Monday, February 15, 2010

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Is creating a graphic novel worth getting blacklisted by an entire country? Guy Delisle might be a good person to ask. He is a French-Canadian animator who spent two months in 2001 (before 9/11) supervising animation work out-sourced to North Korea. While there, he took notes on what he saw and experienced; these became the basis for this graphic travelogue. Apparently the fruits of his labors are not much appreciated by the current regime.

This result may not be so surprising given that Delisle does not paint a positive picture of North Korea in general, and of its capital city Pyongyang specifically. His response may be best understood via his situation there. Sequestered in a lightly inhabited hotel with limited dining options, Delisle was not allowed to travel without an accompanying guide. When he did get to travel, he was constantly confronted by bleak, spare surroundings, omnipresent images of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Sung-il, and propaganda praising North Korea and decrying its capitalist enemies.

So he paints a depressing national portrait. Most of the North Korean people are shown being fed a constant stream of propaganda through images, song, and film. They are fearful not to say or do anything to appear critical of the state. Stores are full of huge quantities of the exact same items, with hardly any buyers. Electric lights are scarce; fresh fruits and vegetables are only made available when foreign dignitaries are present; there are no traffic lights, and entire sections of the city are kept off-limits. Also, half finished construction projects, including the colossal, 2-decade-old shell of the Ryugyong Hotel and a largely unused opera house, abound.

Delisle has worked as an animator for more than a decade, working in a number of Asian countries. His wife is an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (known as Doctors Without Borders in the US), a job that has led to their family living in a number of different countries. Delisle has turned these experiences into other illustrated travel stories, including volumes about China and Burma. This news story from the National Post and this interview with TimeOut Hong Kong shed more light on his reasons for creating these works.

Reviews about this book are a bit mixed. Some reviewers, like Gary Butler see it as a work of activism, giving voice to a people who live in fear and cannot speak for themselves. Andrew D. Arnold speaks about how he is glad to see light shined on a country shrouded in secrecy while being disappointed that Delisle did not delve into how this experience changed him or add any particular constructive insight into the exchange between cultures. This range of reviews from Goodreads goes further with criticisms, with some reviewers calling Delisle racist and condescending to the North Korean people.

Pyongyang was originally written in French but was published in English by Drawn & Quarterly. They publish periodic news updates about his work here. They also have an 8 page preview available in pdf format here.

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