Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Description: Famously referred to as one of the "Axis of Evil" countries, North Korea remains one of the most secretive and mysterious nations in the world today. In early 2001 cartoonist Guy Delisle became one of the few Westerners to be allowed access to the fortress-like country. While living in the nation's capital for two months on a work visa for a French film animation company, Delisle observed what he was allowed to see of the culture and lives of the few North Koreans he encountered; his findings form the basis of this graphic novel.

Stats: Non-Fiction Graphic Novel, 192 pages, Edition Published by Drawn and Quarterly, September 2005.

My Rating: 3 STARS

When I think of North Korea I find it incredibly difficult to wrap my head around. There are a lot of How's? and Why's? attached to it and I always leave my search for answers with more questions. One being shown on the cover of Guy Delisle's, 'Pyongyang'. When I think of North Korea I think of a country staged for a performance to the entire outside world. Sometimes it's a performance of threat and danger and other times it's a performance of perfection. Either way, what I see is something rather confusing and scary even.

In Guy Delisle's graphic novel we get a look inside of North Korea unlike most others. As a foreigner, Guy is staying in Pyongyang for two months working as an animator for a French company. This alone was fascinating. When asking the question: "Who is traveling to North Korea?" Animators wasn't among the answers I was expecting. He is given a guide and a translator that follow his every move and spends most of his time working or seeing the tourist sights.

This graphic novel is very much about the bubble he lived in as someone visiting the country. We don't get a look at North Korea overall and we don't get to see much behind the curtain of the North Korean production as Guy walks within the strict perimeters he's given. It's a different perspective then what I was expecting, but a worthwhile read for the experience of Guy's day to day life in this unseen world.  

The art in this book is a very important part of the narrative. The expressiveness and movement of the people tells you a lot about their individual character. From the foreigner friends Guy makes to the North Koreans who act as his co-workers and his guides. Although every person has an important part in the story of Guy's experiences, we don't get to know a whole lot about them. You have to rely a lot on the character design to tell you things that aren't shared in the narrative.

Speaking of character design the only let down in the art would be the design of Guy himself. This being a memoir of sorts, he has to have his own image in the story. Unfortunately, despite the fact that much of the graphic novel is about his reactions and opinions, his character was stark, simple, paired back compared to other characters, and most of the time drawn without a mouth taking away much of his facial expressions. This as a creative decision doesn't make sense to me considering the tone of the book. But the time and detail spent on the backgrounds and formatting still made the book very visually appealing.

French edition cover
What I appreciated most about Pyongyang was that as a graphic novel it was an easier read for me then if I were to sit down and attempt a 300 page novel about the country. Although it lacked the detail I hoped for about North Korea overall, it has inspired me to look into reading more about the country, especially paying consideration to the aid workers that are given more freedom and see more of the country then people in Guy's position.

Overall, I would recommend it for the curious. It was certainly an interesting introduction to the country and perfect for the graphic novel form. I'll definitely be looking to read more of Guy's travel graphic novels and maybe even more in the travel genre itself.

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