Are Marjane Satrapi's Works Comics or Graphic Novels?

I love Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis , I love Habibi, and I love Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. However, there’s one word choice that I’ve always hated having to make when talking about these books with other people: Do I tell them I read comics, or do I tell them I read graphic novels? I’m afraid if I say I read comics, then I’ll reveal myself as some pop junkie who never mentally left the fifth grade. If I say I read graphic novels, however, then I’m a pretentious hipster with a blog that nobody reads.

Neil Gaiman has an anecdote that does a good job illustrating the double bind I feel between these two terms. Gaiman describes having once been at a party where he struck up a conversation with the editor of a major newspaper. The editor asked him what he did for a living. Gaiman recalls, “‘I write comics,’ I said; and I watched the editor’s interest instantly drain away, as if he suddenly realized he was speaking to someone beneath his nose.” The editor, with polite disinterest, asked what comics he had written. Gaiman rattled off a few. When he mentioned that he did the acclaimed Sandman series, the editor’s demeanor immediately perked up: “‘Hang on, I know who you are. You’re Neil Gaiman!’ he said. ‘You write graphic novels!’ He meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” (Bender 4)

What Gaiman’s colorful metaphor reveals is how fraught both of these terms are and how they’re linked. No one wants to say they read comics when there is the specter of the major literary editor ready to stare down his nose at you for it. At the same time, the branding of “graphic novel” still feels uncomfortable, as it undoubtedly carries with it the imprimatur of that same snobbish editor and implies the denigration of other works. The terms “comics” and “graphic novels” are ultimately linked in the same way “hooker” and “lady of the evening” are, and the choice between one or the other are both less than desirable.

Photo by ASTERISK on Unsplash

We can quibble about what the most appropriate term might be for this art form—I’ve come to the conclusion that just calling such books graphics is the best everyday solution for tactfully skirting around the problem—but this only seems to address a linguistic symptom of a deeper problem. It seems that the larger issue revealed by the conflict between graphic novel and comics reflects a deeper limitation in the discourse around graphics, namely that we can only imagine them as either juvenile pop art or else high literature.

In her essay “Comics as a Minor Literature”, Erin La Cour describes the problem thusly: “The discourse on the literariness of these works…problematically leads to a specific bracketing of comics that not only rejects the study of comics as a medium in its own right, but fractures it into ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ works, at once elevating graphic novels to the position of literature and perpetuating the denigration of all other comics as mere pop culture entertainment in the process” (80). I would like to find a way to talk about graphics that doesn’t cling to one side or the other of this literary dichotomy, but escapes it altogether.

La Cour’s solution to the problem is to employ a concept by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called “minor literature”. Deleuze and Guattari explain minor literature in their 1975 monograph of Franz Kafka, where they describe his work as successfully transcending the general impoverishment of the Prague German he was writing in, and yet still resisting becoming assimilated as a new literary status quo. The set of questions that concerns Deleuze and Guattari when looking at minor literature is not whether the work is high or low, serious or juvenile, or even whether it works towards liberation or submission. The only thing that concerns them is if the literature in question provides “a line of escape or, rather, [a] simple way out, ‘right, left or in any direction,’ as long as it is as little signifying as possible” (6).

“Minority” should not be thought of as a prescriptive goal that all graphics can or should try to attain, but rather provides a useful category for understanding graphics. At the very least, minor literature is a useful concept to inject into our discourse around graphics in order to help break up the usual graphic novel/comic thinking.

La Cour in her essay tries to fit the concept of minority to the concept of graphic memoir in general. I try to extend her reading somewhat and illustrate how minority can be used to expand graphics discourse by applying it to one author: Marjane Satrapi. I look at two books by Satrapi—Persepolis and Embroideries—and ask whether they are, or to what extent they are, a form of minor literature. Minor literature exists not as a binary, but more on a spectrum, and while both Persepolis and Embroideries have elements of minor literature about them, Embroideries does undoubtedly more so.

What Is Minor Literature?

