Iranian Comic-Book Artists Seek a Unique, Local Identity

by Marc Bennetts, The New York Times

From the grinning Statue of Liberty skull on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy to bloody scenes from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that cover entire sides of residential buildings, graphic art is everywhere in central Tehran.

But graphic arts, like most forms of expression in the Islamic Republic, are tightly controlled by the authorities, whose watchful eye extends even to Iran’s tiny but growing domestic comic book scene. Iranian graphic artists have won international acclaim but are still struggling for acceptance at home. 

A rare exhibition of comic book art was held in Tehran this spring. Amin Tavakoli, an illustrator in his 20s, participated. “We haven’t published much,” he said. “But we have great potential.” 

Many young Iranian artists admit to a passion for comic books from the United States and Europe. They can be purchased in Tehran, though they are expensive and often covered with the censors’ black ink. But local artists say they are trying to stamp their work with an Iranian identity. 

Life for them, though, is not easy because their creative aspirations are kept firmly in check by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, responsible for approving all publications in the country. 

“All our art has to conform to Islamic law,” said Mr. Tavakoli. “So our published art differs a lot from Western graphic novels. For example, women’s hair should not be visible, and all female characters have to be dressed in accordance with Islamic tradition.” 

And even then, their work can run into trouble.

One recent domestic release, “The Story of Ashura,” a graphic novel, tells the story of the slaying and decapitation of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. It depicts the defining moment of Shiite Islam in 60 brightly colored pages complete with speech bubbles, one of which read, “By the holy name of God, seeking his grace, I leave this world, loyal to the creed of His messenger.” 

Hussein’s death at the hands of his enemies deepened the rift between Islam’s two major sects, Sunni and Shiite. It is commemorated annually by believers in 10 days of mourning known as Ashura, an outpouring of grief that features self-flagellation. 

But the book caused a minor scandal after its release earlier this year because Islamic law forbids the pictorial representation of holy figures. The authorities only allowed its publication after the book’s illustrator, Parviz Eghbali, convinced them that the depictions were “unique in their kind and cannot be assumed to resemble anyone.” 

An English-language version of “The Story of Ashura” was on show at the comic book art exhibition at Tehran’s House of the Artist, a popular gathering place for local intellectuals. The walls of the gallery were covered with blown-up pages of comic art covering subjects as diverse as environmentalism and Iran’s triumphant 1998 soccer World Cup play-off against Australia. But most of the art on show remains unpublished and was from private collections. 

The approach taken by the authorities means that most comic books published in Iran are either about religious themes or the Iran-Iraq War, Mr. Tavakoli said. 

The apocalyptic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq led to about one million deaths on the Iranian side alone, decimating an entire generation. The war also saw graphic artists pressganged into the service of the state, producing dozens of cartoon-style posters urging the youth of the Islamic Republic to follow in the footsteps of Hussein and sacrifice themselves for Shiite Islam and Iran. 

A decade or so after the war’s end, satirical cartoon art began to flourish in the Islamic Republic under a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, but a crackdown followed the 2005 election victory of his successor, the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

“A number of comic books published in Iran were outlawed with Ahmadinejad’s coming to power,” said Farian Sabahi, a professor at the University of Turin who specializes in the history of Islamic countries and is an expert on Iranian cartoon art. “Many cartoonists are currently working abroad and publishing their work on the Internet.” 

One prominent example of Internet-based Iranian art was “Zahra’s Paradise,” a work that depicts the violent aftermath of the Islamic Republic’s disputed 2009 presidential elections. The graphic novel by anonymous artists was published on the Web earlier this year and has won acclaim in the West. 

In a review posted on the blog of The New York Review of Books, Haleh Esfandari wrote last November that the novel’s drawings “represent a distinctly Iranian style of humor, a means of puncturing pretence and power.” 

While most Iranian works are still unknown abroad, “Persepolis,” the best-selling graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, drew international attention. The book tells the story of her childhood and teenage years in pre- and post-Islamic Revolution Iran and was made into a successful animated film in 2007. 

It describes Ms. Satrapi’s struggles as she tries to balance a love for Western rock and pop with life in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. 

“That book is the story of my childhood,” said Ali, a comic book fan, sipping green tea in a hip cafe in wealthy north Tehran. “It’s so true.” He did not want to give his family name. 

Still, the criticism of the Islamic Republic’s leaders in “Zahra’s Paradise” and “Persepolis” means neither are permitted in Iran, though smuggled copies are available. 

“Persepolis” has also caused controversy elsewhere in the Muslim world. Blasphemy charges were brought against the owner of a television station that aired the animated film version in Tunisia last October. The offending portion was a scene in which the young Ms. Satrapi imagines herself scolding God. 

Another area that Mr. Tavakoli and his colleagues try to avoid is politics. “It’s not a good topic to work on,” he said. 

Despite the challenges, local artists hope for domestic success. Unlike in the West, where graphic novels are accepted, the Iranian comic book is struggling to make headway. 

Even so, Mr. Tavakoli stressed that Iranian comic books are about more than simply adopting American or European styles. “We try not to copy Western comic books,” he said. “We are creating a unique Iranian identity.” 

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