Persepolis (graphic novel)

by Marjane Satrapi

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2370

AUTHOR: Satrapi, Marjane

ARTIST: Marjane Satrapi (illustrator); Eve Deluze (letterer); Céline Merrien (letterer)

PUBLISHER: L’Association (French); Pantheon Books (English)

FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: Persepolis, 2000-2003 (English translation 2003, 2004)

Publication History

The first chapter of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel appeared in France in 2000 after Satrapi caught the attention of French comic book artist David B., one of the founders of L’Association, the highly regarded cartoonist collective. Ultimately, Persepolis was divided into four books. L’Association published volumes 2-4 in 2001, 2002, and 2003. The series was published to great acclaim, drawing instant comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus (1986) and winning the Angoulême International Comics Festival Coup de Coeur Award in 2001. The series was soon translated into several languages and received international acclaim, winning the first Fernando Buesa Blanco Peace Prize in 2003 for its stance against totalitarianism.

The first two French volumes were translated into English by Mattias Ripa and were published in the United States by Pantheon Books as a single volume entitled Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood in 2003. Pantheon Books combined the third and fourth volumes, translated by Blake Ferris, into Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2004). A single-volume edition, The Complete Persepolis, combining Persepolis and Persepolis 2, was made available in the United States in 2007.

Persepolis 2.0, an updated version of Persepolis about Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, using Satrapi’s illustrations and text by two Iranians known as Payman and Sina, has been published online with Satrapi’s permission. Although nearly all of the drawings are appropriated from Persepolis, Satrapi included one new drawing in which the character Marjane urges her parents to look at Twitter (a Web site that displays published text messages) in order to get news about the Iranian elections.


Persepolis begins at the start of the Iranian Revolution (1978-1980), when Marjane Satrapi is ten years old. Although she dreamed of being a prophet when she was younger, she is resistant to the veil she is suddenly made to wear in school. As she witnesses the rise of the Islamic regime and learns more about the violent history of Iran, her faith in God and her country begins to fade. Marjane eventually becomes enraptured by leftist politics (possibly in imitation of her parents); however, when she meets Siamak and Mohsen, friends of her parents who had been jailed for their communist convictions, her romantic ideas about political dissidence are put into stark contrast with the horrific tortures Siamak and Mohsen have endured. Her romanticism is further shattered when her beloved Uncle Anoosh is released from prison only to be accused of being a Russian spy and executed.

The Islamic fundamentalists soon gain power in Iran, closing the universities and enforcing sharia (Islamic law) throughout the country. Soon, Iran finds itself at war with neighboring Iraq, and the Satrapi family must endure a life of bomb raids and food shortages.

Marjane, ever the free spirit, starts getting in trouble for mocking the exercises she is taught at her highly religious school. In 1982, Marjane’s uncle Taher has a heart attack, brought on by the stress of the war, and dies after being denied a passport to travel to England for open-heart surgery. When the borders are finally reopened a year later, Marjane’s parents travel to Turkey and manage to smuggle several gifts for Marjane back from the West. As the war intensifies, many flee Iran, and Marjane has a frightening moment when one of the buildings on her block is destroyed in a bomb. Tensions come to a head when Marjane is finally expelled from a school and her parents decide that it would be safer for her if she left Iran and stayed with one of her mother’s friends in Vienna.

In Vienna, Marjane stays with her mother’s friend Zozo for ten days, but Zozo eventually decides that there is not enough room and arranges for Marjane to live in a nearby boarding house run by a group of nuns. Marjane eventually falls in with an eccentric group of friends from her new school but is eventually kicked out of her boarding house after getting into a fight with one of the nuns. Marjane then moves in with her friend Julie and begins to experiment with drugs and sex. Later, Marjane’s mother comes to visit and helps Marjane find a new apartment leased by Frau Doctor Heller.

