Guy Delisle is a Québécois animator, comic writer and artist. He is most famous for his graphic novels Shenzhen and Pyongyang, which illustrate his experiences managing animation teams in China and North Korea.
Guy Delisle came to my attention through the Just William blog, with this post here, I made a mistake about the order of Shenzhen and Pyongyang (2000 and 2003 respectively), and so started with Pyongyang thinking it was the first. It wasn’t, but it was excellent, and given it’s taken from real life getting them out of order doesn’t much matter (there’s no plot in real life, after all).
Pyongyang was originally written in French, and is translated by Helge Dascher. It’s a very natural translation, enough so that I didn’t actually realise for quite some time that this was a translated work.
Anyway, what’s it like and what’s it about? Very simply, it’s about Delisle’s experiences living and working for a period of a few months in Pyongyang, capital city of North Korea. As such, it’s a very rare insight into what life is like in that astonishingly isolated country. As you might expect, it’s not really a cheery read. North Korea comes across as being as terrible as you might imagine, a bizarre mix of poverty, empty spectacle and official deception.
Delisle has a very simple art style, uncluttered. He uses a range of grey shadings, but with a lot of variation in panel sizes – creating an effect where there are close-ups and long-shots and so a sense of movement in what might otherwise be a fairly static text. There’s a sly humour running through it, Delisle clearly at times became deeply frustrated with the constraints and absurdities of North Korean life, though he’s aware too of quite how much trouble a joke on his part might cause to the locals (perhaps not always aware enough though, I’m still not wholly sure it was wise or safe to lend one of his translators a copy of George Orwell’s 1984). I’ve attached three images below, the second is where Delisle slips out for a walk without his then translator to do some shopping one day.
North Korea itself is utterly surreal, on arrival Delisle is given a bunch of flowers, and is expected to leave them at the base of a huge statue of Kim Il-Sung (the statue visited under a pretext, as Delisle’s must appear a natural gesture). He stays in a vast and empty hotel, 50 storeys high, with all foreigners on the 15th floor – the only one that’s lit. There are two restaurants in the hotel, Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2 (number 3 being under renovation), every morning at 7am his maid wakes him to replenish the water in his mini-fridge regardless of any do not disturb sign he may hang on his door. There are ideas of how things are done, but distorted, lacking any sense of why they are done, reduced to empty form.
Pyongyang itself is curiously, disturbingly, sterile. No one loiters, no one chats, people go about their business and do not linger. At Delisle’s own work, a Korean technician sits alongside him pointing at the screen whenever he pauses a moment so as to let him know what to do next. She sings along to the radio in Korean, naturally she speaks no English, so she is not able to provide any actual help to him. Everything is controlled, all the radio stations are tuned to the same station and when he tampers with his to tune in to other frequencies he finds there are broadcasts he was unable to listen to but they all play exactly the same thing. At night the streets are unlit, his animation team practice every morning with wooden rifles, it is a phenomenally joyless country.
Delisle does try to get to know the local culture, he hears about the philosophy of the country’s two leaders, he visits national museums, at times he even manages to go out for walks on his own into the streets, but in a very real sense there is no living local culture. There is mass culture, state approved, state disseminated, with any sign of individuality or independent thought clearly very dangerous indeed – the re-education camps are always waiting. As Delisle says “at a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power.”
The indifference to humanity portrayed in this comic is extraordinary, the “volunteer” workers, the desperate poverty, the openly stated calculations of what percentage of the population need survive to allow society to continue (30%). For centuries people have dreamed of utopias, we must be thankful that most of us never have to experience them.
There is a question as to how appropriate this material is for a comic. Like many things, I think the answer to that lies in the execution. Here, Delisle shows us a city most of us will never visit, I learnt more from this comic than I have from anything else I’ve read or watched on the place, there’s an immediacy to this form that can make it a powerful tool for reportage of a sort that more conventional accounts can struggle with. It’s easily read, it’s often very funny, and it’s absolutely horrible because what it portrays is horrible. Delisle is not a journalist (unlike, say, Joe Sacco is in his comics about Gorazde and Palestine), but for all that he makes serious points and it doesn’t diminish their impact that he makes them in a comic.
Overall, I think this is a skilful portrait of a place that most of us know very little about, it’s well drawn and written and expertly translated. Having read it, I know more than I did, and I enjoyed learning it. That’s no small achievement, and I’m looking forward to reading his Shenzhen next.
As a final note, of all the things in this comic which I found ugly or depressing, perhaps the worst – among all the monumentalist architecture, cowed population, poverty and fear – comes when Delisle asks his translator why he has seen no handicapped people. He is told that there are none. The perfect society has no place for the infirm.