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

The important thing to keep in mind when looking at the concept of minor literature is that its chief function is that it deterritorializes literature without reterritorializing it, the emphasis being on this resistance to reterritorialization. Most great art forms can accomplish what Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization, or what we might call in more standard critical theory, “disturbing the dominant ideology”. The challenge, of course, is that if a work becomes popular enough, it will typically end up establishing new dominant ideologies, new kinds of status quos. For example, Janice Radway’s observation in Reading the Romance that Jane Austen’s novels were once a deeply subversive form that interrogated social reality, but their plots have since become assimilated as a staple of the romance genre. This, for Deleuze and Guattari, is reterritorialization.

In their study of Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the three characteristics of minor literature are “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (18). Put in plainer language, the conditions of minor literature for Deleuze and Guattari are that it 1. be subversively constructed by some kind of marginalized voice within a majority language or majority culture 2. that it serves an immediate political end and 3. that it tends to set aside the individual authority of the author to enunciate the needs of some new people who, as a coalition, are in effect created by the work.

I will adopt this definition wholesale save for a caveat, which I feel I must make to condition 2; Deleuze and Guattari, assuming I understand them correctly, grossly overstate the power, the necessity, and even the concern of minor literature to affect political change in the world. This seems much more directly the concern of major literatures. I more or less ignore this second condition and proceed with the understanding that minor literature is a deterritorialization of majority forms in order to create space for new minority voices and groups inside that majority.

For Deleuze and Guattari, these effects are largely accomplished by using formal tricks in the medium in which the language exists. They describe rather beautifully how Kafka developed the impoverished German being spoken in Prague not by associating it with the symbolized and highly wrought German of, say, Goethe, but rather expanding it by exploring the internal, formalistic tension of the language itself: “Language stops being representative in order to now move towards its extremities or its limits” (23). Their focus remains almost entirely on literature and the written word, but it is not difficult to extend their logic to other art forms including film, painting, and, of course, graphics.

Deleuze and Guattari do not conceive of minor literature existing in a strict binary state. They, for example, do a comparison of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, two writers with similarly marginalized positions relative to the English language and who both respectively deterritorialized it. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, Joyce eventually enabled much more of a reterritorialization within language while Beckett has remained a more stubbornly minor literature (19). Persepolis is like James Joyce here. That is, it began by deterritorializing language before eventually becoming a staple in the new canon of graphic memoir. Satrapi’s Embroideries, on the other hand, is the Beckett analog here, being more stubbornly entrenched as a kind of minor literature. In any case, I would like it understood that when I say that Persepolis reterritorializes while Embroideries does not, the argument I’m making is one of degree.

Mapping all the ways that Satrapi’s work can intersect with the concept of minority is a task beyond the scope of this essay. There are at least three major languages/cultures/genres that we could read Satrapi as existing in a minor relationship to: Iranian culture, French/Western culture, and comic book culture. While Satrapi’s relationship to the latter two is ubiquitous throughout her work and often intersect through my analysis, my focus is on how Satrapi writes a minor literature in relationship to her native Iranian culture.

Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization in Persepolis

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

At first glance, Persepolis seems to hit many of the marks for what constitutes a minor literature. Situated simultaneously between many majority languages and cultures—living in France as an immigrant, growing up in deeply patriarchal Iran as a woman—Satrapi finds herself in a perfect position to write a kind of minor literature in relationship to these larger cultural forces. And indeed, the child’s perspective she brings to bear on huge issues like Iran’s turbulent modern history, religion, war, and philosophy is a very minor (literally) way of spinning these topics.

However, the minor elements in Persepolis are contextualized by its coming-of-age story as the first foolish steps before coming into a mature understanding. What Persepolis is ultimately interested in doing is not merely escaping and creating space within majority cultures, but in seizing those majorities and making them resignify in new ways. In the language of Deleuze and Guattari, it deterritorializes but then reterritorializes.

