“Graphic novel 'Pyongyang' follows one Westerner's stay in North Korea. OTIS HART reviews this grayscaled tale.” / AP / Otis Hart / December 15, 2005

When trying to understand the cultural and political black hole that is Kim Jong Il's North Korea, a little gray can go a long way.

In the graphic novel "Pyongyang," French-Canadian animator Guy Delisle recounts his two antiseptic months above the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, in humdrum detail. He is brought to these parts for his job as an animator. The company he works for has an office there and he is shipped in to oversee cartoon production.

Nothing much happens during Delisle's stay; he visits museums, catches some flicks, hangs with fellow Westerners. Imagine a Seinfeld episode without the convenient interlocking plotlines and catch phrases. (You can hear Delisle's pitch now: "It's a 180-page comic book about nothing!")

But this isn't your everyday nada. This is nothing in one of the most mysterious places in the world, where only foreigners fill the streets and all the radio stations play the same music. You don't need color-coded news alerts to sense the terror.

Delisle quickly (and understandably) becomes bored and frustrated by the monochromatic lifestyle. His grayscale drawings, on the flip side, rarely elicit the same reaction. Delisle's panning of the mundane often turns up gold, something he probably only recognized after looking back on his trip. I guess you had to NOT be there.

The humor is subtle, the laughs never reach more than a chuckle, but the pages keep turning nonetheless. The most impressive aspect of Delisle's humor is the restraint. He understands that the images he's conveying are more important than his one-liners about Hermit cuisine. Occasionally, he'll comment on the lunacy of it all when the image speaks for itself, but more often than not, Delisle grasps that his pencil is mightier than the word.

Perhaps the most enlightening and surprising stone unturned is the capitalist's isolation from the people who make up the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There are restaurants, casinos and hotels that function exclusively for international visitors. In a city with more than 2.5 million residents, according to Delisle there is only one place to get ice cream. And aside from the guides and those in the service industry, the only North Koreans we see in "Pyongyang" are "volunteers" cutting grass and polishing stones.

Because of this dearth of common folk, Delisle never finds the answer to his $64,000 question: do the North Korean people really believe the propaganda Kim Jong Il feeds them? His guides steadfastly defend their "invincible" leader, one even cries when visiting a giant wax replica of founding father Kim Il Sung.

But when Delisle argues with one of his handlers late in the book about American opposition to Korean unification ("Dictatorship means shut up, democracy means keep talking!"), it's tempting to interpret his guide's mute response as concession. When 50 percent of your fellow citizens have been informants for the party, silence is the safest form of protest.

While most of the literature about North Korea is decked in punditry, Delisle's "Pyongyang" is a first-person account of a place most of us would never want to see with our own eyes. Delisle's drawings make an apt envoy. Gray cells are rarely this colorful.


Otis Hart is an asap reporter in New York.

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