This article examines the critical reception of works by comic artists Zeina Abirached and Marjane Satrapi, and specifically articulations of likeness and contrast between them. Surveying the frequent comparisons of Abirached's A Game for Swallows (2007, 2012) to Satrapi's Persepolis (2000–2004) provides a methodological framework by which to reconsider the cultural and capital economies of world literature and global comics. This analysis is guided by questions regarding global comics as an emergent textual form that complicates world literature as a system of cultural recognition. What role does the emphasis on these two women authors as Middle Easterners play in the reception of their books in Europe and the United States? How do transnational literatures capitulate to (neo)imperial projects? How do comics, by introducing new criteria for literary assessment, compel us to radically remap the location of culture?
Surveying the frequent comparisons of Zeina Abirached's A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return (2007, 2012) to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2000–2004) provides a methodological framework by which to reconsider the cultural and capital economies of world literature and global comics.1 This analysis is guided by questions regarding global comics as an emergent textual form that complicates world literature as a system of cultural recognition. What role does the emphasis on these two women authors as Middle Easterners play in the reception of their books in Europe and the United States? How do transnational literatures capitulate to (neo)imperial projects? How do comics, by introducing new criteria for literary assessment, compel us to radically remap the location of culture? In this paper, I argue that the determination of a work's “origin”—which is intrinsic to economies of world literature—depends upon the technologies of recognition that one uses to describe—and circumscribe— certain works in certain locations. In what follows I challenge disjunctures between the cultural and economic calculus of locating at work in the reception of Abirached's and Satrapi's comics, and critically re-locate these works according to medial specificity.
This article takes its title from Gayatri Spivak's 1985 article “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” a work that guides my attempts to think through the complex aesthetic, discursive, historical, and material concerns that determine how we read comics in the global cultural economy.2 Spivak asserts that the lack of attention to the role of imperialism in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature demonstrates the “continuing success of the imperialist project, displaced and dispersed into more modern forms.”3 Rather than the intimate readings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels that Spivak uses to make her case for the co-constituency of feminist individualism and the imperial project, I track the displacement suggested in her formulation. How are “foreign” products sold in European and US markets, and how is this commodification elided or amplified by the discourse attending these products?
Satrapi's Persepolis is an autobiographical account of her childhood in Tehran before and after the 1979 revolution and her subsequent emigration to Vienna. Abirached's book recalls a single night of her family's life in Beirut in 1984, during intense shelling in the Lebanese civil conflict. Pamela Paul's New York Times review of A Game for Swallows begins with the line, “It is hard not to think of Marjane Satrapi's groundbreaking graphic memoir, ‘Persepolis,’ while reading Zeina Abirached's moving account of her childhood in Lebanon in the 1980s.”4 Paul's review is hardly the first or last space in which the graphic narratives of Abirached and Satrapi have been compared.5 Some media outlets, like the French culture and lifestyle magazines Télérama and L'Express, attempt to qualify the comparison by specifically enumerating the similarities between Abirached and Satrapi: their mutual use of black and white, their similar characters, their Eastern and/or wartime settings, and autobiographical and/or childhood memory narration styles:
Same use of black and white, similarity of characters, Oriental context, autobiographical inspiration: the style of Zeina Abirached immediately makes one think of Marjane Satrapi's style. For all that, to reduce The Game for Swallows to a sub-Persepolis is purely bad faith.6
From the graphic perspective, the style of the album [The Game for Swallows] is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: same fullness of the black-and-white drawing, same false naïveté of the narration, same setting of a wartime city, same childhood memories. But the comparison stops there.7
These two lists simultaneously provide a rubric for how one might compare Abirached to Satrapi while implying that the limits of the list indicate the insignificance of that comparison. In both reviews the lists take subjunctive form: One could compare them—here are the criteria by which to do so—but why would one?
In fact, the comparison has become its own trope to the extent that Cameron Hatheway of Bleeding Cool, a UK-based comics blog, avows that his review of A Game for Swallows will not function solely to compare the two works—unlike other, unnamed and uncited reviews—a claim that seems rather discredited by the review's opening and closing paragraphs, which both mention Satrapi.8 Hatheway, via paraleipsis, structures an entire review of A Game for Swallows from start to finish—literally—in comparison with Satrapi, while simultaneously claiming a unique exemption from this specific comparison.
