “arcs,” or stories that span multiple individual issues so that they make sense when collected together into a graphic novel format. While there is nothing wrong with reprinting comics this way to make them easier and cheaper for fans to collect and purchase, is strictly reprinted material really a graphic novel? At the very least, it is certainly not the same as something like Persepolis, which was never printed as individual comics. Some people have taken to calling books that are strictly reprints “trade paperbacks” while anything not originally printed as comics are graphic novels, but authors of comics and graphic novels are not all in agreement about that system, either.

 

Popular authors like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jeff Smith have all said they have no problem with considering what they create “comic books,” regardless of how they actually get published. Alan Moore says the term graphic novel is a blatant marketing term, Neil Gaiman (and many others) have said it is the same as calling a babysitter a “child care expert,” and Jeff Smith says the term graphic novel “tries too hard.” Other terms like “comic strip novel,” “illustrated novel,” and “picture novella” have been gaining some traction to the point that they even have specific definitions moving away from comic books. Illustrated novels especially are considered a completely different genre by many comic fans and children’s literature academics alike.

 

What does this mean for Persepolis and other books like it? Is it ok to just call it a comic book? Ignoring any stigma surrounding that term (they’re juvenile, they have no literary merit, etc…), is it even accurate for a work that was never published as individual issues? Is a term like graphic novel, growing in acceptance among academics while becoming more and more unsatisfactory to the industry’s authors, a better solution if it distances the scholarship from the creators of the genre themselves? I personally just say comic book and let people think whatever they want, but I readily admit this might not be the best solution.

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Persepolis Part 1 Initial Thoughts

My initial thoughts after rereading the first part of Persepolis is that there is an immense amount of contradiction between Marjane’s family’s personal and private lives, which seems like it would be the case in any country that has an official state religion. With all the political upheaval in Iran during Marjane’s early life, it makes sense that people felt the need to conform to what they thought society expected of them while secretly carrying on as they always had in the privacy of their own homes because there was always a chance the current regime could come toppling down at any time. While Marjane has said that the novel is strictly autobiographical, I cannot help but read it as the history of Iran itself. I guess because we get so few unbiased viewpoints into life in the Middle East, books like this one take on the perhaps unwanted extra significance of being ambassadors for an entire nation. Marjane actually reminds me a bit of Orhan Pamuk when he says his books are not political yet obviously have political underpinnings. Maybe life in general is always at least a little political.

 

It is interesting that Marjane paints herself as the perennial outsider no matter where she is or what political system is currently in place. She comes from an upper-middle class family who are not particularly religious, so she arguably has a lot more chances and freedoms than most people her age regardless of nationality, yet she is constantly portrayed as the rebellious, partying teenager. I did not feel invited to feel particularly badly for her, but I did not think she was just a spoiled brat, either. I think this reflects a particular skill of Marjane the author and illustrator to be able to separate herself so completely from her memories and present a relatively unbiased account of exactly what she lived through. There are moments when Marjane the character breaks the fourth wall, transcending the violence occurring around her even as she is supposed to be simultaneously living it, and I think that really speaks to the power of both the memoir or autobiography as a genre as well as the graphic medium in being able to communicate so effectively to the audience.

 

The artwork is not particularly detailed, and the use of black and white seems to emphasize contrast instead. Characters are simplified to only the features necessary to define them as human, yet the amount of emotion and expression conveyed through simple things like lines and angles is amazing. The simplicity of the art also seems to ironically contrast the complexity of Iran’s political situation throughout the first half of the book as well as the precarious social minefields Marjane’s parents must navigate while keeping their daughter not only safe but well educated. I can think of only one other work which uses this simplicity of style to deliver such complex messages, and that is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. In both cases (admittedly less so in Peanuts), the childlike simplicity of the characters’ drawings directly contrasts the mature themes they are meant to represent.

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