BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by ComicMix

“A third trip to an oppressive Asian land by the author of Pyongyang” / Comic Mix / Andrew Wheeler / October 20, 2008

Delisle has a quirky history for a newish graphic novelist: he’s in his early forties, a Canadian long resident in France who spent ten years working in animation (both in France and overseeing animation production various places in Asia) before quitting that to concentrate on his graphic novels. And his first two major books – Pyongyang and Shenzhen – were both the stories of long trips to those cities (the capital of North Korea and a booming city in southern China, respectively) during the course of his animation career.

I should point out here that the country calls itself Myanmar now – since a coup in 1989 – but that many governments, including both France and the USA, still call it Burma to show that they don’t accept the legitimacy of the current government to make that change. It’s not clear if Delisle intends his title to be a political statement, though he does explain the difference between the two names on the very first page of this book.

Burma Chronicles is the story of another long stay in an Asian country – another relatively oppressive dictatorship, at that – but it wasn’t for his work, this time. Delisle’s wife works as an administrator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, an international non-profit organization that brings doctors and health care to parts of the world desperately in need of it – and this trip was because her work took her there, for a posting of fourteen months.

So this time, Delisle is a hanger-on – more than that, he’s a house-husband and the stay-at-home dad of his infant son Louis. And thus Burma Chronicles has a different shape than the two previous books did – Pyongyang, in particular, was the story of Delisle trying to entertain himself in his off hours, alone for an extended period of time in a cold, foreign, dictatorial country far away from home. This time, not only is his wife with him, but he’s spending more of his time directly dealing with his own son. There are some sequences about work – Delisle was finishing up a children’s book and apparently working on one of the previous graphic novels during this trip – but more of Burma Chronicles has to do with his day-to-day life, and the small moments of life.

Burma Chronicles is organized into short stories, of usually one to five pages apiece, each with an understated title panel. Delisle mostly keeps to a six-panel grid, breaking that to spread across tiers (or, rarely, farther than that) or to have smaller panels to show quick or extended action. (And by “action,” I mean something like taking a plane to Bangkok – this is the story of a real person’s real life.)

Burma Chronicles gives a touching and deep view of Burma and its people, and a glancing look at its politics. (The government mostly comes up inasmuch as it keeps Delisle’s wife from doing what she came to Burma to do – they’re minutely controlling, paranoid and bizarrely whimsical.) Delisle clearly connected with the people of Burma more than he did with the people of Pyongyang or Shenzhen, and this is the best of his three travelogues because of that. His art is still quietly competent, unobtrusive and slightly cartoony in unexpected ways, but Burma Chronicles has more carefully crystallized moments than Shenzhen did, and even manages to outdo Pyongyang, which had the uniquely oddball land of North Korea to give it life and shape. Reading Burma Chronicles, you’ll slip into the rhythms and ways of a land very unlike your own, and you’ll be sorry to leave it when the book comes to an end.

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