Beyond Manga: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Erin Cowles
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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…
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
want to see what all the fuss is about with graphic novels, but you
don’t like action/adventure stories.
far too busy for a book like War
and you want to see powerful and thought-provoking themes talked
about in a concise way.
age 16 and up, The
Tale of One Bad Rat,
age 15 and up.
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. During women's history month, she profiles
Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com. She loves reading, sleeping,
and the great outdoors.
Erin serves as Primary pianist and as the choir director in her ward.