For those audience members who had done their unassigned reading, seeing Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi on the expansive stage at CEMEX Auditorium, mic’d up under the bright theatre lights, was a bit surreal. The two graphic novelists bear an uncanny resemblance to the cartoon protagonists of their respective best-sellers. They sat in those big leather armchairs that Stanford brings out for high-profile speaker events, arranged around a thick Persian rug which had been inexplicably laid out at the center of the stage to make the space a sort of displaced simulacrum of a shady private club sitting room. The whole thing was a cartoon strip brought to life.
Ware and Satrapi represent the pinnacle of the modern comic. They are two of the best graphic artists of our time and have each found critical acclaim, commercial success, and rapidly expanding interest from the academic community for their work. As Jonah Willihnganz, the director of the Stanford Storytelling Project and the host of Friday’s event, remarked upon introducing them, the University’s arts community was “devastatingly happy to have them both here at once.”
Their joint appearance also served to highlight the differences in style and personality between the two. Even on the level of posture, the authors matched their own thematic schema and counterpointed the other’s. Ware, who rocked the comics world with his paradigm-defying Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Building Stories, sank back into his armchair, a move of physical self-deprecation that makes complete sense given the content of his works and yet is absurdly unwarranted given how objectively fantastic those works are. In the armchair to his left, the sharply-dressed Satrapi sat poised at the edge of her seat, embodying that hard-earned tenacity and spunk which shines through her world-renowned Persepolis.
The discussion, which ranged from their artistic philosophies to their current projects to their first jobs, offered a rare, poignant glimpse into how the minds of two of the best artists in this relatively under-recognized medium approach their work.
“This is the only medium where people ask, ‘Why comics?’” Satrapi noted, when asked by an audience member, “Why comics?” “People have a problem with drawing, even though that’s our first way of expression as children, as humans. When we’re younger, everyone draws; by the time we’re adults, no one does anymore.”
Ware agreed, and though he was soft-spoken and apparently uncomfortable in the spotlight, his commentary on art, memory, and neuroscience left the entire room breathless for its eloquence. He spoke of comics alternatively in terms of music and 3D space, explaining how, to him, comics are a “soundless music; there’s a rhythm to the pictures, like a symphony. With each panel, you’re writing to the rhythm of the page.” He mentioned briefly how he imagines that the mind and memory work: as true geometric spaces, like rooms, and beautifully organized. Our memories fill up the rooms and take the shape of their containers, the shape of the places we’ve been.
“There’s something about comics that recreates the x-, y-, and z- axes of how we experience life,” he said. As he described his architectural understanding of the world, it became clear that the rooms in Ware’s mind would be a fascinating place to get lost in.
Reading Jimmy Corrigan, you get lost whether you want to or not. Known as the Ulysses of the graphic novel, the book eagerly disregards any and all expected storytelling conventions. Ware draws our attention to the way we narrativize our lives— how a breakup seems like the end of the world when it happens and later can be barely a blip, how a small moment today might be a monumental event years from now. In Ware’s storyworlds, the point of view doesn’t emerge at the “proper time”; it emerges later, with a recursive logic that can be disorienting to uninitiated readers but which is a more honest reflection of how meaning is constructed in our lives.
Ware spoke hesitatingly, occasionally needing some recursive questioning from Willihnganz to open up. Satrapi, on the other hand, required little prompting to get going. An artist who has moved between graphic novel, film, and illustration with a level of success matched only by her versatility, she gave sprawling answers buoyed by flashes of insightful irreverence. At one point, while explaining that she “wrote Persepolis to answer to the ignorance of people about Iran,” she wryly observed the paradoxical truth that “the more people are ignorant, the more they are certain.”
This aversion to— or, at least, this acute awareness of— ignorance propels Satrapi’s body of work. In Persepolis, the plot hinges on the tension between the titular character’s irrepressible curiosity and the government forces that attempt to stifle it— a sustained clash between knowledge and censorship. Satrapi plays with the unique formal features of the graphic novel to make this tension overwhelming, exploiting the inherent ambiguity in comic panels and our human tendency to imagine the worst. Unlike in film— where the filmmaker controls time and the action continues whether the audience can keep up or not— in the graphic novel there’s a forced participation at the visual level: the physical gaps between the panels force you to connect the figurative dots before you can move on. In Persepolis, when one panel shows a woman standing in a group and the next shows a female body lying in the street, you as the reader have to fill in that blank space in the narrative. If there had been a specific image of a murder taking place, you might be able to overlook it, if you wanted to. But by leaving that act unrealized in the literal sense, the graphic novel forces you to project, to imagine. You have to coauthor the crime, which makes it worse.
“I don’t try to explain things when I write,” Satrapi noted. “Especially things having to do with an entire country. It feels dishonest, because I don’t know everyone’s experiences. I only know my own.”
In a way, Satrapi embodied her own writing style as she spoke. On the page, she conveys the power of everyday tragedy, comedy, and coping with striking clear-sightedness and honesty. Ware took a moment (much to Satrapi’s embarrassment) to compare her to Tolstoy, telling her, “It’s so easy to get ponderous and give things a false gravitas. But you write so truthfully about the real things of life in a very frank, simple way.”
“I try to stick the closest to however life is,” she explained. “I don’t choose humor. Life is like that. When there’s a war, you adapt. When there are bombs and gunfights everyday, you deal with it through laughter. The humor that I’m writing is very close to the life.”
Ware and Satrapi hadn’t expected, when they first started, that their drawings would have such resonance. As they sat and talked about themselves in front of a rapt audience, it was clear they both found the whole thing a bit absurd. It was a scene I could imagine reading in each of their works, turned around through their eyes, in tones of black and white and faded green: the type of surreal scenario neither of them seeks out and yet which they both depict so well.