Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise

Blissfully free from US "graphic novel" market cliche.

Blissfully free from US “graphic novel” market cliche.

I gather from a quick glance at Wikipedia that Zahra’s Paradise was first a “webcomic.” I missed it that time around. This brings me to one of the very many reasons the public library is my single favorite institution, public or private. I was going to get the Elric book and then walk to get my haircut, and as per usual I walked up to the second floor where the comics and graphic novels are to see if anything caught my eye. Zahra’s Paradise caught my eye, and I read it. You can’t do this kind of thing via the net. You have to be in the physical presence of books and your fingers need to be able to touch them.

I am more of a comic book person than a fan of graphic novels generally. For every Maus, which I’ll admit to not having read but which I am aware is fantastic, there’s at least fifty self-indulgent pieces of crap which purport to place themselves above their lowbrow comic book cousins. I feel basically the same about “indie film.” Hollywood produces crap, but does so–at its best, to be sure–expertly. Comic book writers have to produce for a living, and it keeps them on their toes, where I get the clear sense that most graphic novels are written on trust fund income.

So, Zahra’s Paradise is a completely different animal than the run-of-the-mill US graphic novel. The writers, taking pseudonyms, are expats, exiles more properly. I knew a couple of Iranian Marxists who, students in Kansas at the time of the Revolution, could not return to Iran once finished with their degrees. In some sense, despite exile, my friends never left Iran. I don’t mean this in any pejorative sense, but to recognize what exile means. The authors of Zahra’s Paradise are able to have a degree of safety publishing material they wouldn’t had they lived in Iran, but though they weren’t present at the events they are not simply observers of the process. Through exile, they are participants in the larger process of opposition to the regime.

So, the story itself is that of a family’s attempt to find out what happened to their son and brother, who disappeared after participating in the mass protests in 2009 following the clearly flawed election. The narrative follows their search for closure, because, certainly as time passes it becomes clear to them that Mehdi is likely dead. What one takes away from it is a clear sense of the mechanical aspect of repressive regimes. A particularly brilliant panel:

This is what the medium is capable of.

This is what the medium is capable of.

An anecdotal example is here on point. A minor character is a Basij torturer. Among other things, he rapes male prisoners. I am reminded of Primo Levi’s discussion of useless violence in the Lagers, described in the Drowned and the Saved. He also carries on a romance with a young woman. She discovers how he earns his living and a discussion ensues. He accuses her of complicity because she accepts his gifts without, like Carmela Soprano, having dug too deeply to discover where the money came from.

That line is an important examination–the complicity of the passive bystander–but more interesting and less often discussed with any violence of this type is how torture as policy produces a whole constituency dedicated to rationalizing torture. This is as true in Iran as it is in the United States–foreign or domestic torture–as it was in the Soviet Union. My point is not to relativize anything, but rather to point out that Zahra’s Paradise describes a functional quality of repressive regimes. The further political violence goes from social norms of acceptable behavior, the greater the individual motive of perpetrators to hide political violence and, therefore, the more stable the violence is as policy. The more widespread the violence, the numerically greater the constituency trying to hide it. It becomes something everyone knows even as nobody sees it.

The book is as excellent an argument for the ability of comics–be it in comic book or graphic novel form–to handle any material well.

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