I’m lucky in that I’m on the mailing list of First Second, a publisher that puts out a lot of really good books. They’ve published, among other graphic novels, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Grady Klein’s Lost Colony books, Christophe Blaine’s Gus and His Gang, Dong Hwa Kim’s Story of Life on the Golden Fields books, as well as works by Eddie Campbell, Gipi, Joann Sfar, Lat, and Jessica Abel. Many of the books they have been publishing recently–in the past couple of years–have been geared toward a younger audience. But not all of their publications fall into this reader category. I just recently received a review copy of Zahra’s Paradise, an incredible new book by Amir and Khalil. The authors’ names are pseudonyms, in fact, since their subject matter is volatile and could get them and their families into some serious trouble. Zahra’s Paradise gets its name from a large cemetery in Teheran, and the title underscores the seriousness and the somber reality underlying the narrative. It centers around the Iranian elections of 2009 and how they were undermined by Iran’s theocratic elite. The graphic novel began as a webcomic, in fact, and was published online between 2010 and 2011. It’s a gripping story, and the artistic and narrative styles of the book are impressive. Not only is the tale one that everyone should know, but the way the story is told isworth a standing ovation.
One of the things I noticed on the book’s dust jacket is a quote from NPR: ”Like Maus and Persepolis…Zahra’s Paradise puts a human face on a time of grief and unrest. Unlike those books, the time in question is now.” They’re right about the timeliness of the book and how it gives a personal take on an international incident that consumed the news channels a couple of years ago. But what strikes me is the reviewer’s immediate comparison with Maus and Persepolis. Yes, yes…these make sense to me, especially the link to Persepolis, another comic focusing on Iranian repression and fundamentalism. But do reviewers always have to bring in the “usual suspects” when it comes to comics? I really get tired of the innumerable references to books like Maus, Persepolis, and even American Born Chinese. You’d think that these are the only comics or graphic novels out there, the only ones ever published. Why don’t reviewers do their research–or expand their horizons–and look into the wealth of other great graphic novels/comics out there that are at least as good as this grouping. What about Mark Kalesniko’s books? How about the comics of Kim Deitch? David B.? Seth? And there are many, many others. Besides, although I like Persepolis, I don’t think it’s the be-all end-all of graphic novels. In fact, its reputation is rather overrated. And enough, already. I know of so many instructors who use Persepolis in their classrooms, over and over and over and over again. Why not vary your syllabus? Why not open yourselves up to the vast world of other sophisticated comics texts out there that would be perfect for students…students of adolescent literature and adult literature alike. It’s for this reason I’ve never taught Persepolis: everyone else seems to, so what’s the point of having students read what they already know?
But enough of my soapbox talk. What makes Zahra’s Paradise so much more engaging than Persepolis is not only its political import–Satrapi’s is more of a personal narrative than anything–but its sophistication of storytelling. The narrative structure, especially as manifested through the art, is so much more ambitious in Amir and Khalil’s work. What’s more, the ending is equivocal, leaving with reader with a lot to grapple with. That’s the kind of narrative I like.