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Graphic novel offers child’s-eye view of communism

“Marzi,” a memoir in graphic novel form, portrays momentous events through the eyes of a young girl growing up in communist Poland in the 1980s, including the rise of the Solidarity movement and the terror of the Chernobyl disaster.
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In the communist Poland of the 1980s where Marzena Sowa grew up, fruit and sugar were so rare that whenever they were in stock, she and her family rose at dawn and raced to the store to wait hours in line. American toothpaste was so delicious that little Marzi and her friends gobbled it like candy. A sensitive only child, she tried to make a pet of the carp her father bought and kept in the bathtub of her crowded apartment until it was time to kill it so the family could feast on it for days.

Those are some of the memories evoked in cartoon form in “Marzi,” a 248-page graphic novel memoir on sale in comics shops today and in all book venues starting Oct. 25, published by Vertigo, DC Comics’ imprint for grown-up readers. Written by Sowa, now 32 and living in Paris, it is illustrated by her partner, Sylvain Savoia, in a simple, open style that evokes the wide-eyed innocence of childhood.

In portraying momentous, nation-changing events from the perspective of a young girl, “Marzi” echoes “Persepolis,” the critically acclaimed 2000 graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi that chronicled her coming of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated animated feature in 2007. Like Satrapi, young Marzi is a witness to revolution — the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa, whose independent trade union eventually forced Poland’s communist government to hold parliamentary elections.

Portrayed in a series of vignettes, Marzi’s memories include martial law and frightened parents crowding the hospital with their children as radioactive contamination spreads west from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But though her childhood is harsh, other recollections are happier: the joy of joining her father in a strikers’ demonstration, the hope raised by a visit from Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

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As Sowa says in her introduction: “I was born at a time when (Poland) was undergoing some big changes. I watched it rebel. I watched it dream. And saw its dreams come true.”