Persepolis, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi that has gained worldwide popular and critical acclaim, can be extremely interesting to teach in a classroom. The link between visual art and literature will give a whole new perspective to students, especially if they have never studied a graphic novel in class before.
Visual art and the iconography behind it as well as what it can stand for can be extremely revelatory to learn about in a classroom, because traditionally comics are not seen as being academic or anything beyond purely entertaining.
It is essential for the students to understand about visual art and how comics work before studying the actual text and images of Persepolis. A great resource for this is the seminal book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which is a non-fiction comic book that explores the various aspects of comics as an art form and as a form of communication.
In an article about McCloud’s work, John Hogan explains the problem with regard to the perception of comics quite succinctly:
“Comic books have always struggled with their role as art. At worst, they’ve been called subversive, destructive trash (see the Seduction of the Innocent fracas), but at best, they’ve won the Pulitzer (see Maus). But their main problem has always lain somewhere in the middle: with the overwhelming majority of people (at least in North America) who simply see them as “subliterature” (meaning not significant enough for truly intelligent readers), overly juvenile, or even detrimental to education.” Knowing more about comics and the role they have played down the ages will certainly help the students to be more receptive to Persepolis as a piece of “serious” literature.
Since visual elements are a central feature of graphic novels, it is ideal to go through parts of Persepolis with the students using a projector and slides. That way both the content and style of the novel can be analyzed and through key panels, students can be taught what to focus on, and to pick out in order to learn the most from the unique and informative genre of comics.
They can be taught how to look at comics analytically and how to gauge important information from what is shown and what is said within the comics. Persepolis itself is set in a certain cultural, social and historical context that students need to know about in order to fully appreciate the novel.
The students can be divided into groups and made to research topics related to Iran and Iranian history relevant to the context of Persepolis, which they can then present to the rest of the class. The various subjects to research can include the society and culture of Iran at pre-Islamic revolution and post-Islamic revolution eras, as well as research about the Shah of Iran and Islam as a religion itself. One interesting exercise to do with the students is to have them talk about how different it is to attend a school of the kind Satrapi attended in Iran, where “the public demands both obedience and tradition”.
This would be a great contrast to their own setting, where they are actively encouraged to speak their minds and have their individual opinions. Another question is to examine the effectiveness of Persepolis as a personal memoir. The students can be asked if they feel that the effectiveness of the novel is enhanced due to it being a memoir as opposed to a fictionalized piece.
One critical element of teaching Persepolis can be an evaluation of the author herself and what the students think she intended to accomplish by writing the graphic novel; whether it is merely sentimental reasons or if she has an agenda behind it.
In an Associated Press interview, Satrapi said, “The only thing I hope is that people will read my book and see that this abstract thing, this Axis of Evil, is made up of individuals with lives and hopes.” And in her introduction to Persepolis, she explains that she wrote this book to show that Iran is not only a country of “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.” Examining these sources and similar ones would go a long way in the students’ exploration of the author’s intent, it’s application and it’s success.
Once these class discussions and group presentations are done, and sufficient information about the history of Iran and the genre of the graphic novel has been exchanged, it will be time for the students to write a review of the book itself. One activity would be to have a class viewing of the film Persepolis and to have a comparative review of the book as opposed to the film.
One important evaluation criterion could be background knowledge of the various contexts of the book and film, and also most importantly the critical evaluations of how these themes have been dealt with in the book and the film. The book is an easy and enjoyable read, so young adults should actually learn a lot from this well loved book that encompasses so much of Satrapi’s personal and political roots.
“Gaining Background for the Graphic Novel Persepolis: A WebQuest on Iran”. ReadWriteThink.org. 27.07.2009 <http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=1063>.
Hogan , John. “Review: Understanding Comics”. Graphic Novel Reporter. 27.07.2009 <http://www.graphicnovelreporter.com/content/understanding-comics-review>.
“Persepolis: A Graphic Story of Childhood.”. 27.07.2009 <https://yareviews.wikispaces.com/Persepolis>.
“Persepolis”. Random House, Inc.. 27.07.2009 <http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375714573&view=rg>.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.