Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2004)

Sometime during my teenage years, my mom started listening habitually to NPR. In fact, if you were to walk through her house today, I guarantee that you would never be out of earshot of one radio or other tuned in to some human interest story about a guy who has built a solar-powered wildlife shelter for tuna...or something. Now, as a young lad I just wanted to jam to punk rock, and I had no time for BBC News and Talk of the Nation, because those things were obstacles to me listening to And Out Come The Wolves 50 times a day.

But a few months ago my iPod ran out of batteries during my commute and by some masochistic impulse I switched on the radio and tuned into NPR, and it's since gotten its grimy hooks into me. What was an unbearable ordeal to me as a rambunctious youngster has turned into a daily ritual: listening to NPR while driving.

Why on earth am I telling you this? Well, the other day there was a news piece on North Korea and one of the commentators mentioned, in passing, Guy Delisle's 2004 autobiographical graphic novel Pyongyang. I was so blown away by the premise that I went out immediately and bought a copy.

Here is an interesting tidbit that you can casually throw into conversation at a cocktail party: a large amount of conventional (non-computer) animation for Western firms is done in North Korea, including Disney blockbusters like The Lion King and Pocahontas. The (maniacal) North Korean state owns several animation companies that do a lot of the "grunt" work for large foreign companies. It's very similar to most industries, really. Our Nikes, for instance, are designed in Oregon and sold in Chicago, but they're stitched together by toddlers in Kathmandu, or wherever.

Anyway, the Western companies send liaisons and conceptual artists to North Korea to oversee production. Guy Deslisle is one of these. A Canadian animator, he traveled to North Korea to work at SEK Studios, one of North Korea's largest animation companies, on behalf of his Canadian employer. As opposed to the incredibly railroaded and brief visits of some American journalists that you may have seen (like the Vice Magazine report), Delisle was given a surprising amount of access, since he was A.) an employee and not a tourist, and B.) not American. He had to be accompanied by a guide at all times, like all foreigners, but he didn't bring a camera with him and thus he had a lot more leeway to wander off than would be given to a journalist. However, as an artist, Delisle was able to later draw clear depictions of what he saw from memory, and these drawings became Pyongyang.

I am so in love with this premise that I was willing to overlook several things that would otherwise have been obstacles to me enjoying the book. For one thing, I've never liked comic books. This is strange, because I've been a dork my entire life and I've always proudly displayed all the figurative badges of dorkdom -- Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Magic: The Gathering, etc. I just never connected with comics. It wasn't a lack of exposure; growing up in the Chicago suburbs it is literally impossible for a boy to not own a few comic books at some point. I just never really felt like they provided a logical path for my eye to follow, and generally just found them visually confusing. It didn't help that most superhero-oriented comics have pretty weak stories. I had a vivid imagination as a kid and even back then I found most of the stories overwrought and pointless. I got into chapter books at a pretty early age (not to brag or anything), and so I never really had a use for comics, and thus never formed the sort of lifelong attachment to them that a lot of men my age seem to have.

On that score, I subsequently never got into the whole "indie" "graphic novel" scene, and in a lot of cases I find that sort of thing a bit repellent. Keep in mind this is just my personal prejudice talking, and I have no doubt that there are artists creating worthwhile works of power and beauty within the medium, but the basic line drawings and overly-confessional tone of most of the indie comics I've perused seem almost knowingly infantile. A bit cutesy, to put it more simply. When an artist makes a conscious decision to make his main character's face a couple of lines and dots, they are generally removing much of the visual medium's potential for emotional nuance, and that means it falls to the dialogue to explain a bit too much to the reader. And given that a few small panels are in their own right a space-limited forum in which to express ideas, the finished product usually comes out facile and overly simple, thus giving off a childish quality, whether intentional or not. Essentially what I'm saying is that indie comics aren't really my bag, baby.

