by Guy Delisle
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2004)
Most devotees of such programs as The Simpsons, King of the Hill and many, many children's cartoon shows know that, without a North Korea, much of our animated programming wouldn't be on TV today; it's ironic, to say the least, that some of the most iconic, counterculture and alternative programs from the decadent West are (or were, prior to 2001) funneled through one of the most the autocratic, totalitarian countries in the world.
In 2001, French-Canadian illustrator Guy Delisle went to work in North Korea for two months to supervise the production of a children's cartoon. Delisle was one of handful of foreigners, along with diplomats, allowed inside the walled-off world. His graphic novel Pyongyang details the two months he stayed in the austere city, where Kim Il Sung, father of the infamous Kim Jong Il, is still the president, even though he's been dead for 10 years.
It is, at one and the same time, a portrait of near complete despair and a warmly humanistic look at a culture that seems to have come from another planet entirely. Every citizen is required to wear pins with pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il; there is no Internet, no radio or TV other than government-sanctioned propaganda; pictures of both Kims must adorn every wall, except the bathroom; and "volunteers" are seen cleaning the roads and streets. Delisle's every step is shadowed, because he is never allowed to go anywhere without a translator and a guide accompanying him at all times. He isn't even allowed to have a bike or a cell phone. To say it is a stringent existence, where any sort of individuality is stamped out very early on, is putting it far too lightly.
Delisle's fascinating record of what he saw in his two-month stay never descends into satire or pointed political observation. In fact, his respect for the people of North Korea is clear on every page. Rather than be amused by the paranoia that controls their daily existence, or descending into pity, Delisle manages to convey his admiration for people who live in a world that is so distanced from reality that it is surreal, not unlike the cartoonish world in which he immerses himself at work. There is humor but it is very easygoing, extending more from Delisle's own realization that he is a stranger in a very strange land, than from any observation made at the expense of the culture itself.
There is no denying that it can be a bit of a depressing read at times. One anecdote of Delisle being told to turn down the acid jazz CD he's playing because it "could be a bad influence on others" leads to the realization that no music of any kind, other than government-approved nationalistic hymns, is allowed in North Korea. It is difficult to deal with such overpowering, repressive control on a daily basis and not feel alienated, as Delisle begins to feel quite early on in his stay. The power of the state, and the indivisibility of its occupants, is the way of life.
But what keeps the book fascinating is Delisle's sense of humor, his tiny acts of rebellion and his complete refusal to feel any sort of moral superiority, which keep the narration moving along at a good clip. Delisle's clean, clear lines and strong sense of caricature are deceptively simple: there is more contained in each panel than a first read permits. There are neat juxtapositions and fascinating angles that do more to illustrate the story than a mere travelogue could ever do.
Pyongyang is as timely as it is important. It's not only a damn good read: in a world of Patriot Acts and uncurbed governmental excess, it may even be a necessary one.
by Mary Harvey