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Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China

by Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle appropriately quotes Baudelaire in his new graphic non-fiction title, Shenzhen: “Bitter the knowledge we get from travelling!/ The world, monotonous and mean today,/ yesterday, tomorrow, always, let us see our own image/ an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.”

A French-Canadian expat living in France and working for Dupuis Animation, Delisle oversees cheap-labour animation houses in the Pacific Rim for months at a time. He does not speak the language or seem to find anyone he can connect with, so we get a unique look at the people and customs of a place the author does not understand, and can only explain in relation to his own experiences in the West.

In one sequence, the narration moves from a rumination on Delisle’s average work day – specifically, how he deals with the shoddy animation turned in by the animators under him – to a short, diagrammed lesson on basic animation (demonstrating why the work being done for him is so bad), to a one-page summary of weeks of exchanges between Delisle and someone trying awkwardly to reach out to him in a way he feels may not be appropriate, and finally to a demonstration on how to ride bikes in Shenzhen. These separate glimpses of the Shenzhen puzzle all reach us on the same emotional level, with one not seeming any more important than another.

And yet, it is hard not to be charmed by this travelogue; the art communicates a real feeling of place, and each detail kept me reading. Delisle attempts something bolder here than the clean pencil work of the companion volume, Pyongyang, using charcoal and grease pencil to give us heavy blacks with less actual line work. Geometric shapes in the design bring to mind China’s oppressive industrialization, the pushing of form over life. Shenzhen is an odd combination of intimacy and alienation.