French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s graphic novel account of his time in Pyongyang, North Korea is mired by a staggering sense of isolation. Delisle’s pages are composed of hollow spaces, populated by cartoon characters meandering through vacant hotel hallways. He renders his two-month stay as an animation supervisor in pencil washes, creating a world perpetually, beautifully out of focus.
Beside his ever-present guide and translator, Delisle rarely interacts with any North Koreans. Outside of his hotel, he is chaperoned through the capital city’s most tourist-friendly landmarks, inundated by tedious Communist propaganda. Delisle maintains a sharp sense of humor and skepticism, challenging jingoistic outpourings and exaggerated histories. Though he renders his anecdotes in clean cartoon lines, he does not belie the horrors inherent to life spent under a dictatorship. For every imposing monument and smiling volunteer, there are stories of food shortages and citizens informing on one another. Every citizen he encounters is a beaming patriot, and so they often seem like caricatures rather than individuals. This may be a failing on Delisle’s part to better connect with those around him, but I suspect that it instead reinforces the book’s theme of loneliness amidst artifice.
I sought out this graphic novel after the death of former Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. I only had a cursory knowledge of the man and his country—both mysterious and inaccessible— and I felt a travelogue would be a good introduction. Delisle makes no claims to be an expert, nor is the book designed as a comprehensive travel guide. Instead, the book reflects his changing temperaments in a very alien place: introspective, mistrustful, bewildered, humbled, etc. His visit is as much fascinatingly exotic as it is alienating. Delisle’s story is often distant and ambiguous, as gray as the buildings disappearing into the horizon.
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle