“Comic draws rare portrait of N. Korea” / Honolulu Star-Bulletin / Clay Evans / October 26, 2005

If there's a society in today's world that qualifies as Orwellian, it has got to be North Korea. Closed and authoritarian, its people are brainwashed by propaganda and trained to abhor all things Western.

Given that, it's pretty difficult for the average American to get a handle on just how alien and alienating this totalitarian nation is. Sure, there are books out there, and the occasional Western journalist - Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times comes to mind - is allowed to visit. But to most of us, North Korea is a gray and distant nightmare, no more real-seeming than the world of "1984."

If you are looking for an accessible way to get behind the walls of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il's Communist "paradise," I can recommend no better book than the new graphic novel "Pyongyang" by French-Canadian artist Guy Delisle.

Curiously, Delisle found work supervising teams of North Korean animators working on a French television cartoon.

In 176 pages of black-and-white panels, he describes his experience in a thoroughly entertaining, educational but non-didactic way. While the North Korea he portrays is chilly and populated with frightening automatons, the book itself is warm, almost cute.

Delisle draws a city whose streets are devoid of people at night, bizarre "museums" in remote areas - accessible by highways that go nowhere else - that tout the wonder of the Dear Leader and his dead father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and weird, unfinished monuments to their vanity that dot the skyline. The Koreans he meets might as well have pull-strings in their backs, for all the scriptedness of their brainwashed remarks.

Funny, yes, but also pretty creepy.

At one point, Delisle's guide (mandatory for travel within the country) suggests they visit "the highest point in the city - an elegant way of taking me on a stop that's obligatory for new-comers without being obvious: Kim Il-Sung, 22 meters of bronze. For visitors, it's a disproportionate one-on-one with the gigantic figure of the father of the nations, who, despite his death (1912-1994), is still president."

The graphic novel - a.k.a. comic book - is finally gaining currency with critics. And why not? Sometimes it's an effective way to convey experience.

In the case of "Pyongyang," I can't think of a more personal, entertaining way to introduce Westerners to what is surely the most bizarre, pathetic and spooky nation on Earth.

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