Guy Delisle Comes to Politics & Prose

Before a packed house of over fifty people at Politics & Prose, graphic novelist Guy Delisle spent thirty minutes talking about his experiences, art form and lessons learned over the years while making his four volume graphic travelogue.

On a tour to promote his latest release, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, Delisle showed the humor and keen observation he’s known for in his books.  The French Canadian (he learned English while working on animation in Toronto) had no problem telling amusing stories from his travels over the years as he presented a slide show of his work.  The audience was engrossed with a portion of them unfamiliar with his past works and clearly not comic book or graphic novel fans.

Jerusalem chronicles the time Delisle spent in the city while his wife worked for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) helping the Palestinian people.  Along for the trip were their two young children, who are now 5 and 8.  Delisle began to explain that the life of MSF is ideal for the young and bachelors and that their choices are now limited with two children.  That’s a reason his travelogues will end with just the four books.  Before diving into comic books, he explained he was an animator, a field he worked in for 10 years and gave comics a chance when he discovered the French comic publication Lapin.  He explained comics are a good laboratory to try different story telling techniques and he covered numerous topics and styles himself.

He got the opportunity to write his first book, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, after the French animation studio he worked for sent him to the country to oversee some projects.  This was in his early 20s and he admitted he’s learned much about comic book story telling and the process since.  Throughout his time in the country he took notes and sketched, keeping track of his experiences.  He had to stop writing the book twice, for work, but that first book sold 2,000 copies which wasn’t bad since that graphic novel biographical genre hadn’t really taken off yet (this was in 1997).  In contrast his latest book has 100,000 copies in print right now.  Not bad growth.  His books pulled in many non-comic book readers who then explored what else the medium had to offer.  Post China, Delisle was sent to Vietnam but his trip there brought nothing that would be interesting in a graphic novel.  He didn’t have too much to say and explained to the audience it was a good time.

In 2001, he was sent to Pyongyang.  This was before September 11 and North Korea was a forgotten country.  This lead to his second volume, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Before his trip, everyone he spoke to said their time there was boring, so Delisle was unsure if there’d be interesting enough material for a book.  He knew he had something when he arrived and there were no lights on at the airport to conserve power and he was driven immediately to pay respect to a statue of Kim Jong Il.  As a whole, he could care less about the politics of the country and instead looked at himself as a representative of his company.  He was surprised to find Pyongyang wasn’t a ghost town with it shutting down only on Sundays much like Jerusalem on the Sabbath.  He was careful in what he attributed people saying as the country is rather paranoid and strict and he didn’t want to get anyone into trouble.  After that experience, he now collaborates with people more on what they say in the graphic novels and what happened.  The book has been translated into twelve languages and was published in South Korea.  He’s gotten word some folks in the North weren’t too happy as it gave a bad image to some individuals he worked with and the  country. 

Pyongyang raised his profile and lead him to talk about comic books and politics more on an international stage.  He worked on the book while in Ethiopia.  He also took notes during his time in that country, but like Vietnam, he enjoyed the time and had nothing insightful to say, so no graphic novel.

His third volume involved his time in Burma, Burma Chronicles.  He was given one week’s notice before leaving for the country.  He was originally to go to Guatemala with his wife, but they felt it was too dangerous for their young child, so instead it was off to Rangoon.  He was surprised to find the city quiet, with mostly expats living there.  He found the people to be friendly, especially to young children and explained the fathers carry their children everywhere since the roads are so bad.  This leads them to bond really well with children, something he took advantage of to learn more about the country and his surroundings.  He took his lessons from Pyongyang, which was more political than his first book, and explored a bit more about the history and political situation of Burma.

Delisle explained comics were perfect and efficient for this as you’re able to easily fit in humor with the politics.  A theme he came back to numerous times during his talk.  He found it important to go into these situations as not an expert and that helps him discover interesting quirks and observations about his time and also not have an opinion he’s trying to get across when it comes to the politics.

Jerusalem presented him with his first time to be in the Middle East.  He and his wife were to go to the Congo, but they felt that was no place for two small children.  He expected “European Jersualem” of the western part of the city before going, but lived in the much more depressed eastern part.  He came out of the experience realizing everything in the country is political or religious, down to shopping for groceries.  You have to take into account who owns the shop, what day of the week it is and who’d you’d be supporting with every purchase.  His first task of buying diapers became much more complicated because of this reality.  With taking care of his two children he also found he didn’t have much time to work and instead soaked in his surroundings.  Not knowing much about the history and politics was to his advantage and he talked to journalists and NGO staff to learn more.  He admitted the viewpoints he was getting were more to the left, but that’s because of whom he was surrounded by.  He broke up the book into phases just as he discovered his temporary home.  The book goes from his street, to the area surrounding and then his trips throughout the country, much like he did.  It was the small details that caught him in this one, like bags of bread hanging from dumpsters or the cats that looked like rats.  He remarked he wished he focused more on the cats in the book.  He had the chance to present workshops while there was hoping to find the next Marjane Satrapi.

He took questions after his presentation and told the audience he works on one page a day which allows him to build the flow and rhythm his books are known for.  His note taking and sketching, especially with his latest book, opened doors on his trips as people invited him into their homes for tea or in the case of Michael in his latest book, the use of a church room on top of Mt. Olive as a studio to work.  His notes work as a basic diary.

Out of his experiences he left us with this, “Burma was beautiful, Pyongyang was crazy and Jerusalem was tough because of the kids, security and guns.”  And that’s it in a nutshell right there.  A man able to sum up year’s of his experience in a quick observation.