Other cultural critics go further in stressing the error of the comparison. du9, the Paris-based alt-comics blog, begins its review of Abirached's work by highlighting the fundamental difference in the two “Middle Eastern” artists’ approaches: “Her approach is fundamentally different from another Middle Eastern author with whom she is too frequently compared, Marjane Satrapi … and with whom she has but one ultimate point of comparison, that of being a female graphic artist recounting in black and white the difficult moments in the recent history of her country.”9 While du9's Voitachewski insists on the fundamental difference between the two authors, he too offers criteria for comparison. The main difference between the disavowals by L'Express and Télérama and that of du9 rests solely on whether the same criteria are grounded in a discussion of artistic product or artist biography. This is a meaningful distinction: comparing books is not the same as comparing women, and it is worth demarcating comparisons of media objects with comparisons of producers in terms of where the object originates, circulates, and is appraised, and how such economic trajectories coincide or fail to coincide with the types of literary biographies that so often accompany works classified as “world literature.” Yet while acknowledging the difference between a comparison of Persepolis and A Game for Swallows and a comparison of Satrapi and Abirached, we might still claim the rhetorical similitude of these comparisons.
By way of introducing Abirached at Duke University, Claire Tufts critiqued reviews such as Pamela Paul's (whom she refers to as “one critic … in the New York Times”) for comparing the two authors. In this critique, Tufts echoes both the caveat and the criteria listed by Télérama and L'Express and contends that “the similarities between [Abirached] and Satrapi don't go much beyond the fact that both writers are women from the Middle East, both work in black and white, and both have written graphic novels about war as seen through the eyes of a child narrator.” She supports her claim by noting that Satrapi's work is frenetic and more taken with representing war, while Abirached's is more “warm” and concerned with familial relations. In A Game for Swallows, she explains, war is often figured as a “white panel or blank page.”10 Herein, although the comparison has already been disavowed, Tufts, a professor in the Romance Studies division, continues to compare the two works, if only to situate her own authority to do so. Tufts uses a close reading to demonstrate the divergences that most other reviews allude to only through the disavowal of comparison.
The preceding examples are a mere sampling of the myriad reviews, blog posts, interviews, and introductions where A Game for Swallows and Persepolis or Abirached and Satrapi are explicitly denied comparison through an implicit comparison. These popular, academic, French, US, and UK online, print, and in-person instances of the trope are enough to evince its scope following the publication and translation of A Game for Swallows. I do not wish enter the fray over whether this female comic book artist's work is like that female comic book artist's work. Even less do I hope to make authoritative claims regarding the biographies of two women artists. Abirached has said—as she does in an interview with L'Express—that she does not really feel filiation with Satrapi: “Je ne me sens pas vraiment de filiation avec elle.”11 I have no desire to contradict her. Instead, as a comparatist, I feel compelled to argue for the exigency of recovering the material and aesthetic histories that are mystified in the preceding comparisons. Despite the heterogeneity of the receptions, culled from a number of different cultural spheres and spanning rarefied, comics-specific criticism as well as broader cultural or lifestyle interests, they share a rhetorical approach that requires further examination. Why do these readers feel the need to stage a praeteritio of sorts? What forms of cultural capital are enabled through the trope of a denial of comparison which itself enacts a comparison?
Evaluating the criteria offered in these comparisons without taking their cultural and historical specificity for granted reorients the analysis of these works around a consideration of production and publication. I argue that the formats, styles, and genres of these books do have commonalities that are intrinsically tied to graphic narrative as a transnational commercial industry. Further, with all due respect to Tufts, there are more similarities between A Game for Swallows and Persepolis, and they are more materially fundamental than those that she and many other readers list. Most obviously, these works share language and location. Both books were published in French, in Paris—a fact that goes unmentioned in every one of the reviews cited above. Rather than situating the comparison of these women in their birthplaces nearly fifteen hundred kilometers and a decade apart, I argue for the need to acknowledge the role of the location in which their works were bought, published, and marketed just over six kilometers and less than five years apart. Without flattening the unique and heterogeneous histories that preceded the publication of Persepolis and A Game for Swallows, I maintain that Paris and its comics publishing industry must be foregrounded in questioning the similarities and differences between these books. In associating the two women, I ask whether US critics reproduce an Orientalist cultural imaginary whereby female graphic memoirists from Iran and Lebanon are understood to be similar, regardless of their divergent sociopolitical lifeworlds and cultural products, or whether more complex circuits of commodities, artists, and aesthetics are at work in marketing the graphic Middle East to a Western audience.
