Closure in Persepolis: How Comics and Films on the Same Subject Work Differently

The concept of closure plays a large part on Scott McCloud’s graphic novel-style essay on his medium of choice, Understanding Comics (1993). To introduce the topic, he uses a classic infant child/parent game as an example: “As infants . . . [if] we can't see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it, it isn't there! The game ‘Peek-A-Boo’ plays on this idea. Gradually, we learn that even though the sight of mommy comes and goes, mommy remains. This phenomenon of observing the parts and perceiving the whole has a name. It's called closure.” In comics, an unspecified amount of time elapses between every two frames in a white space known as the gutter. We must assume the characters, setting, and plot did not simply disappear between those two panels. In this artistic version of Peek-a-Boo, readers of comics are left to figure out for themselves what exactly might have transpired in between the two frames. The concept of closure also applies to abstract styles of drawing in comics. McCloud finds it no less than remarkable that the human eye can take a circle, two dots, and one line jotted on a piece of paper and interpret those marks as a smiley face. Yet that is an example of closure that comics ask their readers to make: to flesh out the details in comic characters’ facial features for themselves if they desire—possibly with their own face. Persepolis the graphic novel (2000) and Persepolis the movie (2007), both written by Iran native Marjane Satrapi, ask us to interpret via closure. But due to the differing stylistic specialties and constraints in the two mediums, Satrapi uses closure in different ways for what is essentially the same narrative.

Both the graphic novel and the film transition from one subject or event to another with chapter headings. These headings demonstrate an ellipsis of time and introduce new subject matter, and they do not give an exact account of how much time has passed between one chapter and another (with maybe one exception). Thus we are asked to perform closure ourselves, guessing at what may have happened between one chapter and another. The graphic novel, however, uses quite a few more chapters than the film. 19 chapters with names such as “The Veil,” “The Trip,” “The Jewels,” and “The Wine” add color—in a manner of speaking—to the wholly black-and-white comic. Satrapi places each of the titles in the margins at the top of pages, aligned to the right or left depending on whether the new chapter begins on the right or left side of the layout spread. Due to their placement outside the assigned frame space and their use of visual iconography (e.g. the heading for “The Jewels” displays a sparkling ring and several pearls on a necklace), just reading the heading helps one begin to speculate at what might happen in the chapter.

The movie, however, fades to black each time a new chapter is introduced, and there are only five chapters: “Teheran 1975,” “Teheran 1982,” “Vienne 1986,” “Teheran 1992,” and “Un an plus tard” (meaning “one year later”). These titles serve to clarify an approximation of the time passed between one story segment and another, unlike the graphic novel chapter headings, which introduce new subject matter. Both of these methods are examples of closure, but while one “plays Peek-a-Boo” with the audience by punctuating two segments with a black screen—effectively wiping out what came before—the other does it by displaying words and graphics in the margin.

These different techniques are used in different media forms for several reasons. For one, the whole first book of Persepolis only covers the first 43-and-a-half minutes of the movie. The film is not at liberty to show every single detail from the graphic novel because doing so would impede the flow of the narrative and run over the standard 90-or-so-minute runtime for a feature film. While the graphic novel shows less in terms of the chronology of the protagonist’s life than the film, each event receives much more detail. The vignettes are all crammed close together, so time in the graphic novels progresses gradually—unlike the film, which must skip large amounts of time in order to cover two graphic novels’ worth of story in 96 minutes. Thus, the book does not need the same type of time-oriented headings. In addition, while sprinkling 19 chapter headings throughout a graphic novel may seem natural, using that many in the first half of a movie would have imparted a cluttering effect instead of an instructive one.

The two versions of Persepolis’s differing levels of visual description also ask us to conduct closure in different ways. Satrapi inked nearly every frame of the graphic novel in stark black-and-white, while the film uses a wide variety of grays, occasional brushstrokes of subtle yellow, and a few scenes of full color. The graphic novel has a very flat, bold, and nondescript presentation, but the film’s utilization of a whole slew of grays enables greater depth perception. The cinema adaptation must differ from the comic because instead of having two-inch-squared frames, the action must fill up whole giant movie screens and televisions. While stark black-and-white can work in the small space of a comic panel, it would appear dull in a theatrical production. The graphic novel asks its readers to conduct closure by filling in the blanks where it gives us sheer darkness and sheer light. We know Marjane’s face has more to it than a mop of black hair with a white streak to show waviness, two diagonal lines for eyebrows, two circles with dots in them for eyes, a straight line for a mouth, and an upside-down question-mark curve for a nose. We know the streets of Tehran are more detailed than simple white blocks with black shadows on them. But right-end-of-McCloud’s-pyramid style of artistry demands that we fill in those absences with our own imaginations.

The film could be argued to be more realistic in the sense that it uses more gray, but Satrapi takes advantage of the medium of cinema to create expressionistic effects. Take for example the scene where Marjane’s uncle Anoush (spelled “Anoosh” in the graphic novel) describes the death of his uncle Fereydoun by firing squad and his subsequent escape from certain death. In the shot where he spots Moscow across the sea, we see some stark black and white in the details of the waves, the cloudy sky, and the faraway capital of Communist Russia, but we see more shades of gray. As the picture lowers down, tilts up, and zooms in, we see the waves crashing and fog and clouds blowing. This stylized vision of true life events is much more detailed than any frame in the graphic novel, yet it is still more expressionistic than realistic. On some level, there is still some level of interpretive closure required to realize that colorless cluster of swirls are waves, some gray, snail-shaped figures with white outlines are clouds, and the shadowy, domed towers in the distance represent the USSR.

The concept of closure as detailed in McCloud’s Understanding Comics applies, therefore, not just to graphic novels but also to cinema—and not just because the film is an adaptation of a comic. There are more ways than we can count in which artists working in all media forms “play Peek-a-Boo” with those that view their art.