A good example of how Persepolis accomplishes this reterritorialization is in the way Satrapi writes about western culture in Iran. Scholar Typhaine Leservot does a great reading of Persepolis in the context of Iran’s history with imperialism and its reception of western culture. One of Leservot’s goals in her paper is to push back against the preconception that Iran was completely passive in its relationship to a colonizing West. She argues that rather Iran has often appropriated and used western culture to work through its own internal cultural and social issues. Leservot writes, “Far from playing its traditional postcolonial role as the everlasting dominant paradigm from which postcolonial nations have difficulties escaping, the West, in Satrapi’s memoir, is reconstructed by Iranians not to respond to the West but to deal with their own (domestic) political issues” (126).

Leservot terms the ways in which Iran has used western culture as “Occidentalism”, or rather Occidentalisms in the plural, given the sheer variety of ways that the West gets appropriated by non-Westerners both inside Iran and out (118). Leservot reads Satrapi as going through a number of different Occidentalisms including encountering the West through books as a child (Leservot 121), as a vacation spot and idealized escape from social turmoil at home (122), as counter-culture and form of resistance against the fundamentalist government (123), and only lastly as an encounter with real Western culture when she goes to the French school in Austria (124). Satrapi’s Occidentalism as a child of an upper-class family reading western books and her Occidentalism as a young adult using “the West” are, in my mind, a form of resistance.

The way Satrapi describes her initial exposure to Western culture is a good description of becoming-minor. In “The Bicycle”, she shows how she remixed Western ideas and figures with her understanding of religion and Iranian history. What’s significant is the way Satrapi as a child would take iconic figures of both Iranian and Western culture—Zarathustra, René Descartes, Karl Marx, God—and marginalize or altogether ignore their larger significances and associate them together in new ways.

In Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari talk about something like this happening on the verbal level: “Children are well skilled in the exercise of repeating a word, the sense of which is only vaguely felt, in order to make it vibrate around itself … Kafka tells how, as a child, he repeated one of his father’s expressions in order to make it take flight on a line of non-sense: ‘end of the month, end of the month'” (21). The point is how the established meaning of the words are ignored and instead the focus is pushed to simply their sound quality. Satrapi is showing us effectively the same thing on the visual register when she, say, associates God and Karl Marx together not because of any deep theological or historical reasons, but because God and Marx rather look alike (except that Marx has curlier hair). This is the movement of deterritorialization par excellence.

However, this Occidentalism of Satrapi’s early childhood soon gives way to uses of Western culture which, if not more engaged with Western societies as they actually exist, are much more plugged into the political situation in Iran. The West for Satrapi changes from a bunch of Western historical figures refracted through the lens of childhood into a collection of forbidden items and practices that mark one off as a subversive in Iran’s new fundamentalist regime. This new Occidentlism is defined by the secret parties with alcohol her parents would engage in in “The Wine”, skipping school to eat hamburgers in the Kansas Café in “The Cigarette”, and wearing jean jackets and sneakers in “Kim Wilde”.

The actual relationship of these objects to real Western countries and their cultures is irrelevant. What was important is that they existed to set up a counter-culture and counter-discourse to the Islamic fundamentalism dominant in Iran during Satrapi’s childhood. As Leservot writes, “Far from passively receiving western images, Satrapi’s characters use western paraphernalia as tools for resisting the dominant paradigm of Islamic rule. Satrapi thus clearly underlines the extent to which the westernization of Iran is more a product, ironically, of Fundamentalist Islam than it is of western neo-colonialism” (127).

This signifies a reterritorialization of Western culture. Having been successfully disassociated from imperialism, these various markers of Western culture are now sublated into Iranian culture and actively working inside its own political struggles. No longer are these objects of western culture being “made to take flight on a line of non-sense”, like the way they did when Marji was comparing God and Marx’s hair, but rather they are used in a way that very clearly signifies dissent against Islamic fundamentalism. What’s more, given westernism’s association with Iran’s middle and upper classes (Leservot 123), it is very easy to imagine it taking power and becoming the new dominant ideology in a liberalized, secular Iranian state. This kind of Occidentalism is very clearly one with “dreams of assuming a major function” (Deleuze and Guattari 27).