PUBLISH, OR PARIS
Persepolis was first published in four volumes, from 2000 to 2003, by L'Association, a French independent comics publisher formed in 1990 by a collective of artists, including Jean-Christophe Menu, Stanislas, Mattt Konture, Killoffer, Lewis Trondheim, Mokeït, and, importantly, David B.12 As described by comics scholar and professor Bart Beaty, the guiding aesthetic ethos of L'Association was a reaction to the standardized, color, glossy, forty-eight-page album that pervaded French comics or bande dessinée production.13 Instead, L'Association publications favor heavier paper, black-and-white artwork, smaller formats, and themes more closely aligned with literature, such as autobiography and experimental narrative.
Trondheim and David B. met Satrapi after she moved to Paris, through her work at the Atelier des Vosges artists’ studios.14 It was through this shared workspace and the significant influence of David B. that Satrapi was encouraged to write her own comics, which were first published in installments in L'Association's anthology series Lapin. The first volume of Persepolis (2000) won the Coup de Coeur award for an author's first book at Angoulême International Comics Festival. That book was followed by three more volumes (2001, 2002, 2003), and Persepolis eventually became a best-seller, by some accounts saving L'Association.15
Given L'Association's success with Persepolis, a new market for independent comics in Paris ensued. Publisher Frédéric Cambourakis cites Persepolis as a turning point for introducing a new audience to comics, one that directly led to the appearance of many new independent publishing houses, including his own, Éditions Cambourakis.16 In 2006 Cambourakis contracted Abirached's first book, [Beyrouth] Catharsis, written (and originally published) in 2002 when Abirached was a student in the Atelier de Recherche ALBA, a division of the Académie libanaise des Beaux-Arts. His investment in Abirached paid off with her third book, A Game for Swallows, which was nominated at Angoulême, became a best-seller, and was translated into English in 2012.
For her part, Abirached has stated that she moved to France to attend the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, and because, as she explains: “We do not have a comics tradition in Lebanon, and in all the Middle East.”17 Although some comics scholars dispute this claim, Abirached's explanation for her relocation in Paris invites a critical retracing of the lines of comics production, circulation, and reception that fully accounts for her and Satrapi's awareness of the industry in relation to their own self-location.18 Such a retracing locates the artists as participants in a global media industry with a major node in Paris, which is informed by cultural and material histories of comics publishing. The two authors’ industry awareness, rather than reflexively indicating their own participation in feminist individualism critiqued by Spivak, reflects the situation of their work in a complex web of national and transnational agents, objects, forces, and interests.19,Persepolis and A Game for Swallows may well be works by women born in Iran and Lebanon, but their very existence as media objects is owed to a coincidental rise of French independent comics publishing and the graphic novel in Anglophone discursive regimes. Marie Ostby claims of Persepolis that “what becomes important about its nation-centered framework is that the Iranian story Satrapi tells through contemporary fusions of Persian, French, and American aesthetic conventions is paradoxically yet thoroughly global in both creation and circulation.”20 I would apply Ostby's conceptualization to both authors’ works, and further argue that the networks of affiliation and publication traveled by Persepolis and A Game for Swallows necessarily extend across national borders and genre lines. Therefore, rather than locate these works in the Middle East, where they were neither originally printed nor published, I locate Persepolis and A Game for Swallows within transnational publishing circuits through a consideration of both women's books as “graphic novels,” as autobiographical crisis narratives, and as aesthetic works.
THE GRAPHIC NOVEL AND THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE
L'Association founder Jean-Christophe Menu writes about what happens when a “small format black and white comic book starts (unexpectedly) to sell” and the term “graphic novel” gains popularity:
When they found out what the print run of Persepolis was, booksellers were shocked to realize that Maus was not an isolated case, and that the same coup could be brought off again. It would be naive to think that Persepolis has had no influence on this renewed infatuation for the black and white small-format comic book.21
Here Menu precisely locates Satrapi's work in a continuum with Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986) with regard to its marketability, format, and black-and-white aesthetic. Maus and its unprecedented financial success as a graphic novel in an avowedly niche market delineated the conditions of possibility within which Satrapi's Persepolis could be measured. Furthermore, Maus formed a node in what would become a complex international network of comics production and distribution, focalized through the aperture of the graphic novel.
