Guy Delisle has worked in animation for many years and created a number of books for children and adults, but he is best known for his travelogues. In the books “Shenzhen” and “Pyongyang,” He wrote about his experiences working on short-term contracts for animation companies in those cities. His last book, “Burma Chronicles,” was a little different, following a year in the secretive country as Delisle accompanied his wife — an administrator with Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders — with their infant son.
Delisle’s latest book is “Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City,” published by Drawn & Quarterly. Earlier this year, the book received the Fauve d’Or or Best Comic Book Award at the prestigious Angouleme Comic Festival. Following a year that Delisle spent in the city with his wife and two children, the book doesn’t avoid politics, but is more concerned with everyday life in the city. The challenges of getting from one side of the city to another, dealing with life abroad with two young children and the stories of the people he meets from all walks of life. Widely considered to be Delisle’s best book to date, the cartoonist is currently on tour promoting it in North America including stops at Skylight Books in Los Angeles this Saturday and the Toronto Comics Art Festival next weekend. CBR News spoke with Delisle about the book, the research that goes into his graphic novels and what he has planned for his next project.
CBR News: While your previous books have been about places that are not well known, that’s not the case with “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy Land.” And it’s a place where, no matter what you say, it will bother or anger someone. Did this affect how you worked on it?
Guy Delisle: Not so much, actually. When I came back, I read my notes just like I do with all the places I’ve been. For this one, most people know Jerusalem and know the basic facts about the government and the politics. I didn’t want to be too complicated because it’s a comic book. I didn’t want to write a thesis. My challenge was to explain more than what we usually know about the situation, [but] not so much that the book would be boring. I don’t want it to be too serious. That was different from the other ones, that’s for sure, but I just started reading my notes and put everything I thought would be interesting in the book.
The book was a great source of information about odd details about how the city operates, like the parallel transit systems. How important was it to present all that information?
I don’t try to explain the whole situation. I think that would be impossible. I said right at the beginning that this is going to be the story of an expatriate who doesn’t know much about the conflict. Which is true. The reader knows who is going to walk in these streets and have these observations. I walk on the streets of East Jerusalem. From that point of view, I see [the Arabs] have their bus and it’s not taken by the Jews, and the Jews have their own bus. I’d never read about that in any article.
I just want to take my time. I have the whole year, so I just take notes. I much prefer to work with small details like that about the way people live there. For me, that’s very important. These two bus systems reflect more than just the bus going from one place to the other. It’s about the way they live. That was interesting to observe. After three hundred pages of small observations, you kind of have a general picture when you look from far away.
Your work really has that feel of giving a sense of place through the accumulation of small details.
I don’t try to explain everything. I spent a year there talking with journalists and humanitarians and UN people and I had a lot of information. [Laughs] If I spent a year in a place, what would I see? What interesting things would I see if I would spent a year in the East Village of New York like I am now? That’s what I have done with East Jerusalem. [I show] what I see when I’m there. I didn’t want to explain the whole history of the area.
It’s always felt to me like you’re creating a comic about your daily life, and it stands out because you’re telling stories about unusual places.
Yeah, I don’t chose the places. [Laughs]
How do you work? In “Pyongyang,” you mentioned that you would sketch on the right hand page, take notes on the left hand page and you would construct book from that. Is that still how you work?
Essentially. I just take every day notes. It’s nothing spectacular. It’s not literature, just, we went there, we saw that, blah blah. Sometimes I forget a few things, so on the left page I write more details or do a very quick sketch if it’s easier to sketch, but usually it’s just text. When I come back, I need a little distance of a few months. I forget a lot of stuff. I read the notes and go, oh yeah, that was very interesting. I remember I should talk about that because later in the year it became more interesting.
Why do you need a few months distance?
I made the mistake when I was in Burma. I was reading the notes I’d been taking after being in Burma for six months and thought, I can do a book with this. It’s interesting enough. I started to do the book based on things that were happening at the time. I’d say, oh this was fun today so tomorrow I’ll draw about that. When I came back to France and I finished the book, most of the stuff I drew while I was in Burma didn’t work. It was working at the time in Burma, but with the distance it didn’t work, so I removed almost twenty pages. I learned that I really needed the distance; it’s better to work from memory and my notes. Our memory kind of filters the things that are not so important and for me, that’s precious.
Do you read many travel books?
