Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

By Guy Delisle
184 pages, black and white
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Some places in the world are mysterious because they’re physically remote; places covered by jungle, or amidst treacherous mountainous terrain, or perhaps isolated islands within the Pacific Ocean. It was thinking along those lines that initially drew me to Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang; it’s an incredibly remote place not through physicality, but rather because of a policy of isolationism. I expected to find a vague idea of what it’s like to live in North Korea through Delisle’s book. What I ended up with was so much more.

Guy Delisle works for a French animation studio that subcontracts work out to a North Korean company. When Delisle is sent to Pyongyang to supervise production on a new animated television series, he is warned in advance of what he can and cannot bring into the country with him. Once inside its borders, though, he finds a world where restrictions and routine are a way of life.

It would be easy for Delisle’s Pyongyang to be little more than an anti-North Korea screed, playing on fears by making the country full of militaristic monsters. What we get instead is a still-opinionated but calmer approach to his travels there. Perhaps the best thing about Pyongyang is how Delisle’s able to describe how Pyongyang is a city built to be a showcase that almost no one can ever actually visit. It’s an impression that Delisle builds up slowly, first concentrating on the reason why he’s actually there (supervising animation) and then we begin to slowly gain an understanding of the country. The immediate stop to the statue of former President Kim Il-Sung seems a bit exaggerated and over the top at first, but as Delisle continues to show near deification of Kim Il-Sung, both through words as well as the art, it begins to sink in more and more until Delisle’s looking into a mirror and seeing the deceased President looking back at him barely has you bat an eye. Likewise, the multiple (and virtually identical) restaurants in the hotel for visitors named #1, #2, and #3 seems a little hard to believe until Delisle shows us the extravagant subway of which foreigners never see more than two stops, and the elaborate museums in honor of Kim Il-Sung. In Delisle’s eyes it’s a place designed in many ways by trying to cater to the expectations of others and what they would expect to find in a capital city.

There’s a nice sense of humor that runs throughout Pyongyang. Delisle is clearly the kind of person who is able to laugh at the situations he’s in rather than take them too seriously. It’s a generally sarcastic tone, with Delisle always finding something to chuckle at from his overly serious translator to his own weight gain while in North Korea. When Delisle does get serious about his journey to North Korea, it’s a noticeable shift in the travelogue. Often it’s in the form of a rhetorical question; upon wondering if North Koreans really believe the propaganda that they’re barraged by, Delisle immediately follows this up by calmly pointing out not only the restrictions on traveling outside the country, but the ever-present fear of being sent to a rehabilitation zone (along with the rest of your family) and never heard from again. It’s a sobering response to his initially flip question, “Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” It’s this ever-present switching of tones that ultimately makes Pyongyang work, being both grim and humorous and understanding when each should be used to a make a point to the reader.

Delisle’s art in Pyongyang is a simple, angular style that relies heavily on gray pencil shadings. It’s a wonderfully expressive style, which considering Delisle’s earlier career as an animator shouldn’t be surprising. Delisle understands how to break a figure down to its basic form and make it able to move gracefully across the page, showing just the right moments and motions to make the character come to life. Delisle saves most of his detail-rich art for what rightfully deserves it: the scenery of North Korea. It shines in his chapter breaks, full-page drawings of impressive architecture and scenes that sum up the next section of the book. Looking at the massive buildings and opulent ballrooms, it’s almost staggering when you think about it, all the effort and thought put into creations that almost none of its intended audience of the outside world will really see. It’s excellently illustrated, and really brings Delisle’s ideas and recollections to life.

Pyongyang is a really fascinating book; it’s a chance to look behind the proverbial curtain and learn more about a city whose connection to the rest of the world is simultaneously growing closer and farther away at the same time. In the end you feel like Delisle’s experiences have only touched the tip of the iceberg, but that even with such limited knowledge you are beginning to gain an understand of this truly distant nation.

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