Satrapi herself is more than cognizant of the Maus comparison, having stated in an interview that she apologized to Art Spiegelman for the fact that every graphic novel is now compared to Maus. She added:
It's not a problem for me. Maus is a masterpiece. To be compared to Maus is nothing but a compliment. But for him that should be extremely tiring. If I was him I would have hated all these younger graphic novelists being compared to myself. So that is why I called him once, to tell him that none of this propaganda is being made by me, that it is other people who say this.22
Notably, at least one person to make this comparison was Satrapi's US editor, Anjali Singh, who pitched the acquisition of the first two volumes of Persepolis to Pantheon, the Knopf imprint that also published Maus in two-volume book form.23 As Singh describes, L'Association was in talks over the translation of Persepolis with the small-press comics publisher Fantagraphics, but Singh advocated for the work and its importance, discursively situating it in the same network as Pulitzer-winning Maus.24 Singh's editorial claim represents an intervention at the level of reception, as well as translation, transnational markets, and literary publishing. While Persepolis was already an unprecedented financial success for L'Association, Singh imagined its success with a US publisher based on its correlation to Maus: “Now Persepolis, like Maus, reached a huge readership because it overlapped with so many other categories—memoir, history, middle-east studies, coming-of-age—but we still had a firm platform from which to launch it.” Alternately, she cautions, “You could also have looked at it as a comic book about the Islamic Revolution by an unknown Iranian author based in France. … I definitely had one colleague who, before I acquired it, told me she just didn't see an audience for it.”25
Plying Maus as a precursor allowed Singh to convince the publisher she worked for in the United States to buy Persepolis, while it was conversely essential for convincing L'Association to sell: “The French publisher was initially reluctant to work with a big American corporate house and said no. But … I wrote them an impassioned letter about why we should publish it, and it really helped that I could say we had published Maus.”26 Between Menu's points about graphic novels and Singh's description of Persepolis's US translation, a clearer understanding emerges of what Arjun Appadurai calls the social life of objects. The term “graphic novel” draws attention to the paradoxical role of the object as object: it is a novel, entailing in this instance a book-length work to be marketed and sold as other non-graphic books, and yet it is not a novel qua novel or the modifier would be unnecessary. Thus the cultural specificities of avant-garde comics production in Paris and corporate American publishing houses must be brokered or translated so that Maus and Persepolis come to circulate in, determine, and even overdetermine the commodification of the international graphic novel.
Despite the endless critical denunciations that the term “graphic novel” has produced in conjunction with nonfiction works, for the sake of materially situating Persepolis in relation to both Maus and A Game for Swallows the term takes on an explicitly material cast.27 It describes a particular type of book (or in the case of Maus and Persepolis, books) that can be marketed according to certain expectations, not the least of which is the size and length of the work. It is thus telling that A Game for Swallows was the first of Abirached's books to become financially successful and be translated in the United States, as its physical shape is much closer than her first two works to that of other recognized and recognizable graphic novels (fig. 1).
Using format as a heuristic for categorizing comics allows for a deeper analysis of the heterogeneous formatting of Abirached's oeuvre, and of the particular commercial success of A Game for Swallows. As Pascal Lefèvre demonstrates, “The format will eventually influence the total concept of the comics … the page layout, the choice between monochrome or color, the type of story, the way in which it will be told, etc.”28 Accordingly, an analysis of Abirached's oeuvre and its relation to Satrapi's and Spiegelman's must account for the progression from Catharsis, a very small, single-panel-per-page book with a die-cut cover, to Abirached's next work, 38, rue Youssef Semaani, which (as its name suggests) has a long, building-like rectangular shape; when opened, it unfolds to show the numerous denizens of the apartment complex at the titular address. Cambourakis published both of these works in 2006, and then the breakout success A Game for Swallows in 2007. Just like Persepolis, A Game for Swallows gained in prominence once it was selected for the Angoulême Festival; its shape, as a book, was also much closer to that of Persepolis and other L'Association publications.
