Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

by Guy Delisle
Graphic novel

View the book cover

Casually glancing into a mirror, Guy Delisle is met with the stern grimace of Kim Jong-il. On closer inspection, a trick of the light has caused one of many images of ‘The Dear Leader’ to appear as the cartoonist’s own reflection. A gag at his own expense it may be, but the anecdote prods at the paranoia pervading Pyongyang. It suggests that omnipresence equates to omniscience: the walls have ears, and the ears belong to an autocrat. Delisle’s short stay in the communist country comprised many such sinister vignettes, recounted through sleight of hand.

Our mirth at the absurdity of Kim’s ubiquitous visage is punctured by a moment of fear. Giving his compulsory chaperones the slip, Delisle sneaks out to take some photographs of a nearby shanty town. When they discover his diversions, his guards panic. The hard edges of the graphic novel’s panels evaporate like a cold sweat, with text and visual clutter shakily dripping across a double-page spread, with the shift in style credited to a guest artist. In this environment of terror, the author is shown to consider the consequences that his absconding could have for those tailing him.

Words by Elizabeth Brown

Beyond sneaking a peek into the North Korean capital, Pyongyang reveals the thoughts of an illustrator combing an alien environment for material. Every detail is an opportunity. The ubiquitous portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, with their top-heavy frames, are angled so as to loom over any who meet their eyes. The Kims wear identical badges, and Delisle imagines that each bears the image of the other: you could zoom in infinitely, he suggests, looping in ‘the kind of short circuit animators love’.

Delisle spends daylight hours at a studio, grumbling about finicky briefs. ‘Important!’ one reads. ‘When the father finds out his children are lost, he should not be smiling.’ A picture of a grinning bear is pointedly crossed out below. Pyongyang, one line states, was rebuilt ‘according to the Great Leader’s plans’ after bombings. The next panel features a producer, checklist in hand, informing Delisle that his scenes require a redraw. The high workload and overbearing specificity suggest a parallel between dictatorial and directorial power.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can read an excerpt from Pyongyang here.

Question of the day

Are directors creative dictators?
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That’s a sad and often unfair caricature. The nature and terms of the collaboration between director and team members vary in each case.

– Cristina Álvarez López, film critic and audiovisual artist (via The Brief →)

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, sometimes a dictator wants a racehorse and ignores the complications it might get into trekking across the desert.

– Yumi Zouma, synth pop group (via The Brief →)

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