“Illustrator travels into the darkness of North Korea” / The Concord Monitor / Brendan Wolfe / December 11, 2005

"Christ!" Guy Delisle exclaims at one point during his two-month stay in the North Korean capital. "The things an animator has to do to get a gig."

That combination of despair, disbelief and wry humor is typical of the engrossing nonfiction graphic novel Delisle has produced about the experience, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.

A French Canadian, Delisle arrives in Pyongyang to supervise animation outsourced by a French television company. Things are strange straight away as he disembarks into a completely unlit airport. (In many respects, the Dark Ages still prevail in North Korea.) Delisle's guides, meanwhile, awkwardly present him a bouquet of flowers. Only later does he realize that he's expected to lay those flowers at the bronze feet of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.

Delisle's panel shows himself and his two guides bowing low, literally overshadowed by the 22-meter-high statue. As the book often suggests, Big Brother is always looming in Pyongyang.

It's appropriate, then, that Delisle thought to pack Orwell's 1984- appropriate and a bit gimmicky, too. One night in bed, he struggles to read for lack of light when an overhead lamp mysteriously turns on. Thankfully, the incident occurs without comment. Instead, Delisle uses his art to deftly convey his confusion and anxiety.

Delisle is expert at invoking the odd, the unexpected, even the surreal, all of which Pyongyang predictably provides in abundance. How wonderfully strange, for instance, that of the 50 floors in Delisle's hotel, only a single floor is lit, and only part of that floor is occupied. Much of the regime's power, it seems, is mere artifice.
To his credit, Delisle's method is often elliptical enough that a second reading is necessary to fully appreciate the terror that lurks just below the surface of his drawings. In one incident, Delisle is listening to music alone in his office when one of his Korean handlers pokes his head through the door. "You have to turn down your jazz!" he barks. "It could be a bad influence on the others!" Delisle then pulls back to show himself in the darkly shadowed office, alone.

Delisle peppers the narrative with enough history and politics to orient the non-expert reader. He doesn't claim to be an expert himself, and he's best when noticing what only an animator would: for instance, that the omnipresent framed photos of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, are slightly wider at the top than at the bottom. This, he tells us, is to prevent glare, but it "also intensifies the gaze in this face-to-face encounter."

On the other hand, the author stumbles when he rolls out statistics about famine deaths or rice rations that he doesn't back up with any sources. "It's estimated that 50 percent of the people here have, at some time or another, served as informants," he writes, without bothering to say how he knows this.

One might be tempted to take his word for it were this not North Korea, a closed-off place that forces its people, writes Delisle, to "live in a state of constant paradox where truth is anything but constant." Such a comment might have led to an exploration of how we can know anything about this Hermit Kingdom, but it doesn't.

Delisle also never directly questions the ethics of his being in Pyongyang, which is strange. At one point, he wonders about a project in which two French telecom engineers are installing a high-definition transmitter. "An obvious priority for a country getting the most aid in the world!" Delisle scolds. But the criticism could just as easily be reversed. Why are foreigners like himself so comfortable making a buck off a government that starves its people?

Because it would make for a sweet comic book?

Delisle frequently sketches moments charged with ambiguous meaning, but he refuses to linger or think too hard. At a museum, a wax figure of Kim Il Sung stands alone and smiling, so realistic that he seems about to speak. "Behind me, a detachment of soldiers bows down," Delisle observes, "tears in their eyes. As agreed I bend over along with my hosts, biting my tongue to keep from laughing out loud."

Absent any explanation, Delisle comes across here as a bit cruel. Sympathy for such brainwashing is hardly on order, but until there's more empathy and understanding, North Korea will forever remain unreachable.


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