Book Shelves #24, 6.10.2012


Book shelves series #24, twenty-fourth Sunday of 2012: In which we glance at canonical comics.

So we’ve hit the last shelf in a series of triplets; next week: new room.

This shelf holds graphic novels, including stuff by Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, David Mazzucchelli, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. There’s also most of Dave Sim’s epic series Cerebus here.


I wrote about Dave Sim and Cerebus back in week 6 of this project, when I looked at the actual comic books I owned in the series. From that post:

 I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald).

These are the phone books I referenced. Looking over them again, I keep reminding myself to try and reread the last two books to see if I missed anything.

Somewhat at random, I opened Reads, the novel that signaled the beginning of Sim’s estrangement from sanity. It opened to this page, part of a climactic scene between Cerebus and Cirin, leader of the matriarchy that will rule Iest (don’t ask):


Chicken with Plums – Marjane Satrapi

chicken with plums

In Chicken with Plums, new in paperback from Pantheon, acclaimed author Marjane Satrapi tells the story of the life and death of her great uncle Nasser Ali, a renowned Iranian tar player who decides to die after his wife destroys his beloved instrument. Satrapi organizes her narrative around Ali’s last eight days alive in November, 1958–from the time he decides to quit eating and not leave his bedroom, to his eventual, somewhat unexplained death. Ali’s life story–and the reasons for his slow suicide–are revealed in a series of dreams, fantasies, flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks!), and even a few flash forwards. Although the context of the recentish 1953 CIA-backed coup informs the plot, Chicken with Plums is far less concerned with Iranian politics than was the book that made her famous, her stunning debut graphic novel, Persepolis. Instead, Chicken plumbs loss and love, art and passion, family and disappointment, and the ways in which the small comforts in life–a favorite meal of say, chicken with plums, or a Sophia Loren flick, ultimately offer no protection against death.

Casual readers to comics often make the error of supposing that the medium is merely words with accompanying pictures. Satrapi’s deft work here might do wonders in correcting this ignorance. There isn’t a wasted panel in Chicken with Plums, and Satrapi commands intense emotion from her thick, black lines. There’s a seamless quality to Chicken with Plums; the text and the pictures, indivisible, add up to more than the sum of their parts. Satrapi knows when to hold back and let her simple black and white images tell the story. There is a certain economy of storytelling that great comic writers can achieve in ways entirely possible in prose, and here Satrapi has surpassed her earlier work in Persepolis, which, while great, often relied heavily on textual exposition. In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi’s evocations of troubled family life, unfulfilled love, the perils of Iranian immigration to California, and Sufi mysticism all blend into a poignant, often-funny, and occasionally devastating portrait that exemplifies the best of the comics medium.

While comparisons to her Persepolis series will undoubtedly hang over all of Satrapi’s work, Chicken with Plums is a wonderful successor, and in some senses, a more achieved work. Although it doesn’t convey the first-person immediacy of Persepolis, nor that memoir’s dramatic scope, the story of Nasser Ali is intimately detailed and achieves something rare in an age of overstuffed books: it leaves its readers hungry for more. Highly recommended.

Salon published a seven page excerpt from Chicken with Plums when the book was originally published in hardback.


“It was funny to see how Marx and God looked like each other.”

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis makes a nice introduction to the graphic novel autobiography for anyone who hasn’t read one before. Marjane’s memoir weaves the political turmoil of the Islamic Revolution with the everyday stuff of childhood experience. As the the repressive Islamic regime revokes liberal freedoms, Marjane’s folks (secular intellectuals, of course) smuggle Iron Maiden posters back from Turkey; young Marjane sneaks cigarettes and rock music to a backdrop of political assassinations and war with Iraq.


Persepolis succeeds by engaging the reader in a personal experience of revolution and cultural alienation. It works as a history lesson and as a coming of age story. Readers who try something different (maybe suspend some prejudices?) will be rewarded with an enriched perspective on a political/cultural upheaval still effecting global politics today.