3 D+Q titles reviewed on Student Traveler

“Readings from the Road: Three Graphic Novels Draw Readers into the World's Worst Places” / Student Traveler / Alexander Provan / May 16, 2006

The first time Guy Delisle sees the giant sea turtle drifting back and forth in the diminutive aquarium in the lobby of his Pyongyang hotel, he hardly notices it. The second time he draws the scene in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Deslisle has just returned from watching a uniformed woman screaming through a megaphone to encourage the construction workers at an opera house in a country where there is barely any food or electricity, much less opera. This time, it garners a full page: From within the bowels of the darkened lobby, the turtle appears as flotsam in a chamber meant to sustain its life, but without purpose, and only for as long as that life can be totally controlled. In one of the last frames of the graphic novel, after saying goodbye to his guides and translators, Delisle turns around and offers the same confounded wave to the turtle in its cage.

The turtles cage refers to The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, which recounts the ten-year imprisonment of Kang and his family in the Yodok gulag. But in Pyongyang, 40-year-old Quebecer Deslisle's first graphic novel in English, the characters are not prisoners as such. They are the citizens of Pyongyang with whom the author is allowed to interact on his two-month stint as supervisor foreign capitalist at a French animation studio utilizing cheap North Korean labor, and they drift back and forth from one darkened city street to another, from one truth to the next, creating a din of human activity that only serves to point up the stultifying absence of humanity.

Alienation is the subject not the typical alienation of travel but the alienation produced by a total lack of understanding of a culture, coupled with the gnawing feeling that this can't be real: Someone has to crack. But in Pyongyang, no one ever does. In his occasional efforts to coax the turtles into recognizing the circumstances of their captivity, the most subversive remark is an admission from one young man that the North Korean propaganda films shown to the animators as a special treat are boring.

War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995?96
(Drawn & Quarterly, $14.95)
While Pyongyang searches for evidence of humanity, Joe Sacco's War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995?96 is seething with it. Sacco is best known for Palestine, an acclaimed account of the last days of the first intifada, and his other works include Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. Taken as a whole, his oeuvre represents one of the most exciting developments in contemporary war reporting the placement of the ugliest conflicts within familiar places and among familiar faces, the humanization of war.

Soba, the title character of the first profile in War's End, is a hard-partying twentysomething artist, musician, and land-mine planter a local legend in his own right. The scenes change from a bar to the front lines, from a moment of moribund introspection to a dream of making a porno flick about Hegel, from an amputation to a wild dance party. Even amid the growing sense of the conflict's futility, Soba says, if you are in the mood, if you're dancing, everybody sees that there's somebody making an atmosphere, and people join you. We're really fighting for some kind of normal life.

In Christmas with Karadzic, Sacco joins two Sarajevan radio journalists pursuing Milosevic's No. 2 man on the morning of Orthodox Christmas. The Serbian war criminal appears at a small-town church to attend services, and the two journalists are ecstatic to score a brief interview. While they celebrate, Sacco stands in front of the man responsible for the murder of thousands and can see only a modern-day Eichmann. Even when pitted against the raucous humanity of Sarajevo's club scene, forever scarred by Karadzic's fighters, the evil of war cannot be reduced to the hulking body, dreary eyes, and pristine suit of one man.

Baghdad Journal
(Drawn & Quarterly, $34.95)
Fast-forward to the present day, and a conflict whose victims are still being buried, a place as tumultuous as Pyongyang is staid Iraq. Artist Steve Mumford made three trips to Iraq between 2003 and 2004 to record the occupation through sobering, realistic drawings and watercolor paintings. The resulting images and written account of his experiences are collected in Baghdad Journal .

Mumford nonchalantly places the absurdity of life during wartime on parade across pages of interrogations and midnight raids, crowded markets and Iraqi painters in their studios, soldiers sleeping in tents and sheiks congregating in mosques from stasis to sensation, without much sense of equivalence. These are, he writes, the spaces in between the bombs.

Baghdad Journal doesn't get to the bottom of things as much as it shows that, in the middle of a war in which the fog is still too dense for the figures to be sharply limned, there is no bottom. You can only know a war as much as you can know a place and its people: in Baghdad, as in Pyongyang, there is much to see but little to know.

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