A consideration of North Korea must be, one supposes, a howl of rage, a moan of despair, or some combination, and this anger and despair must certainly be molded into one of the standard forms available for expression. It could be a polemic, a memoir, an expose, or a harsh and realistic novel. It would not, one feels certain, be a wry and witty comic book, but Guy Delisle’s “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” shatters that certainty.
This account of the two months he spent in and around the North Korean capital and his chosen form — call it a “graphic novel” if you must — proves to be the perfect vehicle to convey not just the absurdity and awfulness of Kim Jong Il’s fiefdom, but also what it feels like to be a visitor from the West dropped into its gray and regimented midst.
Delisle, an animator and cartoonist, had the dubious privilege of parachuting into North Korea thanks to the globalization of the workplace. When animation studios in France found they could no longer pay their draftsmen First World wages they looked to illustrators in the Third World who would work for less. Even China came to seem too pricey, so the bean-counters next turned to North Korea, and thus Delisle was sent to supervise production of an animated feature at the Scientific and Educational Film Studio of Korea.
“The studio might have been intended to educate the masses,” Delisle observes, “but these days it’s used to attract foreign currency, most of it French.” Delisle’s ironic eye is evident here and throughout Pyongyang, and irony proves an effective lens through which to view the hermit dictatorship, particularly when Delisle’s sardonic view is contrasted with the apparently sincere convictions of his ever-present minders.
Delisle is compelled to pay a visit, for example, to the International Friendship Exhibition. There he is marched past displays of “gifts from the four corners of the earth offered to ‘the Eternal President’ “: “ashtrays, pedal organs, vases, rifles, pens, swords, fishing rods, an electric coffee pot, a flat screen TV, a bayonet, a gold medal, a bronze medal, a fridge, forks, stuffed animals, dishes, an alarm clock, a machine gun, elephant tusks, etc.” No comment is necessary to highlight the absurd megalomania that accounts for this odd miscellany, and Delisle has the sense to make none.
The culmination of his slog through the jumble of Kim’s junk is the demigod himself, or rather a graven image thereof. Following protocol Delisle bows to the wax effigy. He bites his tongue to keep himself from laughing at the reverence accorded the dummy, but is aware that the detachment of soldiers bowing behind him have in their eyes real tears. Unstated is the fact that for any of those soldiers to see the dark humor in the situation, to express amusement by even the slightest twitch or sniffle, would mean finishing life in a gulag — if they were lucky.
The illustrations — an integral part, of course, of any comic book — are effective throughout and especially good in expressing the tight control under which Kim’s subjects live. Amid the panels with words — sometimes a balloon containing a remark of Delisle’s, sometimes narration contained in a box — there are, for example, wordless pictures of a wind-up man, and full-page renderings of the kitsch monuments the Kims have built in honor of themselves. Not always clearly related to the narrative, they force home a sense of the constricted lives North Koreans lead in a way that words, or words alone, would not.
Horror, of course, underlies every moment of Delisle’s months in North Korea, but unlike Kim’s subjects he is able to allow himself small rebellions, as when he offers to buy a round of Coca Cola for his minders at a beverage stand catering to foreign tourists. They, of course, decline the opportunity to sample this pure product of capitalism, but Delisle partakes.
“Strangely enough, drinking coke becomes an act of defiance. It isn’t glorious but it’s good enough,” a narrative box above a guzzling Delisle tells us. In the adjacent panel, the sentence continues: “. . . especially since I’ve always hated this drink.” Lower down in the panel we see Delisle, with an eye on his minders, exclaiming: “Mmm! Delicious.” These words and the pictures around them are as necessary to each other as music is to plot in opera. They combine to create an effect that is, in spite of the underlying horror, comic.
Far from comic, indeed almost too frightening to consider, is the question that Delisle’s experiences oblige him to ask: “To what extent can a mind be manipulated?” That this comic book has allowed us to see what drove Delisle to ask the question, and to ponder its unpalatable answer, remind us that comics have never been limited to the comic, that indeed they can be profound.