The biggest reason why Persepolis ultimately fails as a kind of minor literature is because of its setting as a coming-of-age story. This might seem a little counterintuitive, given that I’ve argued that the moment when Persepolis is most like minor literature comes from Satrapi’s childhood. However, these free associations with Western culture from Satrapi’s childhood are not allowed to proliferate for their own sake, but are included precisely because they illustrate her first steps maturing into a socially conscious young person. Persepolis is about the move from innocence to experience, which can be neatly rephrased as the move from deterritorialization to reterritorialization. Incidentally, it is because of this tendency that Deleuze and Guattari argue Kafka tended to avoid writing about children in his minor literature. Children may be minor, but “they are caught in an irreversible becoming-big” (37).

Ultimately, Persepolis is too interested in being a history—both that of Satrapi and of Iran—to ever really be a form of minor literature. It seeks to engage directly with social, political, and ideological forces as they actually exist in popular discourse, instead of exploring ways to make them morph into something different altogether, which is the purview of minor literature. Embroideries, however, more successfully fits this definition.


Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

From its title on, Embroideries announces itself as a kind of minor form. As S. Olivia Donaldson observes, the practice of embroidery in Iran has always been a kind of little art: “A highly valued Cultural tradition, embroidery is also quotidian women’s work, a cultural practice more mundane … Broderies is an artful mix of high and low like the art and craft of embroidery. In place of needle and thread, Satrapi uses pen and ink, and with these instruments of authorship and fine art, she graphs a patchwork of pictures and words” (122). Of course, we learn through the course of the book that “embroidery” is actually being used as a bawdy metaphor for vaginoplasty, but this does not cancel out the initial meaning. Rather, it adds to it, suggesting that when women get together in little group “embroidery sessions” like these, this is often the kind of thing they would talk about.

Embroideries is not only a minor literature, but with the implication from Donaldson’s quote, it is a minor literature specifically adapted from another minor form: the women-only after-lunch conversations. At risk of over-expanding the concept, the after-lunch conversation between the women is something of a minor form, a kind of minor conversation. It creates space for a marginalized group inside a majority culture—the gathering of women inside patriarchal Iran to talk when they’re supposed to be doing the dishes. It effectively creates new groups and coalitions inside that majority: here we see the women are extracted from their usual setting as mothers, wives, and daughters into a new community—the women’s “embroidery” circle. It effectively destabilizes the majority language and the majority forms that the women exist in: they use the time allotted to them to be demure and submissive domestic servants instead to tell dirty stories and share tips about how to fake virginity and escape your husband.

Satrapi reflects all of this in her book. She not only seeks to tell us about these minor conversations between women, but she recreates all of it formally in Embroideries’ art style. The most subversive formal elements in Embroideries are its lack of frames, page numbers, and very often, dialogue bubbles. As Nima Naghibi observes:

The pages of this book are filled with text; much of the dialogue is in speech bubbles, but there is a significant amount of dialogue and narration outside conventional speech bubbles and text boxes. The pages embody the joy of unrestrained speech as the words spill out onto the page. All the text in this book is in cursive handwriting [in the original French] a stylistic device that not only emphasizes intimacy and informality but also adds to the sense that the narrative unfolding here is taking place outside of the usual graphic narrative structure: text boxes, frames, and panels. (111)

This is a deterritorialized and deterritorializing language. Satrapi here shows a great love of conversation and words for their own sake, for the act of speaking first, and only secondarily for language’s utilitarian, signifying function. In Embroideries, we can watch the sheer overflow of language pushing the form of the graphic into doing things it normally wouldn’t do. The usual staccato paced action of comics with dialogue boxes, frames, and Scott McCloud’s comic gutter is slowed to a molasses-like pace. The clean demarcation between actions and characters is muddied somewhat as we watch the women’s conversations and stories coming together into a new kind of community, a women’s assemblage forged in the heart of a patriarchy.

