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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2006
By: Michael Aronson


(but see below)

Writer/Artist: Guy Delisle
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

if you know nothing about North Korea
if you know anything about North Korea

Guy Delisle has found himself a tough critic. While he should be commended for being, as far as I’m aware, the first graphic novel storyteller to bring his firsthand account of North Korea to the medium, I’ve already studied the nation extensively and am past the shock and awe of just about every fact and observation he makes within his book. Thus, I approached Pyongyang to see how well he could integrate this information into a clever and engaging story while enlightening the public about the true nature of the Hermit Kingdom.

And I’m somewhat disappointed with the execution. The information is all there, but I think my disappointment can be summed up in the line: “. . . why bother in a country that’s devoid of common sense?”

I won’t deny that Delisle is a capable storyteller. His reductive style lends itself well to each individual anecdote and scene shift, and he gets his points across quite clearly. The style also features a loose grasp on time which allows him to jump scenes as quickly as the story demands and to shift to a new concept as soon as the previous one runs out of steam. And thanks to the narrator’s limited perspective, his observations do lose steam rather quickly, but more on that later.

About the art, the one thing that constantly bugged me, and I’m sure I’m the only one, was the inconsistent depiction of hangul in the dialogue, buildings and propaganda posters. Hangul is the written form of the Korean language and many times Delisle includes enough genuine letters and phrases that can be translated correctly. Other times it seems like he was merely tracing from a photo with bland resolution or improvising with generic scribbles that sooner resemble Chinese characters. Like I said, I doubt many people know enough to spot the difference, but I don’t understand why he only went halfway with his renderings of the text and didn’t do a little research into the written language. Then again, his regard for the culture, or lack thereof, is rather transparent, but more on that later.

“My daily ration of hypocrisy is all used up – I refuse to add another layer or idiocy to the book.”

A good portion of the book reads like a cross between a tourist’s guidebook and a child’s “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”. There are factual tidbits here and there, though often lacking a textbook authority and going either by word of mouth or the description given by the guides on the tours. Delisle’s credibility as a narrator wouldn’t be thrown into question so much if his renderings were more accurate and if he didn’t misspell certain names, like legendary director Shin Sang-ok (not Shin Sank-ok). Even more suspect is his depiction or description of key sites and attractions, like the very central Ryugyong Hotel to which he devotes an entire splash page – but never names it. Again, the average reader might not know it had a name to begin with, but as the most visible source of information on North Korea in graphic novel form, this lack of authority and accurate information falls below expected standards.

The more personal aspect of the story – his work as an animator, the very reason for his stay abroad – is cute and unique, certainly something very few people can ever add to their resumes. As someone who’s read multiple personal accounts of visitors to North Korea, the animation studio segments stood out for me as the most interesting bits. However, I wish these segments had been better integrated into the tourism segments or had more relevance to the narrator’s learning experience, but instead were recounted as if in daily diary entries with no further significance.

“The little savant monkeys are displayed with great pride.”

But the ultimate problem with Pyongyang, one which rather offended me and will only further damn the North Koreans’ impression of westerners if they ever obtain a copy, is the narrow-minded egocentrism of the author/narrator. The above quotes may provide good hints at the attitude to which I’m referring, but page 172 depicts the best example. In his account, Delisle wanders off through Pyongyang, having finally managed to ditch his personal guide, despite all warnings and notification against doing so; when he finally returns, he comments on the extreme anxiety he found his guide to be suffering. However, Delisle never makes the connection, nor attempted any research, to conclude that the guide’s failure to perform his duties would result in punishment, ranging from the relocation of himself and his family to, potentially, death. Not once is this circumstance stated anywhere in the story because Delisle, though observant of all the cultural oddities he can’t be bothered with, refuses to fact-check or research or explore anything of the culture or politics other than his immediate surface observations.

But he isn’t a mere objective observer either. His account is littered with derision and ridicule for the culture. Granted, he’s surveying one of the last true functioning communist nations that daily ignores the internationally observed tenets of human rights and remains in an informal state of war with its southern component, but it never occurs to him to judge the country at anything other than face value. He continually mocks his guides for their unfailing expression of loyalty to the state, unsympathetic to their obligation to keep a smile on their faces at all times. He defies protocol at all opportunities, sometimes admittedly for the sole purpose of basking in defiance. And despite the extreme conditions the country lives in – of famine, of hyper-defensiveness, of propaganda – he nevertheless is compelled to remark about every unusual sight he happens upon, usually with a sarcastic or tactless remark.

I don’t think the protagonist of a story must necessarily be likeable for the story to be effective, but if the intent is to inform the readership of the inner workings of a reclusive totalitarian regime, the shocked-and-outraged perspective won’t offer any insight. At the end of the day, people are people, and where Delisle could have opted to explore a humanitarian perspective to understand the trials of maintaining such a sterile exterior, he goes for the cheap jab. North Korea is a country suffering in more ways than the author makes note of and I’m sure any reader could surmise this from his account, but rather than mine the heart of this suffering, Delisle achieves the literary equivalent of hiding a paraplegic’s wheelchair.

Pyongyang gets points for being both a well-crafted piece of art as well as the only of its kind of cover this subject matter, though I hope that latter status doesn’t last long. It’s a decent crash-course for anyone interested in North Korean society, but Michael Moore could sooner write an impartial biography of George W. Bush. Well, no, but you get the point.



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