Marjane begins dating a man named Enrique, but the relationship fizzles after Enrique realizes he is gay. Marjane then begins dating Markus, a man she calls the first great love of her life. However, that relationship ends when Marjane discovers Markus having sex with another woman. Upset and heartbroken, Marjane fights with Frau Doctor Heller and is thrown out of her room. She spends the next few months homeless, until she eventually catches pneumonia and must be admitted to a hospital. When she finally recovers, Marjane tells her parents she wants to go back to Iran.

Upon her return, Marjane finds it difficult to readjust to living in such an oppressive society. Her family quickly catches her up on the atrocities that have occurred while she was living in Europe. Marjane also visits one of her childhood friends, Kia, who was seriously disabled while fighting in the war. Marjane falls into a deep depression and attempts to commit suicide but soon sets out to become a “sophisticated woman.”

At a friend’s party, Marjane meets a man named Reza, and the two begin dating even though they are polar opposites. Marjane applies to art school, but after enrolling, she is nearly expelled in her first weeks for expressing her Westernized attitudes about gender. Finding it difficult to be an unmarried couple in Iran, Marjane and Reza decide to marry. As soon as the ceremony is complete, Marjane feels trapped; after only one month of marriage, the two are living in separate bedrooms. Right before Marjane gets her diploma, she and Reza are assigned a project to create a mythological theme park. Despite their best efforts, their proposal is rejected, and Marjane realizes her marriage has fallen apart. After graduating and getting her diploma, Marjane asks Reza for a divorce and decides to immigrate to France, where she can finally be free.


Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003). Collects the French editions of Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2. Recounts Marjane’s childhood in Iran until her departure for Vienna.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2004). Collects the French editions of Persepolis 3 and Persepolis 4. Recounts Marjane’s years in Vienna and her eventual return to Iran, ending with her immigration to France.


Marjane Satrapi, the author and protagonist, begins the novel as a ten-year-old girl living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in 1980. She grows up during the novel, eventually leaving Iran for Austria in 1984, returning to Iran four years later and, at the story’s end, leaving Iran for France in 1994.

Ebi Satrapi, Marjane’s father, is a leftist who participated in many protests before the revolution but who becomes less politically active once the Islamic regime seizes power. An engineer, he attempts to live a Western-style middle-class life despite the restrictions of the Islamic state.

Taji Satrapi, Marjane’s mother, is a vocal leftist prior to the Islamic Revolution. She urges Marjane to get an education and further herself despite the restrictions the Islamic regime has placed on women. Although Marjane finds her difficult at times, the two still have a close relationship.

Marjane’s grandmother lives with Marjane and her parents. Her husband was an Iranian prince who was imprisoned and tortured under the reign of the last shah. She is Marjane’s closest confidante and often acts as the voice of reason in the story.

Uncle Anoosh, Marjane’s uncle, is a communist who was imprisoned under the shah. He is freed after the revolution and lives with Marjane, but he is later arrested by the Islamic regime and executed under suspicion of being a Russian spy.

Markus, Marjane’s first love, is a literature student living in Vienna. They break up when Marjane discovers him having sex with another woman.

Reza, Marjane’s husband, is a fellow artist who Marjane meets at a party. They later go to art school together and eventually marry. After several years together, Marjane realizes that she no longer loves Reza and divorces him shortly before leaving for France.

Artistic Style

Persepolis is written in a simple storyboard format. Panels are placed in rows that may vary in size and detail, but the overall page layout is uniform and neat. Panels always move left to right, top to bottom. The layout is more akin to text than to the nonlinear layouts of many contemporary graphic novels. Satrapi makes few experimental forays beyond her basic storyboard format: Full-page spreads are rare, and the illustrations are always contained within neat black frames.

