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Friday May 17, 2013

The travelling Guy

Guy Delisle’s travelogue graphic novels are a wonderful window to some of the most culturally enigmatic places in the world.

By MICHAEL CHEANG

AS a comic book fan, my desire to escape into these fantastical worlds of wonder sometimes leads me to forget that I already live in a world full of wonders.

However, as much as I would love to travel the world and visit each and every wonderful country out there, there are still limits to where I can go.

Fortunately, we’ve got people like Guy Delisle, who has had the privilege and opportunity to travel the world and tell us about it in comic book form.

Hailing from Quebec, Canada, Delisle is a cartoonist and former animator most famous for a series of bestselling travelogue graphic novels. The first two – Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China (2000) and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2003) – were based on his experiences working as an animator in China and North Korea; while in Burma Chronicles (2007) and his latest, Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City (2011), he recounts his experience being a stay-home father to two children in those vastly different countries.

Reading more like journals about his own experiences than a comprehensive guide to those countries, Delisle’s books are fascinating in the sense that they are set in places most of us would probably never ever set foot in, let alone survive in for a year.

Sure, China and Myanmar may not seem as exotic to us as they would to a Canadian cartoonist living in France, but his insights on Jerusalem and Pyongyang, on the other hand, are fascinating peeks into life there.

Pyongyang, in particular, seems to be the book that resonates most with readers, to the point that a movie adaptation is already planned – to be directed by Gore Verbinski (who directed the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and the upcoming The Lone Ranger), no less.

It’s hard to see Verbinski making a movie that stays true to Delisle’s book, though, as most of the pages feature the animator slouched over computers, eating alone in empty restaurants, and talking to his translator.

As an insight into the secretive world of North Korea, however, Pyongyang is a fascinating read. Drawn in a clean and uncomplicated cartoonish style, the book maintains a largely neutral tone throughout, with Delisle wisely choosing to focus solely on the things he witnesses and experiences rather than pass judgement on the country and its culture.

Hence, what we get here is a charmingly honest and frequently witty journal about an expatriate’s life in North Korea, and the culture shock that comes with it.

Sure, this sometimes limits many of his panels to lonely and sometimes mundane scenarios at his hotel, his restaurant, or offices, but these scenes feel authentic and real – not some fabricated, over-dramatised fairytale or Hollywoodproduction.

It’s not terribly exciting stuff most of the time (for instance, the opening of a new restaurant is a “big deal” in his “little universe”, while in another panel, he gets so bored that he scrutinises the toothpicks and concludes that they are hand carved), but what makes the story so fascinating are his astute observations about the eccentricities, oddities and beliefs there, which actually made me want to visit the country just to see if they are really true.

Compared to the loneliness and otherworldly atmosphere that resonates throughout Pyongyang, there seems to be a lot more happening within the pages of Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. The city is right smack in the middle of the Israel-Palestine conflict zone after all, so it stands to reason that Delisle would have a lot more to write and draw about in this book than in his previous ones.

Being a stay-home father in Jerusalem (his partner was an administrative worker with Doctors Without Borders) meant he was largely left to his own devices and could wander around the city making the sort of quaint observations that normal tourists probably would not notice.

To his credit, he also tries to find out as much as possible about the country as he can – making the effort to visit different significant places and proactively seeking out new experiences, including a visit to a border checkpoint where he witnesses a fracas involving stones and tear gas.

Significantly thicker than his previous books, Jerusalem is also a much more comprehensive and informative tome, with some good observations on the complicated religious, social and political structure in the city, and some detailed yet easy to understand explanation about the history of the region and as well as the conflict itself.

It’s not all guns, bombs and tear gas, of course – ultimately, this is still a book about a cartoonist and stay-home dad trying to raise his family and live a normal life in Jerusalem. Besides his adventures and his observations on the country, Delisle also writes about normal, everyday subjects like traffic jams and grocery shopping, even dedicating three whole pages to an attempt at retrieving his car keys from the gap between an elevator and the floor.

The combination of Delisle’s simple and mundane everyday life and the ways he copes with the eccentricities and obstacles he faces makes his travelogues fascinating reads.

It also helps that he’s pretty witty, and has the knack of seeing the funny and lighter side of things, even when he is writing about heavy subjects like war and oppression.

If you’re looking for a sociopolitical analysis or a detailed cultural critique on North Korea or Jerusalem, then you’re reading the wrong books. Delisle isn’t interested in telling you what to think about these countries, he merely shows you what he saw and experienced when he was there.

By the time you’ve seen these countries through his eyes (and drawings), though, you will be ready to find out even more about – and perhaps, all set to visit – these little worlds of wonder yourself.

> Guy Delisle’s graphic novels are available at Kinokuniya bookstore, Suria KLCC. For further enquiries, call 03-21648133, email ebd3_kbm@kinokuniya.co.jp, or visit kinokuniya.com/my.

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