While standardizing the formal characteristics of a graphic novel may influence its marketability and acceptance, there is also a commercial calculus for standardizing the author-artist as a cultural figure. What Menu wrote of the influence Persepolis had on the size and aesthetic of a particular type of book, Beaty extends to Satrapi as well: “In terms of the industry, her success really cemented a desire to find the next great graphic novelist. The French industry is no different from the American: look and see what sells, try to find 100 more of those.”29 In Abirached's case, her publisher, Cambourakis, rightly insists that her success is based on the quality of her book, and also downplays the controversy surrounding the comparison of A Game for Swallows to Persepolis. In Cambourakis's words, following such a polémique as the comparison between the two women's books, either popular success (plébiscite) or boycottage will follow. In Abirached's case, “The public overwhelmingly responded.”30
Prior to the US publication of A Game for Swallows, Abirached's translator, Edward Gauvin, noted that
at first glance, the parallels between Abirached's Swallows and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis are obvious, and probably something many critics will remark on: memoirs of childhood by Middle Eastern girls drawn in a black and white, deliberately naïve style. To be slightly cynical, ever since Persepolis, American publishers have been looking for the next French graphic novel that would prove as big as Satrapi's hit.31
As cynical as such a description might sound, it goes a long way toward demystifying how Persepolis and A Game for Swallows have been linked according to industry expectations and considerations. Here Gauvin supplies precisely that point of comparison elided in the same types of lists provided by the reviewers cited above: commerce. Rather than reading the works as purely narrative or aesthetic objects, a feminist materialist approach recognizes the influence of economic factors in the production, consumption, translation, and valuation of graphic novels.
GRAPHIC NARRATIVES: AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND WAR
The expectations for graphic novels as commodity objects are also reflected in the types of stories or narratives associated with the genre. In their book The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (2015), Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey explain that Maus's intervention “to tell a serious life story in a serious mode through texts and images … set up a model repeated in significant future productions, including, of course, autobiography and journalism-reportage titles.”32 Baetens and Frey, among other comics scholars, have gestured to the rise of nonfiction and autobiographical comics as a correlate of the literariness of the graphic novel format. Although the rise of autobiographical comics was variegated across the United States and Europe, where publishers like Ego comme X in France began anthologizing autobiographical comics in 1994 (including works by Anglophone and Japanese authors), the autobiographical content of Maus proved a transnational influence, in much the same way that the formal aspects of the book contributed to a profusion of the graphic novel. According to Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner, L'Association's focus on autobiographical comics as a way to distinguish their products from “the escapist mainstream … reflected the influence of Art Spiegelman's Maus.”33
In light of Spiegelman's impact on the narrative focus at L'Association, the comparison of Abirached with Satrapi should be further elucidated with reference to earlier comparisons made between Satrapi and David B. (Pierre-Francois Beauchard), author of L'Ascension du haut mal (1996–2003, later translated as Epileptic), and one of the founding members of L'Association.34 L'Ascension du haut mal, which was published in six volumes, was a consequential work in the development of autobiographical comics. The volumes detail the struggles of David B.'s family as they grapple with his older brother's epilepsy. The story interweaves the minute details of Beauchard family life—for instance attempting holistic and macrobiotic lifestyle changes to combat Jean-Christophe's condition—with fantasy, dreams, and an underlying story of the author's own development as an artist. While very influential in Europe, L'Ascension du haut mal was not published in its entirety in the United States until 2005. Although Fantagraphics published the first three books in a collected volume in 2002, the complete Epileptic was published by Pantheon, following that company's success with Persepolis.
In the United States, Persepolis was translated and published before L'Ascension du haut mal, obscuring the important influence that L'Ascension du haut mal and David B. himself had on Satrapi and on the Francophone reception of her work. David B. is credited with selecting Satrapi for publication—having worked with her at Atelier des Vosges—and he wrote the introduction for one volume of Persepolis. Although Satrapi has qualified early statements she made regarding her indebtedness to David B., she acknowledges the encouragement and instruction in comics that she received from him and cites his work as influential on her own.35 Indeed, marking David B.'s influence as an artist and publisher reveals another angle to the comparative reception of Satrapi and Abirached.
Although Abirached has stated that she does not really feel herself to “faire du Marjane Satrapi,” she continually cites David B. as one of her primary influences:
David B.'s books had a very big impact on my work. His graphic novel, Epileptic, was a revelation: a graphic novel that was about something, in black and white, and quite similar to the things I was interested in. David B. really pushed me towards putting down my own story in a graphic novel format.36
Rather than suggesting that two women must be compared to men instead of each other, I am suggesting a more heterogeneous network that accounts for aesthetic and commercial interconnections between these three Paris-based comics authors. Amid the frequently male-dominated sphere of comics production, the alternating affiliations between Satrapi, David B., and Abirached complicate the stereotypically gender- or ethnicity-based ways in which these artists are identified and located.
