SPX Spotlight 2014: The Iranian Metamorphosis by Mana Neyestani

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

The Iranian Metamorphosis
Written and Drawn by Mana Neyestani
Published by Uncivilized Books

It’s amazing to think of the damage that one small, seemingly inconsequential drawing can accomplish.

In 2006, working for the children’s page of the Iranian national newspaper, cartoonist Mana Neyestani drew a cartoon of a child smashing a cockroach. In his book The Iranian Metamorphosis, Neyestani depicts this act of creation as an off-hand joke as he was “thinking what sort of crap I could heap on Sohelil, my ten year old cartoon character.” Sending a cockroach after the boy was his best idea that day. Neyestani thought it was a funny gag, drew the strip and sent it off to his editor to be published. That cockroach would end up having its own life, one beyond anything Neyestani could ever have imagined. In the cartoon, the cockroach said one word, “namana.” Neyestani threw it in as a nonsense word, something for the cockroach to say without any real meaning or value. That word would end up landing Neyestani in prison and to becoming a fugitive from his own country.

The Iranian Metamorphosis looks back on Neyestani’s life after than comic was published. Since the day he discovered that there were protests and riots because certain ethnic groups considered "namana" a slur against them, the Iranian government persecuted Neyestani and his editor. The fine line that Neyestani tries to walk in his book is exploring whether he was the cause of the protests or was he just the final spark that blew the powder keg. But his primary focus is his own survival. Held indefinitely and moved from one prison cell to another, the cartoonist was questioned about the activities of other cartoonists he knew at the newspaper. When he was finally temporarily released from prison, Neyestani and his wife knew that their lives in Iran would never be safe and began trying to make plans to escape from their homeland.

This book opens up different parts of the world to us. It's hard to imagine any cartoonist in the United States being jailed because of his art but as soon as it is explained to Neyestani what his nonsense word means to different ethnic groups, he immediately had a sense of the danger that we was in. The fear of jail, of torture and of being killed wasn't a distant concept for him. A concept like "freedom of the press" doesn't mean as much in other parts of the world and Neyestani's story demonstrates that. And it isn't even so much freedom of the press as it is freedom from being scared of the ruling powers. Without even understanding everything that he did, Neyestani feared for his life because he knew he would be punished for it by his government.

Imagine Charles Schultz or Bill Watterson having to live with that kind of fear? More than just losing a job, Neyestani feared for his life. That's the environment that people in other parts of the world live everyday with. Neyestani knew that he could just be swept into the system forever, losing his wife and his life because of a (to him) meaningless cartoon. From what he shows us in this book, his Sohelil isn't that different than Charlie Brown or Calvin. That's the kind of strip that caused all of the trouble in his life-- a simple children's cartoon trying to get a boy into trouble. Just as he takes us around the world, Neyestani takes us into his life, one that ends up being so different and more dangerous than anything we can imagine experiencing just because of a cartoon.

While Neyestani's experiences feel so foreign and dangerous, the way he tells the story is very human and relatable. With his black and white artwork and universal cartooning, Neyestani brings us into the story as the images don't make this just an Iranian story but a very human story. You can find interviews with Neyestani on Youtube and when you see him, you can see his relationship to his cartoon self, but there's not a lot to visually distinguish that this story takes place on the other side of the world. Neyestani has an open art style where nationality doesn't exist as much as the universality of the human appearance does. With that universality, Neyestani opens up his story so it's just not a story about the Iranian experience but it becomes a story about persecution that could be happening as close as the block over as it is around the world.

What The Iranian Metamorphosis demonstrates is the power of the cartoon. It's not something that we think of all that often. Our reviews and critiques mostly boil down to "buy it" or "don't buy it." We reduce the word and the image down to commodity and forget about the power that it really has. Cartooning works because of the ways it can succinctly and immediately communicate, whether consciously or subconsciously. Here's an example where the power of art surprised everyone, including the creator. Neyestani was making a joke on a deadline. To him there was nothing political or subversive about it. But the art that he created lived beyond him. It became larger than him, larger than the Iranian government and larger than any intent behind the cartoon. It became its own thing beyond just lines on a page. Art can inspire and it can destroy and, inadvertently, Neyestani was able to do both with a cartoon about a boy and a cockroach.