The sense of borderless community that these formal choices impart is very much in keeping with Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of “collective enunciation”. Here the important thing is no single woman, but their collective relationship in the new community the minor form makes possible. Satrapi’s position as the autobiographical subject is likewise much altered from what it was in Persepolis. In Persepolis, Satrapi is the central autobiographical subject. It is her coming-of-age story as told by her, and this has effectively and somewhat paradoxically worked to reterritorialize her childhood impressions into Iran’s larger political struggle. In Embroideries, she’s not the single domineering focus of the story, but rather only one voice in the community that was summoned by the minor form.

Another thing that establishes the book as minor literature is that it quite violently refuses the possibility of assuming a major function inside Iranian culture. At the end of the story, when Satrapi’s grandfather comes out of his siesta to see what the women are up to, Marjane’s grandmother banishes him, saying: “Well, really, Satrapi! What’s it got to do with you? Go on, go to sleep! It’s better for you” and Satrapi’s grandfather goes slinking out. Were the women’s after meal conversation a form that lent itself to becoming-major, this would be the moment when the woman would have jumped at the opportunity to invite Marjane’s grandfather as a representative of patriarchal power in the hopes of making connections with the larger male powers running Iran. Instead, the women aggressively insist on keeping their minor form to themselves and exile all male power. The interest here is not in reterritorializing the major, but in keeping a space open for becoming-minor.

The exile of Satrapi’s grandfather can also be read as her exiling her own author function. That Marjane chose to call her grandfather “Satrapi”, a name which the world has come to associate with Marjane Satrapi the artist, suggests to me a gesture of disavowal. Marjane is effectively playing down her reputation as a now-famed autobiographer in order to encourage her audience not to look at this book as the product of her perspective only, but as the collective enunciation of the “embroidery circle”. Here she is not the master author making the words signify in new ways, but merely one of many links in a chain that is by and large designed to resist signification. In the same way that the Embroideries’ lack of page numbers and dialogue bubbles serves to melt identities together, Marjane is also trying to join herself more fully with the group and present her identity as something inextricably tied up in it.

* * *

Now that I’ve looked at Persepolis and Embroideries, the one thing I want to emphasize is that this does not imply that Embroideries as an example of minor literature is somehow intrinsically superior to Persepolis. To imply that minor literature is automatically better would be only to flip and reinstitute the high and low art dichotomy in graphics that I’m trying to get away from. My intention is instead to use the concept of minor literature to expand the way we talk about graphics as a medium. Instead of forcing ourselves to sort between graphics as either high art or pablum, I introduce a more nuanced question of what modes it uses to relate to the larger culture it finds itself in and how they make use of it.

Persepolis and Embroideries are ultimately just doing different kinds of work. Persepolis tries to seize on Iranian majority culture directly with a more partisan attitude towards changing it while Embroideries is more interested in creating small spaces inside that larger Iranian culture, where shadow communities like the women’s embroidery circle can gather. More than anything they’re just different and articulate Satrapi as an autobiographical subject in different ways. Satrapi is a complicated woman living and working at the intersection of many overlapping identity factors, and her books provide us different facets through which to view this complex of relations. There’s very little more we can learn from these works by questioning whether they should be classified as “comics” or “graphic novels”.

* * *

Works Cited

Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. Vertigo, 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix . Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan, University of Minnesota Press. 1986.

Donaldson, S. Olivia. “A Comic-Book Look at Cosmopolitanism and Feminism: Let’s Talk about Marjane Satrapi’s Broderies“. Women in French Studies, vol. 26, pp. 114-130. 2018.

La Cour, Erin. “Comics as a Minor Literature”. Image [&] Narrative, vol. 17., pp. 79-90. 2016.

Leservot, Typhaine. “Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persépolis'”. French Forum, vol. 36, pp. 115-130. 2011.

Naghibi, Nima. “Repetitions of the Past: Marjane Satrapi and Intergenerational Memory.” Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 103-125. 2016.

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Translated by Anjali Singh. Pantheon Books. 2004.

Embroideries. Translated by Anjali Singh. Pantheon Books. 2005.