The First Two Panels of Persepolis
The first two panels of Persepolis dramatize a conflict between individuality and universality that recurs throughout the narrative. The first panel situates the young author-protagonist in a particular time and place—Iran in 1980—a moment when the cultural and political revolution of fundamentalism makes the veil a compulsory article of the female uniform. The second panel contextualizes the author in relation to her peers. Yet it does so by emphasizing the author’s futile struggle to establish herself as an individual against an overwhelming iconic tide of conformity and mass replication.
In the opening panel, the relationship between the words and the image is expositional. It is performative. The words demand that the reader-viewer accept the accompanying icon of the little veiled girl as continuous with the author.
The words “This is me” give rise to an open-ended correlation between protagonist and author. They seem to say: ‘this girl you see in the panel is not just a fair likeness of the girl I was at 10 in 1980, but this illustration is me, then and now.’ Such a paraphrase asserts that the author function (both the writer Marjane Satrapi and the picture of little Marji in panel one) is an unequivocally seamless identity.
In this way, the author function assumes visibility in the shape of the little girl. Ironically, she speaks to us from the same ambiguous space of the present in later panels without the caption separating the present-adult author from the depicted past-child protagonist. In other words, the consciousness of the present-day adult known as Marjane Satrapi speaks to us in the form of the girl. The image of this little girl is the author’s iconic identity regardless of whether the author speaks from the past or the present. Adolescence is the iconic language of authorial identity. The girl in Persepolis is the archetypical storyteller.
Because of its complicated word-picture relationship, Persepolis lays claim to an author-function that both is and is not the protagonist. An exclusively verbal autobiographical narrative could include passages where the author says “I was 10 in 1980” or even “this is me in 1980”—but the referent of the “this” would not–indeed, could not– break the plane of mediation as when the referent is not just more words but an image.
With the picture, there is an obvious referent outside of language. It is symbolized by “this”.
One reason to belabor the meaning of the presentational word “this” in the first panel is the shift in meaning for the “this” we get in the second panel, which refers to a class photo. Interestingly, the pronominal “this” of the first panel simply equates to the author—this is me—but in the next panel it refers more to the representation (this is a class photo) than the represented (this is my class).
The magical difference between the two uses of “this” has to do with the identity of the author-protagonist. Just as we allow special representations like single-subject portrait photos to stand-in for us in a way that we don’t allow for group portraits, so too does the graphic memoir establish in the first two panels the special capacity of certain panels to transparently express the author’s identity.
These panels, unlike others, will not offer a representation of identity. Rather, they carry the unvarnished thing itself…the immediacy of the “this IS me” effect.
While the first “this” is associated with unmediated reality, singular identity, and a one-to-one correspondence between the icon and the thing the icon symbolizes, the second “this” is associated with the dislocating and de-individuating force of the collective. That force is so palpable in the second panel that it obliterates the author momentarily from our sight. Her presence is recoverable, but not from within the space of the second group photo panel. We only see her again if we back up to panel one. We only see her by jumping over the gutter, and in the process seeing the importance of the gutter as a symbolic barrier.
Thus, you don’t see Marji in the class photo. There, she is forever bifurcated, fragmented, obliterated from view. But re-arranged in the graphic memoir, we see her intact and in every way visually-analogous with her classmates in the second panel. At the same time, she is forever alienated from them in the first panel by virtue of the “gutter”—that simple but all-powerful gap of white-space separating panels from one another.
The device of the gutter reminds us that the spatial-temporal zones designated within the borders of the two panels may be worlds apart despite the resemblance of the girls and the impression of continuity. For example, the dark, table-like space upon which the girls’ hands rest is continuous between the two panels. The similarity of pose, dress, size, and contrast might invite us to see the panel-to-panel relationship presented here as one of moment-to-moment—the transition Scott McCloud says requires the least amount of closure because the images represented look so similar.
(Closure, by the way, is the mental act of visualizing the whole from only the parts—when two panels of a comic story only show us specific snapshots, we use closure to weave the snapshots into a total picture, a fuller, more complete narrative.)
At first glance, we certainly don’t exert a great amount of closure to make the first two panels seem to relate. Indeed, they look very related, like portions of the same picture. However, the verbal language of the comic prevents us from understanding the two panels as similar.
In the first, you see her (this is me), in the second, “you don’t see me.”
Representation in the group seems to entail for Marji a certain invisibility, one that is either tolerable or perhaps all the more painful because she is visibly so like the other members of the group. Though we don’t see her in the second panel, we do see versions of her reflected in the four figures of the second panel.
Thus the repetition of the word “this” and the differences in meaning that it evokes call attention to the themes implied in the images: difference despite resemblance, individuality in the face of conformity, distinction amidst indistinguishable uniformity. All of these conflicts are echoed throughout this chapter from Persepolis as it describes the function of the veil.
If you’d like to watch me presenting these ideas in a slightly more “public” fashion, check out my TedX talk:
< Originally published in “Terrors of the Mirror and the Mise en Abyme of Graphic Novel Autobiography” College Literature 38.3 (2011): 21-44. >
Read more in my book Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi).