When do comic books mature into graphic novels? Both mediums rely on cartoons to tell universal stories. Cartoons omit the incidental detail of photography, and instead become open vessels into which readers pour in their memories and experiences. Comics guru Scott McCloud calls this act closure: We can understand only what we can feel, and we can truly feel only what we’ve experienced. Cartoons present a simplified, universal world and help us mediate this process of reading, empathizing and understanding.
Graphic novels speak to us with a subtle, equivocating voice rarely found in traditional comic books. Superheroes have left the stage, deferring to cartoon truth-tellers who gaze inward even as they reflect upon their culture. In graphic novels, characters convey essential truths by narrating subjective experiences, and we subconsciously place ourselves in a cartoon world. That’s why this medium so effectively take us into politicized, forbidden places, like those still whirring spokes on the so-called axis of evil, Iran and North Korea.
Persepolis, by Iranian ex-pat Marjane Satrapi, is a lyrical, funny yet political memoir of growing up in Iran during the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution; the protagonist, a young Satrapi, must adapt to the iron fist and the veil despite her family’s progressive inclinations. At the same time, her narrative covers the magic of childhood and the tumult of adolescence. The first volume of Persepolis shows Satrapi as a little girl, confusing God with an image of an impressive, white-bearded Karl Marx. The author of communism ironically communes with her during bedtime prayer. Later, she is sent away to Europe for high school, and we see the turmoil of adolescence through the lens of an exile—awkward parties, odd boyfriends and “enlightened" peers who seek to romanticize or caricature Satrapi’s mythic homeland.
In Pyongyang, French-Canadian Guy Delisle arrives in the capital of communist North Korea as a subcontractor for a French animation company. Delisle covers a bleak two months in the eerily austere capital. Though the narration understandably lacks the personal touch of Satrapi, the storyboards—presented in a series of comic, understated vignettes—poignantly capture a cultish culture washed clean of imperfection and dissent. In cool black and white, we place ourselves in the monotonous grandeur of communist monuments, tremor at the spooky absence of disabled people and raise our eyebrows, along with Delisle, at the omnipresence of the pompadour-sporting dictator Kim Jong-Il and his departed father. Their twinned portraits adorn nearly every room Delisle encounters, except, notably, bathrooms.
The graphic novel medium works well here. Photographs too often present a documentary reality, which can’t help but highlight how different the reader’s world seems from the picture world. Yet in Delisle’s simple, almost childlike drawings, the once distant capital city of Pyongyang becomes a metaphor for repression and isolation—a place we have all visited from time to time.