However, Pyongyang is a fascinating case where the medium is a natural consequence of the creator's real-life circumstances (wanting to depict the weirdness of life in North Korea without the use of a camera), and its interest is dependent on that. This book undeniably works best as a graphic novel, and for that I am duly impressed as a non-comics fan. In many cases, the surreal facts of living in the world's most viciously totalitarian state are softened by Delisle's gentle, spare visual style; much of this imagery is the definition of "politically charged" and the fact that it is delivered in this form takes much of the edge off and allows for more rational analysis.

That is not to say that the content of this book is any less bizarre and shocking. The only way you wouldn't know about the North Korean regime's sadistic draconian grip on the whole of its population would be if...well, if you lived in North Korea. This final bastion of brutally severe Stalinism is the most closed and secretive society on the planet, and to catch even a glimpse of its daily goings-on is to see unadulterated surrealism. There is a pervasive cult of personality built up around Kim Il-sung, the North's founding dictator who, despite the disadvantage of being dead for 17 years, is still officially President. Nearly meeting him in (short, pudgy) stature is his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, celebrated psychopath and horror film enthusiast. Together they form the world's only communist familial dynasty.

An interesting theme that Delisle explores is this sort of extreme conversational opacity that I experienced many times during my stint in China. When talking to somebody about politics (I used to try to talk to my coworkers at my dad's office), it's generally like having a conversation with a very polite brick wall. If you ask someone a relatively straightforward question, like "Don't you think it would be nice if you could express your dissatisfaction with something your government is doing?", you will most likely get an extremely circular and convoluted answer that winds up proclaiming that the state is amazing, God bless the state. It's this weird mixture of propagandist cultural programming and extreme Asian politeness that runs the gamut from coming across as naive to being viciously passive aggressive. In Pyongyang, Delisle depicts this sort of exchange quite deftly, and in varied situations. I was impressed with his ability to capture the essence of its weirdness.

Another recurring motif is the limited resources of North Korea and the bizarre hierarchy of priorities that dictates how those resources are used. Take electricity, for instance. Much of the 50-story hotel Delisle lives in during his stay is completely unlit. At night the city is plunged into darkness, as rationing does not allow the citizens to even light their own apartments. However, when foreign delegations stay at the hotel, the entire thing is brightly lit for the duration of their stay to give the impression that energy conservation isn't an issue. When Delisle is given a tour of the elaborately pointless Pyongyang subway system, it too is completely illuminated. Issues like this are tied up with the general Asian cultural feature of "saving face", twisted up with bizarre North Korean logic and social control.

In much the same vein, Delisle is taken on many "impromptu" (they are very carefully timed and arranged) visits to various North Korean cultural landmarks, like a visit to a museum that is full of gifts to the Dear Leader from governments around the world, which range from comically everyday items like forks to gold to elephant tusks. There is also a museum featuring paintings of American soldiers forcing a child to drink motor oil. Everything that is shown in North Korea serves a dual purpose: to deify the elder or younger Kim, and to undermine the global powers that threaten North Korea's supposed hegemony. The gap between this internal image of North Korea and its leaders and the opposing reality is so bizarre that it's funny, and Delisle capitalizes on this absurdity frequently.

Any foreigner living in Pyongyang must inevitably confront feelings of guilt. After all, foreigners live like members of the government's ruling elite; they eat piles of oily food each night while people mere miles away are literally starving to death. I thought Delisle could have done a more thorough job exploring this particular avenue, but he does reference these guilty feelings a few times and the human mind, after all, is adept at normalizing strange circumstances.

To that end, Delisle injects quite a bit of wry humor, if not outright fun, into the proceedings. With not much else to do, he often gently pokes fun at his omnipresent guides, and the jokes are made much funnier by the simple fact that they are obliviously humorless throughout. To rise to a position where one becomes the face of the country for foreigners, a North Korean must distinguish themselves as being a fanatical ideologue, and this unwavering devotion to the regime is actually quite funny in its strangeness. It would be tempting to portray these particular people as inhuman freaks, but Delisle's depictions are really quite affectionate, and he takes pains to suggest that they're simply the product of environment.