Abirached and Satrapi are indeed women artists born in Asia, but women artists who became successful in a male-dominated industry, innovating upon certain stylistic and generic precedents established by European and US male comics artists. The stories told in Persepolis and A Game for Swallows are at once unique expressions of subjective experience and memory and, ironically, examples of generic conventions. Genre coherence is reflected both in the autobiographical nature of the books and in the “wartime setting,” which so many reviewers use as a point of comparison between the two. Both works simultaneously evoke the autobiographical conventions of Epileptic and fall under the category of “crisis comics”—as described by Sidonie Smith—more closely associated with Maus, and with the comics of Joe Sacco that “witness traumatic histories of marginalization and violence.”37 Hillary Chute groups Persepolis with the work of Spiegelman and Sacco in terms of how they “express traumatic histories,” while noting a distinction in terms of whose testimony (that of others in the case of Spiegelman and Sacco, and that of the author in the case of Satrapi) anchors the historical witnessing.38
Both Satrapi and Abirached have explained how their lived experiences of war guide the stories that they tell in Persepolis and A Game for Swallows.39 Abirached explains:
I grew up during a civil war in a country where we didn't come to terms with our past. …Ten years after the end of the war I realized I had the urge to say, “It happened!” So I started to write some things I still remembered and to draw Beirut—the Beirut of my childhood that was slowly disappearing—and somehow realized I was writing a comic book.40
In her description of the impetus for A Game for Swallows, Abirached allows for the location of her own work alongside Satrapi's and other war testimony comics, as they are inscribed within genre expectations for “crisis comics” while simultaneously maintaining the singularity of the experiences narrated. Just as Ostby notes of Persepolis, both books simultaneously familiarize and defamiliarize, demonstrating the graphic novel as “culturally and aesthetically global” while cautioning the reader against imagining these autobiographical stories as culturally representative.41
While Chute marks a difference between comics of firsthand and secondhand witnessing, it is just as necessary to distinguish between crisis comics as directed toward an audience knowledgeable of or geopolitically sympathetic to the crisis depicted (such as Maus or Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen [1972–73]) and those directed toward a “foreign” audience. In the US translation of the first volume of Persepolis (2002), Satrapi introduces the book by explaining her desire to correct the image of Iran cast only “in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.”42 Along these lines, English professor Clifford Marks praises Persepolis for the way that it “introduces a relatively underdiscussed and misunderstood culture … to a Western audience that has mostly been persuaded to identify Iranian culture inaccurately with Arab culture.”43 Marks's characterization of Persepolis dovetails with Chute's characterization of Satrapi as a “translator of East to West,” a position that Satrapi herself offers up: “The book Persepolis, I wrote for the other ones, not for Iranians.”44 Satrapi's awareness of her work as a market item, one with a particular consumer interest, speaks to the canniness of its creation.
Scholar Shadi Mazhari stipulates that Persepolis simultaneously confirms reader expectations—“Western readers have heard numerous testimonies of human rights violations in Iran, a fact that disposes them to trust Satrapi's life story with its litany of lost, exiled, tortured or executed friends and relatives”—while using this trust to subvert stereotypes.45 Furthermore, Amy Malek argues that Satrapi appropriates Western cultural forms (specifically comics and autobiography) in order to “express and preserve Iranian culture and historical identity.”46 Thus a subtle and complex relationship is established between audiences’ expectations, industry conventions, and the authors’ political, transnational, transcultural, and artistic subject relations. In the geopolitical specificity of Satrapi's and Abirached's war stories, we can discern the complex interplay between graphic narratives as local stories, and global markets with variegated readerships and reader expectations.
