Frank Sinatra sang about waking up in the city that never sleeps. For a two-month period in 2001, Quebec animator and cartoonist Guy Delisle woke up in one that apparently never dreams. Delisle’s travelogue, Pyongyang; A Journey in North Korea, recounts his almost existential sojourn in what he aptly describes as a “phantom city in a hermit nation,” a showcase capital brimming with monuments, municipal halls, and museums, yet shockingly devoid of quotidian life.
North Korea is infamously known as a secretive nation, socially fortified and with no desire whatsoever to look beyond its borders. But a shattered economy and a starving population in excess of 20 million recently led the world’s only communist dynasty to court foreign investors. Hence Delisle’s surreal, somnambulant non-adventure working on a French-produced cartoon series. Non-adventure, because Pyongyang is a graphic novel about a city where nothing happens – or if anything does, ignorance is favoured over plausible deniability. While Seinfeld and his brand of zany outrageousness would have had a field day with this material, Delisle’s own propensity for wry commentary is more powerful for affecting quiet outrage in the reader. To wit: electric lights are forbidden after dark and all radios are locked on official stations and checked every three months for tampering, but Delisle’s (smuggled) pocket radio fails to pick up any unofficial stations. Meanwhile, “eternal president” Kim Il-Sung remains in power, despite having died in 1994.
Like the best observational writing, Pyongyang is simultaneously a work of non-fiction and a fish-out-of-water story. It’s cartoonish style allows for an entire extra level of play to both document the artist’s escapades and comment on his circumstances. Delisle’s greytone style is captivatingly simple, rendering people as abstract caricatures (himself appearing as bit of a beak-nosed Fred Flintstone) and reserving careful detail for inanimate objects – buildings, clothes, buses, guns, etc. The message is that the city is more real than its citizens. And though Delisle worries for the North Korean people, detecting the “mute, hidden terror” underlying the “thin veneer of their smiles,” he opts for affable subversion (joking with his humourless translator, lending his guide a copy of Orwell’s 1984) rather than making outright judgements.
So while Pyongyang reads like cartoonist Craig Thompson’s breezy and introspective European travel diary, Carnet de Voyage, its content dictates that it be filed beside political artist Joe Sacco’s hard-hitting, from-the-trenches graphic novels about Sarajevo and Palestine – minus the first-hand accounts of violence, drama, and abject poverty. Because while a city can’t cry for help, maybe the odd cartoonist can act as a proxy.