PYONGYANG reviewed in TIME MAGAZINE

“The Not-So-Funny Pages” / TIME Magazine / Austin Ramzy / November 13, 2005

Pyongyang is not a key stopover on the business-traveler circuit. There's no cushy InterContinental, and the brutal, hermetic regime that runs the place doesn't lure much foreign investment. But the communist state does see a trickle of capitalists, from telecom engineers to bottled-water vendors. And, perhaps most surprisingly, animators. North Korea has some of the world's cheapest cartoonists, typically specialists in the art of propaganda. In 2001 French-Canadian Guy Delisle went to Pyongyang to manage the production of an animated preschool special for French television. "It was based on children's books with rabbits," he says. "I don't even remember the name."

While the show may have been forgettable, Delisle's two-month visit wasn't. He was allowed to take a long look at the world's most guarded state. And after he left, Delisle set about recreating his experience using the medium he knows best: cartoons. The result, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, is a graphic novel that is a fascinating and hilarious sketch of his time in the country. Delisle admits that he didn't see anything the government didn't want him to see. But from what he was allowed to witness, he strings together a series of remarkable scenes. Many are seemingly trivial—a hotel worker slowly crushing a fly underfoot, a propaganda truck blaring encouragement to construction workers—but when seen through the keen eye of a man who spent his workdays pondering the facial expressions of animated bears, they give rare insight into life beyond the DMZ.

Part of the book's strength is its medium. The notion that comics are merely for children was buried long ago by Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Holocaust, and its offspring, like Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde, one of the best books on the Bosnian war. Not only do those books discuss serious subjects, but the images hone the message. In North Korea, photographers are severely restricted, and journalists use their limited access to poke tentatively at big issues like nuclear weapons, famines and economic reform. But Delisle, through the simple use of charcoal, ink and dialogue bubbles, captures aspects of life in North Korea that tend to elude observers in other media. Like light. Due to severe electrical shortages, Pyongyang makes do with dim lightbulbs and minimal streetlights. That's tough to capture in photographs, for example, save perhaps for satellite images that have shown North Korea as a (literally) benighted nation. But Delisle uses drawings of a dim hotel lobby with a lonely turtle swimming in a tank, or of people carrying loads down stygian streets, to convey a powerful sense of gloom. At one point he decides to see how many effigies to Kim Jong Il he can find in a single day. After counting more than 30 of them, he looks in the mirror and is horrified to see the Dear Leader staring back at him. It takes a minute for him to realize that it's merely the reflection of a wall portrait, but the feeling of Kim's omnipresence is disturbing.

Delisle has a deep reservoir of compassion for the people he encounters in this nation of inmates. Even his strict translators and guides, who are gently gibed throughout the book, are depicted in an engagingly human light. Shortly before leaving he takes a bottle of cognac meant for the head of the animation studio and gives it to his grumpy guide, Mr. Sin, who is ecstatic. "One of the few moments of real joy I witnessed," Delisle writes.

Sympathy aside, Delisle isn't above a little mischief. He gives a guide a copy of George Orwell's 1984, and he introduces a translator and a technician to Bob Marley ("Get up, stand up; Stand up for your rights!"). He has a beguilingly playful quality as an author, too. At the International Friendship Exhibition, he's shown thousands of foreign gifts to North Korea's founder, the late Kim Il Sung, all housed underground to withstand nuclear attack. Delisle sketches a few scenes that highlight the absurdity of a friendship exhibition in an atomic bunker, but stops short of committing all the details to paper. "There's ... an armored vehicle from Stalin, another from Mao, three fabulous Russian cars from the '50s and one or two South Korean models," he writes, "but I'm too lazy to draw them all." A pity, but even without them, Delisle has drawn an unforgettable picture of Pyongyang.

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