The Arab Spring has provided more real-life stories and drama than any fictional comic book universe over the past year. Add to that the military actions taken by the US (already made in to a comic book) and the recent actions by the UN (I’m sure there is a Qadafi book in the pipeline) and there are epic battles that do not need the addition of spandex or capes.
One of the events that has been overshadowed by subsequent events was the Iranian elections in 2009. Those controversial elections led to strikes and massive demonstrations by Iranian citizens. The crackdown as done quietly, without the violence of later crackdowns that drew so much attention from the rest of the world.
In Iran, people simply disappeared.
Zara’s Paradise in an OGN from :01 First Second that combines stories from people who lived through this experience and weaves them in to a narrative that, while fictional in name, tells the truth of the situation. The book is by “Amir & Khalil”, two creators who have chosen to remain anonymous “for political reasons”.
An event of this magnitude needs a character for us, the reader, to follow. It pus a human face on numbers that are quite staggering. Over 3 million protesters. 4,000 arrests. Hundreds dead. Hundreds unaccounted for.
The story revolves around blogger Hassan Jan searching for his brother, Mehdi, who disappeared during a protest. During his investigation he uncovers brutal secrets that the Iranian government wants to keep buried. From government contracts awarded to foreign companies, to secret grave sites where political dissidents are disposed of under headstones designated with only a number. At home, his mother Zahra waits for news.
Unfortunately for the narrative, the story does not simply focus on the search for Mehdi. Amir and Khalil take the opportunity to include a massive amount of information about the history, culture, and political climate of Iran. In addition, the book is full of philosophy, poetry, and dogma. While it makes for a fascinating look at the country as a whole, it can bog down the narrative at times.
I’m not sure that this is necessarily the fault of Amir and Khalil. With so much happening recently, it is difficult to get perspective. In addition, for an audience that is so far removed from the social and political climate of Iran, it is difficult to know what to include. I am torn between wanting more and needing less. It feels like the information about the history and politics of Iran could have been a volume of its own, following the rise of the Ayatollah and the election of the first president. The re-election of Ahmadinejad and the protests that followed (including the story of Medhi) would have made for a satisfying story on its own. The two volumes would have complimented and enhanced each other. In this single volume, neither is given quite enough space.
Where Zara’s Paradise shines is in the art. There is a Tezuka influence to the art that is juxtaposed against the ideals of political cartoons. The characters are dripping with emotion. They live and breathe to fight against the grotesque, larger than life villains who control every element of society. Ironically, they are not larger than life. They are real. And they are far more dangerous than most of us can ever imagine.
What made Perseopolis so powerful was the perspective that was gained through time. Marjane Satrapi was able to decide what was important, essential. She was given the room to tell her story over several volumes, providing a cultural understanding that was essential to the storyline.
Zahra’s Paradise is no Perseoplis, but it is a step in the right direction. It provides the foundation upon which other artists will build their own stories of the Iranian elections. It is a solid base and is worth checking out. Ask for it at your LCS.
You can read a sample chapter here.
Zara’s Paradise by Amir & Khalil
Published by First Second
275 pgs, B&W $19.99