Global Times talks with GUY DELISLE

“A graphic life” / Global Times / Vera Penêda / March 16, 2010

If you were ever lost in translation, Guy Delisle's series of graphic novels will find resonance with you. Delisle's alter ego is the typical outsider, with a curious eye and endearing empathy. His fish-out-of-water experiences reveal the cultural diversity and idiosyncrasies of his hosts, framed in black-and-white comics, with minimal dialogue and wry humor.

Delisle's artistic stroke gets better along with his Asian trilogy. Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China (2000), Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2003) and The Burma Chronicles (2007) are armchair travels to a bittersweet life in peculiar places.

"I'm just a normal guy wandering around. I collect information and mix it with my impressions," he says, displaying the same easygoing alter ego in his tales.

Ahead of his talk at the Literary Festival, Delisle talks about how life comically squared is just as compelling and engaging as solemn novels and straight reportage.

In an eerie land

"I like taking the reader on a tour and say, look this is strange, that's interesting and this is a bit crazy," he says of his autobiographical graphic novels. Delisle goes out on excursions to collect daily episodes and vignettes of life. "This is the way I work. I take notes, and afterwards I see if I have enough material. I take out the irrelevant and boring and choose the funny, interest-ing and quirky moments."

Delisle uses clean lines, sober, direct, and adding a pinch of sharp wit. "You can be so efficient with drawings and small captions," he says.

The comic strips are always in black and white, a compulsory trait that is actually perfect to portray a bleak routine and eerie existence under authoritarian regimes. "It was a publishing requirement, but I don't mind. I might use color in the future, but I don't really need it," the author says.

"Shenzhen is about me being lost in translation," the author explains about his China album. "I ended up being on my own, which I don't mind, but after a while I felt really alone and bored because of the difficulty communicating with Chinese people."

Delisle documents three lonely months as an animation supervisor in China. Shenzhen reveals a visit to a cold urban city that in 1997 is sealed off by electric fences and armed guards from the rest of the country. "It was a rough time. I was glad to leave. But when people read the comic, they have fun…that's the magic of storytelling," he says.

"I draw all these anecdotes [and] one day it will probably look like I had a great time here. Taken out of context, even boredom can probably sublimate itself and seem entertaining. It's a bit like memory."

Delisle's narratives are more about sipping snake bladders, paying 25 cents for a wicked dentist trip or working out in candle light at the gym. He focuses on the small details, such as all Chinese hotels look alike; there's "always a panel of buttons between the two beds to control your little universe."

There's no human rights discussion or other political statements, just hints of historical background, the ones Delisle spots along the way. "I like to work on the small details. I prefer to focus on the aspects I know I experienced because I was in a different situation than any basic tourist.

Alternative Tintin

Delisle is now a full time cartoonist. "It's really my subjective take on things, considering my background, culture and limitations. I draw myself and the reader ‘sees' me arriving with my bags to the place I've been sent to."

The author depicts himself as an alternative Tintin, bored but captivating. There are entire pages without words because pictures speak for themselves and animate the narrative. But he never yields to fiction: "It'd break the whole thing. The only manipulation I do is to select from my notes."

Set apart from history, journalism and fiction, Delisle's work is closer to a blog novel. "I'm comfortable balancing pictures, sketches and a bit of text. It's fun," he says.

Delisle feels that comics are just as valid an art form as a novel or a news article when analyzing serious topics. "Things have changed a lot in 15 years. There are more authors exploring new ways in graphic novels and more publishing houses interested in the genre. In the past, big companies would never do small format, black and white or something about a guy traveling. Now they ask me, why won't you do another Pyongyang?"

With the popularity of animated movies like Persepolis, Delisle's travelogues seem ideal to transfer to the big screen. But "I have no desire for that," he admits. "I come from animation so I know how this machine works and there's no magic."

He prefers drawing solo. "It takes a lot of people and money, and you need to compromise to make a film. I prefer to spend two years and do three comic books than just one movie," he adds. "I'm not so sure a story about a bored guy would make good films."

Changed perceptions

The author ended up in several war-torn regions because of his wife, who works for the NGO Doctors without Borders. Meanwhile his style matured. Pyongyang and Burma are sharper and bolder. "I come from animation so I tend to change style for every new project. But my perception also changed, so drawings are more concise, and easy to read."

Pyongyang was the "most impressive experience" and two months were enough for a book, which didn't happen after his stays in Vietnam and Ethiopia. "Pyongyang is more about a regime" to explain how difficult it is to be part of that reality. "They keep you in fear there, make you feel like you have to be ready for war. A lifetime in Pyongyang is beyond imagination."

Burma was a yearlong stay and different experience, with a son to take care of. The Chronicles are "about daily life as an expat among Burmese people. I had time to immerse in a routine but it was hard to understand what was going on there politically," he says. He describes himself as a father who steals some milk from his baby's bottle for coffee, revealing the lack of food and supply problems, showing a face of Burma beyond war and political control.

Delisle is working on a new book about Jerusalem, after living there for a year. "While my wife was working in Gaza, I was with my children and had the opportunity to meet journalists, and talk to foreigners from NGOs and the people from Jerusalem."

Now father of two, he's on a break. But in the future, "I'd like to go to Japan, it'd be nice to wrap up my Asian experience there. Also never been to South America. We were almost sent to Guatemala and it'd have been great. I'm curious about Peru."
 

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