"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 14, 2012
Beyond Manga: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Erin Cowles

By show of hands, who hears the words “graphic novel” and thinks about Japanese anime characters with weird eyes? Or better yet, who hears the words “graphic novel” and thinks, “Wait, isn’t that the R-rated section of the library I want to avoid?”

For the unfamiliar among us (which included me until a few years ago), a graphic novel tells a story using both images and words, often in a sequential comic format. They differ from comics, in that they are usually stand-alone works with a beginning, middle, and end, even when they are part of a series. Although Manga and superhero stories reign supreme in this format, a wide variety of genres and subject matters are covered by graphic novels.

I’ll confess that Manga just doesn’t resonate with me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the graphic novels I’ve found as I’ve explored this genre. For today’s column, I want to talk briefly about two of the very best graphic novels I’ve read over the years. They are every bit as thought-provoking and powerful as a traditional text-only novel, and accessible to a mainstream audience.

I vividly remember my first experience with graphic novels. I had checked out Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood from the library, not knowing it was a graphic novel. I felt rather sheepish when I popped it open in my AmLaw 100 law firm’s lunch room and saw comic book images staring back at me. I quickly slid it back into my bag, wanting my coworkers to continue thinking of me as a serious professional. But when I pulled it out on the train for my commute home, its quality blew me away.

Persepolis is Satrapi’s coming-of-age memoir about life in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Marjane is a precocious girl that is the child of Marxists, great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, and witness to the atrocities committed during this period of upheaval in her country.

Satrapi’s account resonated with me so powerfully because she truly experiences these atrocities as a child would. She feels inferior to her friends whose parents were political prisoners, wants her parents to smuggle in posters of her favorite Western bands when they travel out of the country, and spends hours in a bathtub trying to understand what her tortured grandfather felt like. She has to face the ugliness of the world at an age before she is really equipped to handle it, and it makes the things she sees and hears about (while eavesdropping on her parents, in true childhood fashion) even more horrifying and incomprehensible.

Note that the sequel contains more mature content (drug use and sexuality), and its target audience is adults, so I am not including it on my list for teenagers. And this book itself is more appropriate for older teenagers, as it deals with torture, abuse, and execution for political reasons.

My hands-down favorite graphic novel is Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat. When it came out in 1994, discussing incest was even more taboo than it currently is, yet Talbot tackles this topic with empathy, courage, and thorough research. Talbot chronicles the journeys of Helen, a homeless young woman fleeing her sexually abusive father, as she travels to England’s beautiful Lake District. It was the home of Beatrix Potter, whose life and works are an inspiration to Helen throughout her journey.

We watch Helen transform as she learns to face her demons and carve out a new life and sense of self. Talbot stays very faithful to the mental state of abuse victims, abusers, and the necessary steps to healing, and it is no surprise that many abuse help centers use this book as part of therapy.

I link these books together in this review because they are graphic novels with similar themes – acknowledging the horror and ugliness young people face, while striving for hope and connection. Despite their shorter word count, it speaks volumes that these authors can address such dark topics so effectively in a challenging format.

Read these books if…

  • You want more out of a book that deals with abuse and evil than feelings of indignation – you want to see how people survive it and rise above it.
  • You want to see what all the fuss is about with graphic novels, but you don’t like action/adventure stories.
  • You’re far too busy for a book like War and Peace, and you want to see powerful and thought-provoking themes talked about in a concise way.

Target Audience: Persepolis, age 16 and up, The Tale of One Bad Rat, age 15 and up.


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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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