By Derek Royal
Oppressive morality, the weight of history, the power of the fantastic, and rebelliousness born of gender discrimination. This could describe many American literary works — The Scarlet Letter comes immediately to mind — but it’s a context that transcends national and temporal boundaries. And it’s also a situation ripe with visual potential. Dara Naraghi understands this, and this is what largely informs his latest work, Persia Blues, Vol. 1: Leaving Home (NBM Publishing, part of their ComicsLit imprint). Along with artist Brent Bowman, Naraghi gives us the tale of Minoo Shirazi, an independent Iranian woman struggling to free herself from the moral dictates of post-revolutionary Tehran. At the same time, Minoo is so enmeshed in the cultural history of her native land that her personal story and that of the Persian past become inextricable.
In this first volume of what promises to be a trilogy, Minoo is a young girl, and then woman, growing up in the shadows of 1979. We see her as an adolescent, crying because she has to wear a hijab, as a young college student, silently rebelling against Iran’s morality police (she sports a Ramones T-shirt), and as a graduate with a degree in architecture, adrift in a country that she feels doesn’t respect her strengths and potential. But we also see a completely different Minoo, a literal woman warrior fighting injustice, guided by Persian mythology and visions, and undertaking a quest to the ancient capital of Persepolis. In other words, there are two different stories in Persia Blues, and Naraghi structures his story accordingly. The book begins in “the outer reaches of the Persian empire,” with Minoo and her lover/companion, Tyler, breaking into a compound to steal back a religious text. This setting is described as the “Here” in the book — as in, I assume, the “here and now” — but it is a fantastic realm that is the stuff of Persian antiquity. These segments of the “Here” storyline are interspersed with a more realistic and contemporary tale of Minoo the young student and architecture graduate. Naraghi provides textual indicators in the first part of the book to distinguish one storyline from the other, but the real differentiation comes through Bowman’s art. The story of the more realistic or contemporary Minoo, living in Shiraz with her parents (and then just her father, after her mother dies), is drawn in a straightforward black-and-white manner without shades of gray and with more or less clean lines. The “Here” part of the text, where Minoo appears as a mythical warrior, is elaborately illustrated with visuals that are more lush and vibrant (although, at times, the print in these sections comes off as a little too dark). This makes sense, given the almost dream-like nature of Minoo’s encounters with Zoroastrian legends and her eventual journey to Persepolis. Although at first the reader will need to get his or her narrative sea legs and become acquainted with the rhythm of the book, Naragahi and Bowman structure their tale in a meaningful manner, jumping back and forth between stories without disrupting the flow or hampering intelligibility.
At the same time, Persia Blues, produced by male creators, is very much a woman’s story. In this first installment, Minoo begins to find her voice, tries to come to terms with paternal authority (in the form of both her father and the current Iranian government), and searches for a mother she has lost. In this way, the book joins the ranks of other Iranian-based comics such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Amir and Khalil’s much-overlooked Zahara’s Paradise. (On a side note, it’s refreshing not to see the title Persepolis mentioned in a blurb on either the front or back covers, since such a comparison would be too easy, and certainly too predictable, to make.) Persia Blues is also notable for its being funded on Kickstarter (although it was originally made available in four-issue installments through Comixology). It was a project that reached its goal in December of last year, and I’d be curious to see if the next volumes begin in the same manner. Whether it does or not, I’m on board for the continuation of this series and look forward to the second volume.