Tuesday 20 December 2011

Comic Book Review | Shenzhen and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

This will be old news to many of you, I expect, but in my other life, I'm a teacher.

Actually, no. That's not exactly true... and thank the lord for that! Strictly speaking I'm an English tutor - I chair courses on reading and writing at a private education centre here in central Scotland - and one of the things I'm often heard to say to the high-school students in my care is that there are stories everywhere. Wherever you look, and you needn't look far, or wide, there are narratives unfolding, complete with characters, conflicts, climaxes -- really the whole kit and caboodle.

They might not be good stories by any meaningful measure, but they are true stories, and often, I find, that's enough. If in a piece of writing one of my students can capture some fleeting fragmentary truth - some glimmer of insight into how we work, or the way the world works around us - then never mind all the elementary spelling mistakes and so on and so forth; no amount of misplaced punctuation marks can take away from an honest, relatable portrayal of some feeling, or facet of our lives.

Now whether I have my teaching hat on or not, that's a sentiment I stand by whole-heartedly, so it's an odd thing - but no less a true thing - that I don't, in my spare time, consume a great deal of non-fiction. Not in any form that I can think of: not in film, not in literature, and - excepting Persepolis - certainly not in comic books. At least, not till now.

I picked up Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea almost on a whim while out looking for a couple of last-minute Christmas gifts. I read the first few pages right there in the store, and immediately found myself hungry - like one of those hippos - for more. Home again, home again, jiggety jig, I polished off Pyongyang and its successor, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, in a wonderful, whimsical week of evenings. I'd urge anyone with an interest in comics books, or culture, to do likewise.

Guy Delisle is - or was, when he put together these "graphic memoirs" (as the blurb would have it) - a jobbing French-Candian animator. His trips to Pyongyang and then Shenzhen were for business rather than pleasure, to oversee the work of various outsourcing studios, and it's just as well, because as he illustrates, there's precious little pleasure to be taken from either of these depressing places.

Saying that, there's not a dull moment in these travelogues, and that's no mean feat, because at around 150 pages each, they're certainly not short, and Delisle spends almost his entire time abroad in complete and utter isolation. He can't speak the required languages, he's restricted to certain areas, and he's made to stay in the most appalling, anonymous hotels. Weeks go by without him talking to anyone at all, or doing anything particularly interesting, so he has to amuse himself somehow -- and us.

To that end, Delisle doesn't spend too long documenting any one thing. Both Pyongyang and Shenzhen are broken up into easily-digestible episodes, about the length of a single issue each, and though he spends the vast majority of them pontificating about what it is to exist in these cities, under their respective regimes, whether as a citizen or a visitor - riffing on this thing he heard or that incident he saw - there are also several sequences wherein he talks about his job, offering insight into and anecdotal evidence of the increasingly bleak business of animation.

These recollections are perfectly fascinating in their own right, but they also work to punctuate the more troubling aspects of life in China and the so-called axis of evil, and there are, shall we say, some very troubling aspects. In any event, Delisle has a real knack for teasing out stories wherever he goes.

Admittedly I've never read anything remotely resembling either Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea or Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, but I adored both of these books. Guy Delisle is a disarmingly frank author, and an astute cartoonist, too; these graphic novels are replete with such wit and insight, such good humour and clear-eyed observational engagement - even from afar - that I can't recommend them highly enough, whether to fans of the comic form or simply people with a passing interest in what life is (or was) like in these little-seen cities, particularly in light of the recent reports of Kim Jong-Il's death.

I've holidayed in some strange and dangerous places in my time, and though I know better than to ever say never, realistically I'm not likely to spend several months in China or North Korea myself. Guy Delisle's marvelous, Hergé-esque graphic memoirs are thus as close as I expect to get, and that's quite close enough, thank you very much.

Now, to lay hands on a copy of The Burma Chronicles as soon as humanly possible...

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