Women Who Changed Free Expression: Marjane Satrapi

Happy Women’s History Month! All through March, we’ll be celebrating women who changed free expression in comics. Check back here every weekday for biographical snippets on female creators who have pushed the boundaries of the format and/or seen their work challenged or banned.

Anyone who’s read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis is already familiar with the key events of her early life. Growing up in Tehran during the turmoil surrounding the Islamic Revolution, Satrapi experienced abrupt changes that curtailed the secular lifestyle she and her intellectual parents had enjoyed prior to 1979. Always rebellious and bluntly inquisitive, she began to act out even more in school and in public after her favorite uncle was killed in prison. For her own safety, Satrapi’s parents sent her alone to attend high school in Austria when she was 14, in 1984. She returned to Iran at 18 and obtained a Master’s degree in visual communication from Tehran’s School of Fine Arts, but found the prospect of remaining in the country under the repressive regime untenable. In 1994 she moved to Strasbourg, France, where she continued to study art, and on to Paris three years later.

Satrapi often regaled her friends in France with stories of her surreal childhood, and they in turn introduced her to comics including art spiegelman’s Maus. She had been dabbling in children’s picture books without success, but Spiegelman’s work proved that illustrated books could treat more serious subjects. Satrapi decided to try her hand at graphic novel memoir, and produced Persepolis in four volumes between 2000 and 2003. They met with immediate critical and popular acclaim in France, and were translated and collected into two volumes for the U.S. market in 2003 and 2004. In 2007 she co-wrote and directed the animated movie based on the comics, which tied for the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, won two French Césars, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

While it’s hardly surprising that both the books and movie have been banned in Iran, Persepolis has also seen more than its fair share of trouble in U.S. schools, where parents and administrators have objected to profanities and depictions of torture. Most spectacularly, Chicago Public Schools officials made a confused attempt in March 2013 to remove the book from all classrooms due to “graphic language and content that is inappropriate for children.” They allowed it to remain in AP classes for 11th and 12th graders, but now require 8th-10th grade teachers to undergo extra training before they can use it in class. The book remains banned in 7th grade CPS classrooms. In 2014 there were two more school challenges to Persepolis in quick succession: one in the Three Rivers School District in Oregon, and another in Illinois in the Ball-Chatham district, where a review committee unanimously decided that it would not be removed from classrooms.