Guy Delisle interviewed by Publishers Weekly

“A Talk with Guy Delisle: Looking for the Details” / Publishers Weekly / Ada Price / October 21, 2011

Cartoonist and animator Guy Delisle has lived and worked in both Shenzhen, China and Pyongyang, North Korea. He recorded his experiences living in these cities (and in their respective national cultures) in two well-received book-length comics works, Shenzhen (Drawn &Quarterly 2006) and Pyongyang (D&Q 2005), utilizing his unique dry humor, conversational tone, and focus on the everyday to capture the contradictions of the place and the experience of a foreigner encountering them for the first time. Delisle continued to use comics to document his experiences abroad in the book, Burma Chronicles (D&Q 2008) in which he, along with his wife and son, lived alongside expatriates and workers for non-governmental organizations. In a recent interview with PW Comics Week, Delisle discussed his experiences living around the world, his processes for creating comics and his future projects.

PWCW: What is your process? How do you go about creating your documentary comics?

Guy Delisle: Basically, I take notes, and I wait until I come back home and read the notes. It’s very simple, and from these notes I take out everything that is irrelevant, boring, and I keep everything that can answer some questions we have about the country. I try to put it in a way that if I have asked a question on page ten, the answer is going to come afterwards, and there is going to be a sense of rhythm between funny and more serious stuff, explanation, and then just ordinary life.

I like to just focus on small things, because for me that’s enough information to not understand the whole big picture, but to know a lot about their culture and the way they are thinking. I don’t like to write about stuff that anyone who takes a plane and goes in Burma for example and he’s going to see it too, and he’s going to have more or less the same experience as me. I find it boring to tell, so I try to talk about stuff I know I have experienced because I was in a different situation than any basic tourist. Then, I use all these tools that come from fiction to put it all together and to make it an interesting kind of fiction story, but its all true.

PWCW: How do you decide on what information to include in your books?

GD: Well, the way I’m going to do, let’s say, the next one on Israel, I’m going to read more about Israel, and I’m going to read my notes and see what brings back memories. I’m going to start slowly just like I was one year ago, knowing nothing about the conflict, the first time I’ve met the wall and I’ve crossed the check point and then we’ve got some rocks thrown at us and there’s some gas, and whatever to start the book.

I was in the Arab area of Jerusalem. So, I take my notes and everything that is interesting, curious, or weird—like the Arabs have that thing on the door when you go out of the building and it gives an Arab prayer when you open it, like wishing for Allah to protect you. But, it’s in a really cheapy plastic thing and it was such a nightmare, and I was glad because the battery died and it was never replaced. So, I can talk about small details like that, and I take that example to make a funny story

PWCW: You do add a lot of humor to balance out the serious aspects, is that just a natural part of your style?

GD: I think it’s just the way I tell stories; for me these books are just like a big long postcard I would send to my friends and family to explain to them what I’ve experienced. So, when I write I try to make it funny just like a weekend story, except that once in a while it’s not funny at all.

Pyongyang was easy to make jokes about, because when I was there I was not laughing so much when I was in front of the big statue [of Kim Il-Sung]. But, when you tell that to a friend here that you have to put flowers on the feet of a 22 meter statue and pay your respects to Kim Il-Sung, it’s so surreal that it’s funny. Everyday was like that there, but on an everyday basis it’s not that funny; it’s just like, wow this is so sick. When I was in Shenzhen, I was bored to death, because I couldn’t communicate with the people. It was a pretty rough time, but when people read the comic, they have fun, because that’s the magic of storytelling.

PWCW: As a foreigner in the countries do you feel uniquely situated to observe and comment on the situations?

GD: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, because I’m always thinking, I’d love to have a Chinese [cartoonist], who would be in Paris, and he would describe what he has to go through. If he is a good storyteller and he draws not so bad, that would be a great book. I’ve had Chinese people who read Shenzhen, and they like it because it’s about a foreign guy in China and he’s just having a bad time. They think he’s pretty funny.

PWCW: Does being an outsider also put you at a disadvantage?

GD: Yeah, because you don’t speak the language, it’s really hard to get into the details, and it’s really with the details that I work. You can just grab whatever you can see. I just look around and see a little thing, and I can spend weeks wondering what that thing is and what they do with that. Like in Burma, they have a strange pole in every house. It’s like 10 feet long; it’s just leaning on lots of houses, but on the top of the pole it’s flat like a big pizza turn over thing. Then, someone told me that it’s in case of fire on these houses that are wood and the roofs are made of straw, and you need these things to pat it out. For me, that’s super exotic; it’s much more exotic than seeing the temples, which are great, but I don’t have the skills to draw them and to make you feel [them].

The same with the revolution with the monks just after I’d left Burma. . I’m glad I wasn’t there at the time, because it’s kind of too big for me. I like it when it’s calm and quiet, and from that you take little details. The book now is just about everyday life in Rangoon. I’ve had a book signing in France where there were some Burmese who came, and they said they really like [Burma Chronicles], because for once we were talking about Burma another way than just the murdering and the killing and everything.

PWCW: Do you try to find a style for the books to capture the atmosphere of that place?

GD: Yeah, it was a concern, because when I started doing the book on China, China is very dirty, and I was using grease pencil, and I would smudge them together so that would give a lot of dirt onto the walls. And, that for me was the only way I could describe China. The one on Pyongyang, I couldn’t use the same technique, because it’s very clean. There’s no color, in Pyongyang it’s all white and pale gray, so I thought I need a clean line and some shading. For Burma Chronicles, I just kept the same drawing style, and I don’t think I tried there to achieve something that reflects the country; I just used the style I had, and I’ve used the computer to do the gray. Now, if I do something else it’s going to look like that.

But, then again, I want to do a book completely different about someone else’s story. [For instance] the guy that has been kidnapped in Chechnya for three months, and managed to escape by himself. I read his story in the newspaper, and I met him, and I want to talk about that story. I have to find a different style. It’s going to make a big difference, because if I use a very symbolic style, that’s a real life story and it’s a hard one, and if I do something realistic, the impact is completely different.

PWCW: Are you working on anything else?

GD: I’m preparing a book for Drawn & Quarterly, because they want to do something with the sketches I’ve done when I was in Jerusalem.

PWCW: Are you thinking of doing a book on Jerusalem?

GD: I’m thinking about it. I’ll see when the sketches are finished. I’ll see with the guy whose been kidnapped too, and then maybe the one on Jerusalem. That’d be interesting to talk about, because I think to understand the country you have to be there, and we were there for years. I want to talk about the nice part of the country that I’ve seen, and then the Israeli I’ve met and the Palestinians I’ve met as well. But, to describe the occupation, there’s no way you can do it in a very nice way cause its not, it’s an occupation; it’s pretty tough.

PWCW: Do you think comics are uniquely situated to tell these kinds of nonfiction, personal stories?

GD: The use of comics, for me, it’s the perfect medium, because, I describe Shenzhen. For me the culture shock was not being able to communicate with people. So, it’s really the non-communication process, being on your own, and being bored to death. It’s perfect in a comic, in a film it would be too boring, because you need to feel it, so time would have to go by. I was repeatedly walking in the hotel, and there was a guy who opens the door. It was funny at first; he always tried to practice his English on me, but after awhile it gets so boring and annoying. I think I put it in five or six times in the book, just to get that feeling of “come on leave me alone.” You don’t need words; you need to show the picture a lot, so that we get the feel. Its great cause you can do that and speed things up, you can slow them and talk directly with the reader, and you can bring him along with your experiences.

Share on Facebook
Share on Tumblr
Share via Email