I’ve read a few. Not because I was thinking I should learn from them, but I’ve always been interested. There’s Nicolas Bouvier whose “L’Usage du monde” is such a masterpiece. An interesting one is Nigel Barley. He’s an English guy, an ethnologist, and he went to Africa. He’s quite funny because he tells more behind the scenes work than what he was doing as an ethnographer. All the problems he had with the tribes and the people that tried to rip him off and he’s very funny. His books are a lot of fun and you get to learn about ethnology at the same time. I really like that mix. That has probably influenced me talking about my work. In “Shenzhen,” I explained what it is to do animation in some detail. I knew that it would work because I really liked when he was explaining his work as an ethnologist and then you go back to more narrated stuff. I like that mix.
Do you see any cartoonists doing something similar to what you do? People sometimes mention Joe Sacco, but you two are very different.
I agree. We are very different. I’ve seen small ones, but they’re French and I don’t think they would be names you would know. There is one book about a guy who was in Afghanistan called “Kabul Disco” that I thought was interesting. He was there for about a year, I think, and he talks about everyday life in Kabul. That really looked like the stuff I do and it was well done. I liked it.
Before you go on these trips or afterwards in France, do you read a lot about the country?
No. I’ve done that once only, when I went to Pyongyang, because I knew that I would be with translators and they would give me the basic propaganda answers all the time. I thought, well, before I go there I’m going to read as much as I can. That was before September 11 and North Korea was not as well known. It was this forgotten, remote country. There were about five or six books I found, and I read them all. They were always mentioning George Orwell’s “1984.” I read it when I was younger, but I read it again. I was halfway done and I thought, well, I’ll bring it with me and finish it there. I didn’t know I would pass it around or that the guy in the border would look at my bag and say, “What is that book?” [Laughs] It was very strange. That was the reason I brought the book, just to finish it.
That was so I had enough information so when I was asking, what’s this or what’s that, I knew actually a lot of stuff. I was waiting for their answer to see, okay, they’re saying this to me, but not that. I didn’t do it with “Jerusalem” or “Burma” because I knew I would be surrounded by people who have been there for years. It was very easy whenever I had a question to go to these guys and to talk to them.
“1984,” I would imagine, was a handy reference for Burma as well.
Yeah. I was blown away. [George Orwell] wrote that in ’48 and that was just the beginning of some of these countries. He anticipated the whole thing so brilliantly. It’s such a fantastic book. And reading it there was quite an experience. [Laughs]
I can imagine. Now, you’ve done other books which are more comic, besides working in animation. Do you think they have anything in common with your travel books.
Somehow they do. I’m more of a comic type of guy; I just happen to be in serious countries.
But to do a book for children is very interesting for me, too. I’ve done two children’s books and two more for adults, and I’ve used actually these tools in some of my books. They cross over, somehow. In “Burma,” I wanted to explain the touristy place we visited because it was a bit strange from the rest of the year. For me, the best solution was to use a different type of language.
Have you ever thought of assembling a book of your architectural drawings or sketches?
Yes. That’s going to be released this year from my publisher. We decided to make an extra book for the ones who are interested in seeing the sketches. I didn’t put them in the book because, graphically, it just didn’t fit in the comic.
Just sketches from the year you spent in Jerusalem or sketches you’ve made over many years?
I’s a companion to the “Jerusalem” book, so it will just be from the year I was there in Jerusalem. I have hundreds.
I read a while back that your wife changed jobs.
Yeah. We’ve been traveling with children and they don’t do that too much in MSF. It’s much more for bachelors with backpacks than families, really. We tried that for a few years, but on the last one it was quite complicated. I mentioned it a little bit in the book, but it was quite hard on me. The kids are now eight and five, and it’s time for us to stop doing that. She knew she wouldn’t do that all her life, so it was time for us to stop.
Do you have a next project in mind?
Well, I have different small ones that I’m putting on my blog. I think one of these will make a small book. I have a bigger one I keep postponing. I’m going to start working when I finish here and I have a more quiet life in September. For once, I’m going to write about someone else’s experience. That’s going to be a change for me. This guy in MSF who was an administrator and he was abducted in Chechnya. He managed to escape three months after he was abducted. I’ve worked on a first draft and he read it and it’s going to be a big one as well. That should be a year or two.
Have you thought about creating book about your life in the South of France? Or Quebec, where you grew up?
I don’t know. I’m going to go to Quebec this summer and I’ll see how it goes. I’m going to start with just a few sketches I want to do about the city of Quebec. In France, I don’t think so, because now I’ve spent half my life in France. I like to have that culture shock distance, but that’s gone now. Now I’m too much in the place. I don’t see it. [Laughs]
You’re on tour here in North America. Is there anything looking forward to seeing?
No, nothing specific. I have a few hours here and there. I’m just going to walk around and see as much as I can. I’d like to see the White House because I’m going to be in Washington for a day and a half. That’s about it.