Why Do I Love Graphic Novels? They Speak Contradiction Fluently
One of comics’ greatest strengths as a medium lies in its ability to catch binaries (up/down, black/white) in the very act of constituting one another. A notable example may be seen in Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical avatar from Persepolis, Marji. Satrapi depicts little Marji as a dichotomy of Western and Middle Eastern cultural values, using recognizable cultural symbols in stark contrast to convey a less stable cultural fusion.
With an economy of expression the panel above not only displays but subtly disrupts the binary. It indicts even while relying upon the logic that organizes Middle East and West in strict opposition. Readers and viewers are initially led to presume that the Western left half of the panel, with its mechanical gears and tools, signifies the “very modern” aspects of the family mentioned in the caption. This mechanical left side neatly balances the leafy crescents of the unmistakably Arab side of the panel on the right.
Yet, to which sentiments in the caption do these Arab designs correspond?
The veil Marji wears on only one side of her body certainly pertains to the statement, “Deep down I was very religious,” but the arabesque design elements do not. In fact, either the gears or the arabesques could illustrate that the family is “very modern and avant-garde.”
The visual binary of the image does not give viewers the clear-cut categories promised in the caption. And this lapse seems dramatic, perhaps even instructive.
Ultimately, this single panel offers training in synesthetic reading. It fuses visual and verbal signs into what at first appears to be an unambiguous representation of opposition.
The particular nature of the opposition posited here inevitably leads to contradiction. On one hand, complexities of origin and identity are translated into elements of juxtaposition. On the other hand, to apply this principle of opposition is to discover just how fugitive it is and the readiness with which other elements in the panel conspire to undo its paradigmatic value.
Our inability to unequivocally coordinate image and caption is crucial to the lesson in Persepolis about cultural identity and the hybridity of its child protagonist. Genetic and cultural inheritances do not cohere in actuality with the rhetorical devices we so often use to symbolize them. Some identities, like Marji’s, are better communicated by the failure of a logical expectation of clean divisions and one-to-one correspondences.
What does not fail, however, in Satrapi’s visual exemplum against monocultural essentialism is the primacy of the cipher of the child. Satrapi’s memoir advances a logic of identity that prefers the image of the girl to match the actual, historical girl—what Jean Baudrillard in another context describes as “ideal coextensivity.”