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No ordinary guide to China

by David Cozy

SHENZHEN: A Travelogue From China, by Guy Delisle, translated by Helge Dascher. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006, 152 pp., $19.95 (cloth).

Surely those dinosaurs who believed that comics were suitable only for stories of men in tights have all died off. With the popularity of comics growing by leaps and bounds, it is now common knowledge that, like any other art form, they are capable of giving us the news about topics as diverse as the politics of Noam Chomsky, the philosophy of Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural, and the angst of Harvey Pekar. Artists such as Marjane Satrapi in her comics about Iran, Joe Sacco in his work on Palestine and the former Yugoslavia, and Guy Delisle in “Pyongyang” have shown us that comics can also be used to explore other cultures as effectively as the best travel writing and foreign reportage.

Delisle adds another to the shelf of what might be called travel comics with “Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China.”

Though it is no secret that China is not exactly a free society, the repression there, particularly in the special economic zones, is negligible compared to that which one finds in North Korea. Thus this book is less political than “Pyongyang” (certainly less so than Satrapi’s or Sacco’s work). Rather, in Shenzhen, the wit with which Delisle leavens his account of life in the Hermit Dictatorship comes to the fore. It is the endearing persona Delisle creates, an innocent abroad whose honest befuddlement allows for clear (if uncomprehending) observation of the strange land in which he finds himself, that keeps us chuckling as we move from one frame to the next.

Observation transformed into art is necessarily mediated by memory. Delisle makes this point early in the book when he compares what he sees during the 1997 stay on which this book is based with his memories of an earlier visit: “I realized,” he writes, “that I’d only remembered the good things . . . how exotic it was.” Beneath these words we see a decidedly unrealistic rendering of a traditional Chinese-style building atop a peaceful looking hill. In the next frame the text continues: “with time blocking out the bad, memory is always bound to be a bit naive and stupidly optimistic.” The drawing here is of the ugly Asia that will be familiar to any who have spent time in its cities. The white that dominates the previous frame is replaced by the smudgy grays and blacks with which Delisle both renders and obscures a tenement and the wires strung around it.

We move with Delisle from the grungy street into the hotel that will be his home. This room has a bedside console to manage the lights, and like every other traveler in every other similarly equipped room, Delisle never flicks the right switch on the first, or even the second, try. This is wryly rendered in four exquisite frames of graphic slapstick: now this part of the room is illuminated, now that.

Delisle’s travelogue is made primarily of this sort of accurate and amusing tomfoolery, with, mercifully, no grand narrative or startling insight intended to tie it all together. We simply follow Delisle through his days: days including Chinese dentistry (a frame dominating a page gives us a chaotic and anything but confidence-inspiring clinic); formally beautiful crowd scenes in which every bit of the page is taken up by faces and bodies; African dancers in a Shenzhen amusement park who are actually Chinese covered in shoe polish; reflections on (and pictures of!) steaming Chinese toilets.

The scenes Delisle sketches will be unlikely to make any reader want to visit Shenzhen, but few readers, turning the last page, will regret the journey they’ve taken.