We may also refrain from imagining the artists as either entirely constrained by market forces or entirely sovereign over the publication, translation, and reception of their own work. Paul's review locates A Game for Swallows according to audience expectations regarding the Middle East, as a place “in turmoil.” On the other hand, Lena Merhej, graphic artist, academic, and one of the founding editors of the trilingual Lebanese comics journal Samandal, locates Abirached's book according to an ongoing process by Lebanese artists of working through the “war debate” as part of a “post-war reconstruction despite obstructions by the state and its sectarian heritage.”47 As such, rather than imagining A Game for Swallows according to a solely East-to-West translation, Merhej also contextualizes it within a burgeoning comic book production that has gained momentum in Beirut in the decade or so since Abirached emigrated to a city with a far more established comics tradition. Abirached has described the enthusiasm for her work in Lebanon, indicating the heterogeneity of local and global expectations for graphic novels.
Inherent in this heterogeneous landscape are inequalities and political and economic differentials between local and global interests. Journalist and professor Massimo di Ricco writes about the frustrations that frequently accompany transcultural artistic production and circulation. From interviews with Abirached and the Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj—whose comics blog chronicling the 2006 war in Lebanon was translated and published as a book by L'Association—di Ricco relates Kerbaj's “unease” at the market appetite for war narratives over all else:
Abirached … has expressed similar frustrations at being labeled an artist who works primarily on the subject of Lebanese war narratives and memoirs, getting little consideration for her work on a variety of themes and techniques. The predominant foreign interest on these specific thematics opens up more questions regarding the sustainability of local projects and the relation of these artists to the global market.48
Given the relatively recent growth of appreciation for graphic works in literary spheres, it is not surprising that audiences may be drawn to works that either fulfill genre expectations or fulfill reader prejudices regarding the types of stories that may be told about certain locations in the world. The conditions of possibility for diegetic expression in graphic narrative reflect a number of factors, not the least of which are location and industry. Even when a graphic novel attains the success or popularity that a book like Persepolis has found, the reception that it receives may not fully account for the critical specificity of the work as a graphic narrative.
GRAPHIC AESTHETICS: COMICS AS A PROBLEM FOR LITERARY RECEPTION
As Beaty writes of the reception of Persepolis, while it was frequently lauded for its topic, it was sometimes, especially in the United States, criticized for its drawing style. For Beaty this criticism not only denotes an international division, wherein European appreciation for comics as art diverges from US attitudes toward the form, but also indicates the problems that literary scholars face in analyzing comics. Rather than appreciate that comics art generally serves a narrative function, and thus operates in an entirely different register than fine art, Beaty claims that critics too frequently appraise the art style of comics according to the criteria that they might a painting.49 Chute echoes this sentiment, dismissing criticism of Satrapi's drawing style by explaining that the technical efficiency of drawing in graphic narrative is in fact subservient to “the discursive presentation of time as space on the page.”50 The conflation of Abirached's and Satrapi's artwork is symptomatic of literary inattention to the aesthetics of comics, and the privileging of story as text over graphic narrative, in which images and text are inextricably enunciative.
Additionally, the frequency with which critics use “black and white” as a point of comparison between Abirached and Satrapi reflects a misunderstanding of the role of colors in graphic narrative. In an article on the use of color in comics, Jan Baetens explains that while it is frequently assumed that black and white is chosen for economic reasons, this is not true in all cases, and he cites Satrapi as the most notable exception. He goes on to claim that black and white is frequently viewed as having more of an “auteur” quality (just as in photography) that is associated with graphic novels as opposed to childish, brightly colored comic books.51,Bande dessinée scholar Ann Miller asserts that for Francophone comics, black and white “has come to connote an album presented as a work of art rather than a commercial product.”52 Although Miller allows that there are exceptions in France, and Baetens notes exceptions in the United States as well, their role as exceptions indicates the predominance of black and white in graphic novels.
Other scholars view this predominance as another way in which the graphic novel capitulates to a literary format. A book-size, black-and-white object that features adult genres like nonfiction, war, and autobiography is much more likely to be found in a US bookstore, marketed to adult audiences, or reviewed in the New York Times. A reviewer accustomed to letters over images is less likely to attend to the unique parameters governing what Philippe Marion calls graphiation, or the whole account of markings and visual enunciation on the comics page.53
Although both Satrapi and Abirached primarily draw in black and white, the same is true for Art Spiegelman, David B., Joe Sacco, and a majority of internationally established graphic artists. In an interview about Satrapi, Beaty stated that the “visual debt she owes David B.” is “obvious to everyone.”54 Looking at the three pages in figure 2, one from Epileptic, one from Persepolis, and one from A Game for Swallows, we can observe stylistic resonances not just between Satrapi and Abirached, but among all three. Thus, a comparison of Abirached's and Satrapi's art or aesthetics based solely on the use of black and white coloration requires further contextualization.
