As various factions fight for the future of Iran in the aftermath of the hotly contested 2009 elections, two activists are leveraging the power of pop culture and the internet to speak truth to power. Their weapon of choice? Comics.
Today marks the debut of Zahra's Paradise, a thrice weekly updated comic by activists Amir and Khalil. Remaining anonymous for political reasons, there's not much known about the creators beyond what they have decided to reveal on their site. Using a fusion of narrative story telling and current events, Zahra's Paradise aims to reveal the high stakes involved with living in Iran.
The website provides more background about the focus of the series:
Set in the aftermath of Iran's fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra's Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has disappeared in the Islamic Republic's gulags. Mehdi has vanished in an extrajudicial twilight zone where habeas corpus is suspended. What stops his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of a mother who refuses to surrender her son to fate and the tenacity of a brother-a blogger-who fuses culture and technology to explore and explode absence: the void in which Mehdi has vanished.
The writers also plan to use the comic as part of a larger platform for information. The website promises links to news sources, and provides a space for those long thoughts that do not fit inside dialogue bubble. Poetically explaining the motivation for the series, Amir writes:
But, of course, Zahra's Paradise is also a story about absences.
There's a lot that gone into this story that I wish I could undo.
Neda is dead, and buried in Zahra's Paradise. Sohrab is dead and buried in Zahra's Paradise. Mohsen is dead and buried in Zahra's Paradise.
My brother is also dead, and yes, I have buried him too in Zahra's Paradise.
I have buried these seeds here, in this ground, in my shroud of words, and Khalil's shrine of images, because I'm afraid that they will be, and are being, lost and forgotten.
Grief, like love, is universal. It's a currency that connect us all.
Could it be that the dead aren't dead, that if we grieve deeply enough, that our love can summon them back to life.
A lot of death has gone into Zahra's Paradise, but there's still plenty of life in the dead. There's no destroying their life force.
The dead speak to us, and through us. They can come back as fact, or they can come back as fiction. The trick, I think, is to face them, to channel their force, to write through and with one's grief. To lend them your pen so that you can let go of their pain.
Mark Seigel, editorial director of the publishing company First Second, which publishes Zahra's Paradise, explains to Publishers Weekly why he signed on to the project:
"Sometimes a proposal comes along that leaves you no choice: it must be told, it must get into the world. Zahra's Paradise is one of those," Sigel said. "The story's complex loom weaves together many topical threads, from the social media and technology element, to the role of women at the heart of Iran's freedom movement, to the political, legal, and human rights issues. And by returning the focus to human rights, art becomes a player, a participant, a voice adding to the chorus of voices in the streets and on the rooftops of Iran."
Amir and Khalil's work is also reminiscent of another graphic representation of Iran: Marjane Satrapi's auto-biographical graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Satrapi's ruminations and illustrations on the changing political environment of Iran became an internationally acclaimed phenomenon, and Persepolis was eventually made into an Oscar nominated film.
Satrapi's work - as well as her conversational approach to politics inspired dozens of other artists to create new works about life in Iran. After the 2009 elections, a second group resurrected Satrapi's creation and style and called it Persepolis 2.0, aiming to use the same format to provide updates on temperature of the country.
There have been no new updates since 2009.
Both Persepolis and Zahra's Paradise are about coping with a revolution. In Satrapi's tale, the revolution resides in the past, but tentacles outward into today's reality. In Zahra's Paradise, post-election Iran is on the cusp of a revolution, similar to the heady days Satrapi documented in 1979, the year before the Islamic Revolution of Iran took shape. Hopefully, the finale of their story will be different.
Official Site [Zahra's Paradise]
Chapter 1: Aftermath [Zahra's Paradise]
First Second to Publish Iranian Graphic Novel and Web Comic [Publishers Weekly]
The Complete Persepolis (Paperback)
Official Site [Spread Persepolis]