In Other Words

Drawing Behind the Lines

Pyongyang By Guy Delisle 176 pages, Paris: L’Association, 2003 (in French) Shenzhen By Guy Delisle 176 pages, Paris: L’Association, 2000 (in French) Consumers in wealthy countries know why the price of a gray cotton T-shirt from the Gap is the same now as it was 10 years ago: thousands of people across the globe toiling ...

By Guy Delisle
176 pages, Paris: L’Association, 2003 (in French)
By Guy Delisle
176 pages, Paris: L’Association, 2000 (in French)

Consumers in wealthy countries know why the price of a gray cotton T-shirt from the Gap is the same now as it was 10 years ago: thousands of people across the globe toiling for slave wages. Most people are surprised to learn, however, that the high-tech, highly hip industry of television and film animation has joined the rag trade. What Hollywood calls "non-creative" animation work (production layouts, smoothing rough edges, not to mention the actual animation) is frequently farmed out to studios in Korea, Taiwan, and China.

Guy Delisle is a wry 37-year-old French Canadian cartoonist whose work for a French animation studio requires him to oversee production at various Pacific Rim studios on the grim frontiers of free trade. His employer puts him up for months at a time in "cold and soulless" hotel rooms where he suffers the usual maladies of the long-term boarder: cultural and linguistic alienation, boredom, and cravings for Western food and real coffee. Delisle depicts these sojourns into the heart of isolation in a pair of brilliant "graphic novels" (a fancy term for big, square-bound comic books), Pyongyang and Shenzhen, both from French publisher L’Association.

These works join Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis — a reminiscence about growing up in Iran after the fall of the shah — as L’Association’s contribution to a growing new subgenre of international graphic literature. Persepolis was originally released in French as a four-part series between 2000 and 2003, its first two installments translated into a single English volume last year. The English edition emerged in American bookstores and media reviews, reinvigorating the relatively flaccid market for graphic novels in the United States. Comics about crises abroad were virtually invented by U.S. war correspondent Joe Sacco with his seminal works Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 and Palestine: In the Gaza Strip, both published by Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books. It’s a small but vital genre: There are fewer than a dozen "cartoon journalism" graphic novels in print, yet all have sold well compared to other comics titles, even outpacing traditional books about the same subjects.

Pyongyang is Delisle’s meditation on the isolation of authoritarian North Korea. Unlike the specialized free-trade zone Delisle encounters in China, the animation studios Delisle deals with in North Korea are located in the capital city, their insularity enforced by government minders. Kim Jong Il’s cult of personality is pervasive, though Delisle can’t tell whether the North Koreans really believe the government propaganda they spout. Delisle isn’t a rebel: The furthest he tests totalitarian oppression in Pyongyang is by tossing paper airplanes out his hotel room window and trying to corrupt his uptight translator with decadent capitalist values.

Shenzhen is the hideously expanding "Special Economic Zone of Guangdong Province," a tariff-free city north of Hong Kong where the employers are foreign and the Cantonese locals hungry. Despite their simple pencil drawings, the pages of Shenzhen evoke the grit of air choked by burning charcoal bricks, the streets’ damp stench after a greasy rain, and the buzz of ubiquitous florescent lights better than a thousand pictures. Whereas Sacco made a name for himself with painstakingly crosshatched renderings of scenes traced from detailed images on a light table, Delisle relies upon deceptively straightforward line work to evoke mood and reality. (Satrapi uses similar techniques.) Just as the mind of someone listening to digitized music extrapolates the missing music between points of data, a reader in the hands of a competent cartoonist feels more China, North Korea, or another location than is possible via other forms of media — including cinema.

In neither North Korea nor China are there run-ins with authorities or near-death mishaps. Delisle arrives, he works on his projects, and he returns home. What makes his experiences worth reading is precisely the fact that they’re so ordinary: Were you to follow in his footsteps, this weirdness could, and would, happen to you. Delisle’s argument with a fellow animator over which of their hotel’s identical dining rooms is superior — Restaurant No. 1 or Restaurant No. 2 — reveals all one needs to know about the Stalinist mentality of Kim’s regime.

Commentators from Swedish explorer Sven Hedin to American scribe Bill Bryson have used the "Ain’t this place strange?" approach in their travelogues, albeit with more emphasis on nature and culture than Delisle’s sly take on local politics. Still, why draw cartoons where words would suffice? As someone who works in equal parts Microsoft Word and Photoshop, I considered that question upon my return from Afghanistan in 2001. My publisher wanted a book about my view of the U.S. war against the Taliban and the deaths of three journalists from my convoy. I decided to tackle the war and attendant political analysis in a series of prose essays, and the story of what Afghanistan was like in the form of a graphic novella, To Afghanistan and Back. Pictures don’t add much to a discussion of the Tajik-controlled Northern Alliance’s dominance over a Pashtun majority, but nothing beats lines of India ink spread across a panel of Bristol board to convey the dust, random violence, and sun-bleached rocks of that singularly unfortunate place.

The gap of success between the United States and the rest of the world is as startling for graphic novels as it is for, say, soccer. Manga cartoons account for 45 percent of Japanese book and periodical sales, and European cartoonists are treated like rock stars. Maybe U.S. publishers have forgotten the 1970s, when cartoon books moved fastest as front-of-store impulse items. Or perhaps pop culture has become stratified and segregated into more creators and fewer stars. Every now and then, a work of comic art achieves mass success in the United States, such as Art Spiegelman’s 1986 Holocaust memoir Maus and the graphic version of Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 manifesto The Road to Serfdom. Such successes precipitate a flood of imitators, but market reality inevitably dashes the optimism of their small publishers. If history is any guide, Sacco and Delisle probably don’t augur the great comics journalism craze of the 21st century.

The real obstacle to the rise of the graphic travelogue in the United States, however, is its intimidating format, ghettoized among shops and customers that strive for self-marginalization. Last year I wandered by L’Association’s table at Maryland’s Small Press Expo, America’s premier convocation of fans, cartoonists, and publishers of alternative — i.e., intelligent, non-superhero — comics. Even I was a little intimidated: The company’s titles, including those mentioned above, were glacially beautiful, as daunting as an overly attractive man or woman. They were certainly far too pretty to belong in some awful mall comics shop.

I don’t know whether books such as Pyongyang and Shenzhen will, like Persepolis, end up in airport bookstores. Perhaps they will, if the marketplace cares about quality.

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