The illustrations are black and white, with elegant black lines rendered into simple stark figures. Using this palette, Satrapi does manage to create detailed, beautiful illustrations on occasion, but in general, she tends toward a minimalist style. Her simple monochromatic illustrations lend the story a sobriety and gloom befitting a depiction of a highly restrictive society. The black-and-white color scheme becomes indicative of Satrapi’s own sense of repression living in religiously fundamentalist Iran. However, through the conservativeness of the illustrations, Satrapi is able to create an uncomplicated graphic language. Because her illustrations are so simple and unadorned, there is little fear that readers will miss or misunderstand the graphic novel’s plot and nuances; the message behind Satrapi’s anecdotes is always clear and explicit. Satrapi’s story has no shades of gray, a crucial quality for a graphic novel that intends to impart an important political message. Rather than distract the reader with impressive or artful visuals, Satrapi has chosen an artistic style that places an emphasis on the story’s content rather than on its visual context.


The principle theme of Persepolis—and the one that has garnered it the most attention in the United States—is its depiction of the cultural conflicts between Islamic states and the Western world. As a memoir, Persepolis offers a truer picture of life inside an Islamic regime than many traditional sources. While some of what Persepolis depicts may confirm Western assumptions about Islamic fundamentalist states (such as the oppression of women, an opposition to Western influences, censorship and limits on the freedom of speech), Persepolis also depicts a surprising side of life inside Iran. While acknowledging many of the limitations of life inside the Iranian regime, Persepolis suggests that life there is, in some ways, not dissimilar from the lives Westerners lead. Marjane, her family, and her friends still manage to find pockets of freedom amid the repressive society; people throw dance parties and listen to the pop music of American singer Michael Jackson, and women wear makeup and attend university. While depicting some of the harsh realities of life inside a repressive Islamic state, Satrapi still manages to convey the basic humanity, the simple commonality, of life in the late twentieth century.

The underlying theme of Persepolis is the importance of family. Satrapi repeatedly emphasizes the support her family offers her, how they give her the will to survive and persevere despite the bleak conditions of the Iranian Revolution. At the beginning of Persepolis 2, Marjane even returns to Iran from Europe in order to be closer to her family. In this way, Persepolis can be best understood as a bildungsroman, a story of a young woman learning to be an artist, supported by a loving and compassionate family until she is ready to finally leave Iran and discover her true purpose. In this way, Marjane’s relationship with her family mirrors her relationship to Iran itself. Although both living in Iran and her family are necessary to her development, at the conclusion of Persepolis 2, Marjane realizes that she must leave both in order to find herself.


Although it is a notable entry in the graphic memoir tradition, Persepolis’s main impact has been political. Satrapi’s books have been internationally celebrated for their depiction of a child living through the Iranian Revolution. They have offered the Western world a unique perspective of life inside contemporary Iran, showing the Islamic state to be both much more terrifying and much more mundane than commonly thought. Persepolis has become one of the most popular of a growing number of memoirs being written by first- or second-generation Iranian women living abroad. (Other notable titles include Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ru’ya H?akkakiyan’s 2004 Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.) Since its publication, Persepolis has regularly appeared on the syllabi of gender and political science classes in universities across the United States. The popularity of Persepolis has brought Satrapi to the forefront of political discussions, particularly during the 2009 Iranian elections. She has used her celebrity both to bring awareness to the plight of Iranians and to stress the common bonds that unite all humanity.


  • Persepolis. Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. 2.4.7 Films, 2007. This feature-length French film is animated in a style similar to Satrapi’s illustrations. Chiara Mastroianni voices the character of Marjane, and Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian portray her mother and father. (Sean Penn’s voice replaces Abkarian’s in the English version.) Though a condensed version of the events of Persepolis and Persepolis 2, the film is nonetheless faithful to the source material because of Satrapi’s involvement as a co-writer and co-director. It was awarded the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for a 2008 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Further Reading

  • Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006).
  • Satrapi, Marjane. Embroideries (2005).
  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus (1986, 1991).


  • Chute, Hillary. “The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1/2 (Spring/Summer, 2008): 92-110.
  • Malek, Amy. “Memoir as Iranian Exile Cultural Production: A Case Study of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis Series.” Iranian Studies 39, no. 3 (2006): 353-380.
  • Satrapi, Marjane. “Persepolis: A State of Mind.” Literal, Latin American Voices 13 (Summer, 2008): 44-47.
  • PersepolisCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents & Underground Classics Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press

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