As a general rule, we focus on comics and graphic novels that were released (or re-released) in the last month or so, but we’ll make an exception for Pyongyang. Originally published in 2004, Guy Delisle’s travelogue about his time in the North Korean capital made headlines last month after terrorist-style threats and an alleged North Korean hack of Sony curtailed the release of The Interview, a comedy film about attempting to assassinate North Korean President Kim Jong-un. The debacle also resulted in the cancellation of a film based on Delisle’s Pyongyang, which is a shame.
While Seth Rogen and company certainly have a First Amendment right to poke the bear and make films about Kim Jong-un that focus primarily on butt jokes, it’s not a story that tells us very much about the reclusive country, and certainly not about the people most victimized by its dictator. Delisle’s book delves into the artificially imposed strangeness of North Korea’s biggest city—from the massive, architecturally unsound hotel that cannot be acknowledged to the traffic cops standing sentry over empty streets. It also allows us to see some of the people who must live under this terrifying regime, and the fact that they are indeed people and not just props for an elaborate series of jokes.
Although a country in the thrall of a dictator who imposes extreme absurdity can make for easy parody, there’s a danger in focusing so exclusively on its weirdness—on how comical it seems to us—that the people suffering horrifically under his rule remain invisible. Delisle’s book evinces a far more important truth: North Korea isn’t an absurd comedy. It’s a surreal tragedy. Read Pyongyang.