Winnipeg Free Press reviews GUY DELISLE'S PYONGYANG

“Text tells more than pictures in graphic novel” / Winnipeg Free Press / Tom Oleson / October 23, 2005

TRADITIONALLY, comic books are not really books at all. They are more like magazines.

There was a time when their market was mostly children and younger teenagers, but that has changed dramatically in recent times and they are now aimed at older teens, young adults and middle-aged collectors -- mostly odd people with eccentric interests.

There is kind of comic book that actually is a book, however. It comes in traditional book form and carries a book's price, but remains graphic with the characters speaking inside little balloons -- these are usually called graphic novels rather than comics to underline their superior intellectuality.

In Pyongyang, Quebec animator Guy Delisle has produced such a book, except that it is not a graphic novel. It is non-fiction, actually a graphic diary, a graphic travelogue based on two months he spent in North Korea supervising animation that had been out-sourced to that bizarrely Communist country by a French film company, which is a bizarre story in itself.

The book has to proven to be a sensation in its original French edition and comes in an English version translated -- even comic books need translators -- by Helge Dasche.

Delisle has previously produced in French a similar book about a visit to China and is planning another about a trip he recently made to Burma.

The question is whether a book like this is really a useful thing. It has, of course, lots of pictures, or drawings, rather, and a surprising amount of narrative. But the narration is like the voice-over of a documentary film.

There is really no plot, no action, nothing to advance events -- in fact, it has no events to advance. The book is a sequence of experiences of life in a very strange land.

A reader -- or viewer, if you prefer -- will not learn a great deal about North Korean history, culture or politics, but he will almost certainly come away from it knowing something about what it is like to live in, to visit, a country that is so completely unhinged that a dead man -- Great Leader Kim Il-sung -- remains as president even though he died in 1994; a nation completely disconnected from the reality of the world around it, a reality that North Koreans are forbidden to know; a nation so unplugged both literally and figuratively that a decaying 47-storey hotel is displayed as a monument to Communist success, even though the only part of it that is occupied and has electric lights is the 15th floor, reserved for foreigners.

There are many such vignettes in this little book. It is entertaining and instructive in the informal way that travellers' tales told at leisure often are.

Pyongyang is fun, a curious but worthwhile piece of work. Perhaps the most curious thing about is that, although it is a graphic diary of an unusual place, the text tells us far more than the drawings.

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