Although the book is autobiographical, I thought its weakest point was that Delisle spends a lot of time focusing on the details of his animation job and explaining non-Korean related things about the animation industry. I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to care about this stuff. His job is often a springboard for weird interactions and experiences, so I understand that he must give a cursory overview of what he's doing, but there are a few times where he simply talks about animation and it is unrelated to his treatment of North Korean society. I found these instances disruptive and self-indulgent.

While we're on the subject, however, I'd like to give my take on Delisle's drawing style. Despite the fact that I spent some time up front emphasizing that I'm not a huge fan of this kind of DIY-style comic book, I think Delisle's intensely personal, "small-time" drawing style works incredibly well within the context of this material, because it emphasizes the unbalanced power dynamic of the individual running up against a monolithic state. While this type of drawing is typically used in confessional, whiny stories about romantic relationships and the like, here it is transposed onto a much larger and more dramatic stage, and it is interesting to see how Delisle exploits that. A statue of Kim Il-sung, for instance, looks suitably huge. and it is drawn in this interesting three panel page:

The motion of the reader's eye, top to bottom, is against that of Delisle's eye, which goes from the shoes up to the face. This sort of visual conflict would simply not be possible in any other medium, and once again it is nice to see Delisle take full advantage of such opportunities. And although much of the book is simple line drawings (but very nicely shaded line drawings), Delisle includes full-page chapter-dividing drawings that are beautifully composed and evocatively drawn. It is in these drawings that he best captures the loneliness, sadness, and strangeness of the country. In an empty, half-darkened banquet hall, for example, the scene is made more powerful by the depiction of Delisle sitting alone at one of its many tables. Because although the invisible majority of oppressed common people are kept off-limits to Delisle and thus are not really depicted in the book, it is in the emptiness of the lavish banquet hall that one can feel their presence, through their absence. The reader can feel them there because they are excluded, both from Delisle's interactions and consequently from the drawing itself.

Although I've tried to give an overview here, the truth is that this is a book that works on its own terms, and the only way to experience it is to read it for yourself. I will say this about it: if a non comic reader such as myself was completely transfixed by it for the three hours or so it took me to read it, I would say that it is a work of considerable power. It is a completely novel approach to the persistent difficulty of conveying the reality of life in North Korea to outsiders, and as such it is also a work of importance and significance. Understanding North Korean society will continue to be relevant well into the future, even if/when the regime topples, because it is an almost pure example of the power of social programming. Pyongyang, I feel, captures the essence of this dynamic in a way that has been impossible to accomplish with more traditional forms of media. It is a fine work, and to top it off I had a lot of fun reading it, so you should too.


  1. Thanks for the tip, I am definitely going to check this out.

    I was actually thinking of this the last time you posted to your blog, although this entry is more germane to the thought, but do you remember that Chinese guy at OSU who you really didn't like? I don't remember the particulars and I hope that is specific enough, but Ramsey (weird guy from Korean class) and I were standing around talking about you and this guy is like "Cook, Peter Cook?" and then he told us that even though you said you were in China or South Korea or wherever it was at the time you were actually in North Korea, because really, who doesn't want to go to North Korea?

    That was the first time you rolled out (to me) the ol' "Of course, I'm in North Korea, the tree bark is delicious!" which I've seen used a few times since but that first time was always my favorite. Peter Cook and his zingers, oh my...

  2. Peter,

    OK, this has taken me for frickin'-ever, but I finally added this site to my blogroll as I've been saying that I would do for the last couple of months. Returning the favor would be swell.

    Very interesting post you have here as I'm pretty obsessed with this bizarre country. Are you familiar with the book The Reluctant Communist? It's by Charles Robert Jenkins, a former US serviceman who crossed the DMZ and defected to North Korea in the 1960s. He's been living in Japan since he was allowed to leave Pyongyang back in 2005 or so. Although he was rather naive to do what he did, the book is still a fascinating story nonetheless and highly recommended.

    See you around in LG or WP.


  3. Hi Peter. Will come back for more. You not only like good things but also know why you like them. Furthermore you have the language and ogical sophistication to present them. COngratulations. Please keep on doing this.

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