"Christ!” Guy Delisle exclaims at one point during his two-month stay in the North Korean capital. “The things an animator has to do to get a gig.”

That combination of despair, disbelief and wry humor is typical of the engrossing nonfiction graphic novel Delisle has produced about the experience, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.

A French Canadian, Delisle arrives in Pyongyang to supervise animation outsourced by a French television company. Things are strange straight away as he disembarks into a completely unlit airport. (In many respects, the Dark Ages still prevail in North Korea.) Delisle’s guides, meanwhile, awkwardly present him a bouquet of flowers.  Only later does he realize that he’s expected to lay those flowers at the bronze feet of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.

Delisle’s panel shows himself and his two guides bowing low, literally overshadowed by the 22-meter-high statue. As the book often suggests, Big Brother is always looming in Pyongyang.

It’s appropriate, then, that Delisle thought to pack Orwell’s 1984—appropriate and a bit gimmicky, too. One night in bed, he struggles to read for lack of light when an overhead lamp mysteriously turns on. Thankfully, the incident occurs without comment. Instead, Delisle uses his art to deftly convey his confusion and anxiety.

Delisle is expert at invoking the odd, the unexpected, even the surreal, all of which Pyongyang predictably provides in abundance. How wonderfully strange, for instance, that of the 50 floors in Delisle’s hotel, only a single floor is lit, and only part of that floor is occupied. Much of the regime’s power, it seems, is mere artifice.

To his credit, Delisle’s method is often elliptical enough that a second reading is necessary to fully appreciate the terror that lurks just below the surface of his drawings. In one incident, Delisle is listening to music alone in his office when one of his Korean handlers pokes his head through the door. “You have to turn down your jazz!” he barks. “It could be a bad influence on the others!” Delisle then pulls back to show himself in the darkly shadowed office, alone.

Delisle peppers the narrative with enough history and politics to orient the non-expert reader. He doesn’t claim to be an expert himself, and he’s best when noticing what only an animator would: for instance, that the omnipresent framed photos of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, are slightly wider at the top than at the bottom. This, he tells us, is to prevent glare, but it “also intensifies the gaze in this face-to-face encounter.”

On the other hand, the author stumbles when he rolls out statistics about famine deaths or rice rations that he doesn’t back up with any sources. “It’s estimated that 50% of the people here have, at some time or another, served as informants,” he writes, without bothering to say how he knows this.

One might be tempted to take his word for it were this not North Korea, a closed-off place that forces its people, writes Delisle, to “live in a state of constant paradox where truth is anything but constant.” Such a comment might have led to an exploration of how we can know anything about this Hermit Kingdom, but it doesn’t.

Delisle also never directly questions the ethics of his being in Pyongyang, which is strange. At one point, he wonders about a project in which two French telecom engineers are installing a high-definition transmitter. “An obvious priority for a country getting the most aid in the world!” Delisle scolds. But the criticism could just as easily be reversed. Why are foreigners like himself so comfortable making a buck off a government that starves its people?

Because it would make for a sweet comic book?

Delisle frequently sketches moments charged with ambiguous meaning, but he refuses to linger or think too hard. At a museum, a wax figure of Kim Il Sung stands alone and smiling, so realistic that he seems about to speak. “Behind me, a detachment of soldiers bows down,” Delisle observes, “tears in their eyes. As agreed I bend over along with my hosts, biting my tongue to keep from laughing out loud.”

Absent any explanation, Delisle comes across here as a bit cruel. Sympathy for such brainwashing is hardly on order, but until there’s more empathy and understanding, North Korea will forever remain unreachable.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle; translated from the French by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly, 176 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, December 2005



In his graphic novel Pyongyang, Guy Delisle dutifully sketches various propaganda posters he comes across in the North Korea capital. His art is always outstanding except for one detail: He fudges the Korean language. He makes it up. In fact, it’s tough to tell sometimes whether Delisle knows much of anything about Korea or Korean art.

For an authoritative look at art in the totalitarian state, turn instead to Jane Portal’s Art Under Control in North Korea (Reaktion Books, $35, 192 page). Portal combines a clear and concise overview of the politics and history of North Korea with an examination of its art. She notes that in spite of the nationalistic Juche, or self-reliance, ideology, North Korean art is essentially derivative. A statue of Kim Il Sung looks just like statues of Stalin or Saddam; the Arch of Triumph, meanwhile, is a slightly larger version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, itself based on a Roman design.

Art in service of the state tends to have similar characteristics, Portal argues. It’s grand in scale and realistic in style, occasionally idealistic, and always “educational.” Over 60 years, this has produced in Korea such a high concentration of Socialist art that “Pyongyang as a city provides a kind of theatrical or film set for the Socialist state.” With its many beautifully colored reproductions and photos, Art Under Control might cause readers to wonder—if only for a moment—whether this is such a bad thing.