The Use of Unique Art Style and Language in Fun Home, Maus and Persepolis
Though sometimes overlooked as an art form, and overshadowed by other forms of art such as film, visual arts, and traditional written literature, the combination of language and visual expression that is intrinsic to graphic novels allows for unique ways to express feelings, arguments, and histories that may not be possible using more traditional forms of literature. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Allison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”, and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”, in which each author’s unique art style and use of language allows them, despite being completely unrelated, to convey the same universal argument: that people’s perceptions and relationships, as components of their identities, are defined by their losses.
The authors of these works achieve this uniformity of their argument through the diversity of their works. Bechdel’s art in several panels reveals details about her father that only became apparent after his suicide and subsequent disclosure of various facets of his life that were hidden during Bechdel’s childhood, as well as Bechdel’s perception of her father in hindsight with these newly discovered aspects of his person.
Spiegelman’s characterization of his father, both through language and illustration, show the emotional burden that he carries as a result of his wife’s suicide, and the emotionally unfulfilling stopgap measures he has taken to fill the void left in his life by Anja’s departure, including marrying a woman he does not love. Satrapi’s expressionistic style of illustration, at times comparable to visual hyperboles, display her changed attitudes towards existence and religion after the murder of her uncle Anoosh.
Throughout “Fun Home”, Bechdel’s illustrations are pervaded by a bluish-gray haze. While this color creates a gloomy tone throughout the work, it is not until page seventeen that Bechdel reveals her father’s double identity as a pedophile who preyed on young boys. This revelation, while shocking, immediately begins to explain Bechdel’s choice to illustrate “Fun Home” as she did. Because of the nature of her father’s secret life, depicted through Bechdel’s contrast between black and white when his shadow does not line up with his own position and movements in a panel on page ten, he is forced to maintain a façade that causes him great emotional distress, establishing a cold and distant relationship with his family, with his own children being unable to express affection towards him, and using home improvement and fashion outlets for expression that he is unable to perform in any other manner.
Furthermore, Bechdel never portrays her father expressing joy or any semblance thereof. Not once throughout “Fun Home” does Bechdel illustrate her father smiling, laughing, or expressing happiness, regardless of whether he is with his family or partaking in one of his personal leisure activities.
On page 11, he is even shown ready to physically strike one of Bechdel’s brothers for failing to set up a Christmas tree to his liking. Later, it is revealed that Bechdel’s father committed suicide when she was twenty years old, with details about his sexual perversions surfacing later after his death. Because of the nature of his death, suicide caused by intense emotional distress, and the subsequent unearthing of facts surrounding her father’s actions, this loss plays a crucial role in shaping Bechdel’s perceptions of her father, as evidenced by the all-encompassing blue-gray fog throughout her illustrations and her negative depictions of her father, combined with the fact that the story is almost exclusively narrated in the past tense.
These perceptions, however, would not have been shaped without the loss of her father that led to the discovery of the facts about him, reinforcing Bechdel’s argument regarding human loss as a catalyst in defining people’s perceptions of others and their actions and shaping their own identities.
Similar to how the death of Bechdel’s father shaped her own perceptions about him, loss can also be a significant factor in defining people’s relationships with one another. This is clearly illustrated in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” by the unfulfilling marriage that Vladek, Art’s father, enters to fill the void left in his life by Anja, his former wife and the one he truly loves.
Throughout “Maus”, Vladek’s interactions with Mala, his current wife, are strained, with conversations between the two regularly escalating into arguments, such as on page 104, where even Spiegelman’s somewhat inexpressive mouse faces he uses to depict Mala and Vladek show signs of displeasure when arguing with each other. In Vladek’s flashbacks to his experiences in the holocaust, he makes it abundantly clear how much he loved Anja, hiding with her during the holocaust, providing support for her when emotionally distraught, and bringing her placebos to try and help alleviate her hunger from the food shortages caused by the Nazis.
Following Anja’s suicide, Mala serves to try to fill the void Vladek feels has been created by Anja’s departure. Because Vladek does not truly love Mala, and never truly stopped loving Anja, his relationship with his new wife is not a fruitful one, with Mala even making Vladek withhold money from Art, rewrite his will, and wanting only money from Vladek, causing Vladek to break down in tears on page 127. Because the loss of Anja in his life, Vladek was forced to enter into an unhappy marriage to try to seek some form of solace, unsuccessfully.
This reshaping of Vladek’s relationships with others, shown by his dialogue with Mala and flashbacks of his days with Anja, as well as growing closer to Art after sharing details of his experiences and love for Anja during the Holocaust, as well as exposing Art to the unhappy, ugly reality of his current marriage, reinforces Spiegelman’s argument, that people’s losses are integral in shaping, for better or worse, how they interact with others and form new relationships that are vital parts of their identities, supporting the common argument shared by all three authors, that losses define people’s identities.
Perhaps the clearest example of losses shaping the identity of one of these authors is in Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”. Following the murder of young Marji’s uncle Anoosh, someone who truly made her feel special, by the Islamist militants fighting for control in Iran at the time, Marji renounces her faith, and feels lost in a sea of feelings without any sort of “bearing” to tell her what is right and what is wrong. On page 70, Marji literally yells at a manifestation of God that appears to try to comfort her, saying that she “never wants to see [Him] again”.
This is followed by an illustration of Marji floating in space, surrounded by stars and planets as someone yells to her to take cover from the impending bombs and explosions. These expressionistic illustrations serve as visual hyperboles, as God did not literally come into Marji’s room, and Marji did not literally float in outer space, they serve as clear indicators of the drastic shift in attitude that Marji experiences towards her religion, followed by the wandering sense of loneliness and lack of moral direction following her rejection of her faith, caused by her anger at God for failing to prevent Anoosh’s death. Because these events were brought about by Anoosh’s death, and caused such a drastic change in Marji as a person, these panels help reinforce the common argument that Satrapi shares with Bechdel and Spiegelman: that our losses are critical in shaping our identities.
Bechdel’s use of color and portrayal of her father, Spiegelman’s characterization of his father, and Satrapi’s use of expressionism, all serve to argue a common point shared by all three authors. All three of these authors, through various methods in the medium of graphic novels, illustrate that people’s losses serve to shape their identities by affecting their attitudes, perceptions of others and their actions, and ability to form new, meaningful relationships with others following a loss.