Edward Gauvin, who has translated works by both artists, states of A Game for Swallows: “I was taken by its strong design sense, complex motifs, and idiosyncratic use of sound effects in characterization; its use of B[lack]&W[hite] is, needless to say, very different from Satrapi's, and I tried when I could to help the book get out from under that shadow by emphasizing that.”55 As Gauvin notes, black and white alone is a relatively thin point of comparison and one that, in the case of these two women artists, merely relegates one to the shadow of another.
Following Spivak, I want to draw attention to the way that the study and consumption of literatures in an age of globalization runs the risk of complicity in the continued “worlding” that began under imperialism to produce the “Third World.” Spivak writes, “To consider the Third World as distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact literary heritages waiting to be recovered, interpreted, and curricularized in English translation fosters the emergence of ‘the Third World’ as a signifier that allows us to forget that ‘worlding,’ even as it expands the empire of the literary discipline.”56 By figuring Abirached and Satrapi as Middle Eastern artists, telling similar stories, with a similar black-and-white aesthetic, a discrete and consumable “style” is artificially identified and attributed to works from a heterogeneous area in which the artists neither produced nor sold their work. Our alternative is to attend to the market forces and histories that brought Persepolis and A Game for Swallows to us and to aforementioned reviewers at specific points in time.
By discursively placing Abirached and Satrapi in mystified relation to the spheres of production where their labor takes place—and to their own emigration and/or exile—these reviewers become willing participants in continued cultural imperialism. By ambiguously referencing aesthetic similarities without attending to the medial conditions of the work, they obfuscate the relation of industry to the networks of cultural production and critical valuation that inscribe these women and their graphic narratives in networks between Beirut, Tehran, and Paris.
As transnational commodities, Persepolis and A Game for Swallows represent the migration of artists from Lebanon and Iran to Europe, but they also represent aptitudes and proclivities within European and US markets for specific forms of cultural production. In her discussion of orientations and Orientalism, Sara Ahmed stipulates that “we can see how making ‘the strange’ familiar, or the ‘distant’ proximate, is what allows ‘the West’ to extend its reach.”57 For Ahmed, Orientalism is a way of gathering objects and manufacturing differences among those objects. The West orients itself to the Orient as an object of desire, then domesticates this Orientalism by differentiating between proximities, familiarities, and strangeness. The reception of Persepolis and A Game for Swallows in the twenty-first century in Europe and the United States denotes an orientation toward the “Middle East” as well as a concomitant desire to orient the works of Satrapi and Abirached in the service of imaginative or affective economies. The rhetorical paraleipsis of the comparison of Abirached and Satrapi implicitly reveals the desire to align these women in the imaginative economy of “Middle Eastern” art, while espousing a liberal reluctance to deny each product a unique market value. The underlying message says: yes, these two artists share similarities, not the least of which is that they are both Middle Eastern, but you should still buy both books.
What translator Gauvin calls the cynical interpretation of the reasoning behind the denial of comparison as comparison is a necessary corrective if we are to recognize the agency of these artists rather than reproducing an alienation that extends from the products of their labor to their own efforts as transnational scholars, artists, and producers. To uncritically compare a woman who left Iran as a self-described political exile and a woman who explains her emigration to Paris in terms of a lack of comic book publishing opportunities in Lebanon is to estrange these women from their own unique orientations and transnational biographies in order to domesticate the products of their labor within a neo-imperialist imaginary.
Instead, it is imperative to consider these women's texts in terms of transnationalism using criteria set forth by Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal. These theorists posit a framework whereby transnational does not mean post-national or even postcolonial. They encourage “recognition of the politics of reception as part of the reproduction of global cultural objects as a cultural commodity.”58 A Game for Swallows is necessarily related to Lebanon, just as Persepolis is to Iran in ways irreducible to a Western categorization of “Middle Eastern” art. Similarly, the relation of both works to France is neither ahistorical nor inevitable, but its erasure in certain discourses about Abirached and Satrapi demonstrates a reluctance to acknowledge the role of capital and geopolitics in literary appraisals. Discursively re-locating these women and their labor within, alongside, and apart from global industry provides resistance to culturally imperialist inscriptions of their work.