Mana Neyestani was born 42 years ago in Tehran. Over the last decade, he has become one of Iran’s best-known cartoonists. Anyone who follows political and social issues in Iran will be familiar with Neyestani’s work.
The Cartoonists Rights Network International awarded Neyestani with an International Bravery Award in 2010. In recent years, his work has been translated and published in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK.
Mana Neyestani has lived in Paris for the last few years. I interviewed him during the last days of the Iranian year, and asked him about his work and future plans.
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There has been some negative reactions to your cartoons over the past year. What do you think is the reason for this?
A cartoonist is a social critique and reacts to the daily news. You can see a reflection of different historical eras by following columnist cartoonists for that period. This reflection is not like an image in a mirror. We are not dealing with a piece of metal covered in mercury; this is a human being who has his own views and thoughts; who has an idea of his surroundings and analyzes and criticizes the issues from his own point of view. A cartoonist is always trying to present the right angle towards what is going on. However, this is totally relative. Even in the most impartial and realistic criticisms, some people might feel offended and think that you are not in the right position.
As a cartoonist, how much have you been influenced by cinema?
Any visual material that reaches your eyes and mind definitely has an impact on your work. Paintings, sketches, cartoons, animations, cinema, theater…they all have an effect. Literature, music and other cultural products will also affect your work. These effects build the viewpoint and vision that a cartoonist should have. But if you mean the visual impact of cinema on my work, then maybe it affects, most of all, the frame of my works. Cinema has probably affected my comic books most. Cinema is the art of image and time. It needs time for the images to stream so that the viewer can reach an understanding of this form of art. In cartooning, we have one frame only, with the duration of a fraction of a second. You only see a cross-section of an event. But in comic books, just like cinema, you have to go through time to understand the story. The passing of time, or the illusion of time, is the essence of comic books.
Marjan Satrapi entered the world of cinema with her film Persepolis. Have you ever thought of making a film from your cartoons?
I like cinema very much. I watch films systematically, although I may not a person who can be called a film-freak. I wanted to become a director when I was young but it did not happen. Nowadays I like to be part of a cinematography project, but becoming a director requires, more than anything else, the art of management and relating to people. It is teamwork involving tens and sometimes hundreds of people. Satrapi has this ability. I don’t have the nerves. I prefer working alone. This is why I like designing comic books. It has the feeling of cinema for me. The actors are the persons I design. There is no need to argue. I am my own cameraman and scene editor.
What is the difference between a caricature, a cartoon and a comic strip?
Caricature is the art of the exaggeration of faces. Using caricature images to express a political, social, cultural view with a sense of satire is a cartoon. Comics are a series of sequential frames of cartoons that tell a story. When a comic is a long or semi-long story and is bound together, it becomes a comic book. I was never a good caricaturist. I drew faces in a very normal way. I was better in cartoon and comics. I like both of these. Designing and writing comic books is a very personal interest of mine. I also like the daily reaction to political and social events in a one-frame cartoon.
You have published your cartoon books in different countries. How have Western audiences reacted to your work?
It was good in France; quite normal and in a logical way. The majority of my cartoons are about issues in Iran. Naturally I have a larger audience among the Persian-speaking population. My book of 200 cartoons sold well in France; South Korea bought the copyright to publish it, which was very interesting for me. The Nouvelle Graphic of “An Iranian Metamorphosis” [about his time in prison in Iran], had better sales in France, and was republished a few times. This book has been translated to German, English, Italian and Spanish.
Your cartoons’ main themes are the social issues of Iran and the Middle East. You live in France. How do you keep in touch with Iranian society?
When I was in Iran, I was always in front of my computer and tried to access a few news websites, like Gooya News, using anti-filter software, to see what was going on in the country. This was because of the huge amount of censorship. Now at least I do not need anti-filter software, the internet speed is much faster and my time is less wasted. It is true that a physical presence in the country does not necessarily mean you are in contact with political issues in the country. We do not have any free media in Iran, so we had to listen to rumors and word of mouth or refer to Persian-language foreign websites. Of course living inside the country is important to feel the pulse of the society and general air of the country. I do not have this and try to acquire it by chatting to friends. But sometimes I feel I am off. The language the people use, new expressions, current matters and things of this sort cannot be retrieved from outside the country.
Has living in France ever make you think about a French audience?
I have not really been integrated in this society. I understand the language to a certain degree. I feel I am a guest. And I am not sure how long I will stay. Maybe I will relocate a few years on, because of my job and work. All of this has stopped me from being concerned by what this society is concerned about. I do not relate so much to them. My last book that I wrote in France was about the problem of refugees and the refugee issue in this country. This is a topic of the day in this society, but our own issues are also involved in this topic.
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