One of the primary tenets of the “comics as literature” argument is that comics are simply a medium of communication, and are therefore capable of telling a story or conveying information without being artificially limited to certain genres and maturity levels. An author or publisher need not assume that their audience is an adolescent male who is only interested in power fantasy and violent action. for those tuned into the medium, this couldn’t be more obvious, with books being released all the time that cover a wide range of styles, genres and moods. Even non-fiction is an option, which many people may find counter intuitive. How can you claim to be presenting a true story when you’re drawing the events? How can there be any objectivity in such a presentation? Of course, objectivity doesn’t come any easier from the viewfinder of a camera, or a writer’s pen (or word processor). And non-fiction doesn’t mean objective, impersonal, or unbiased. Are Persepolis or Maus any less true than a prose memoir?
French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle has been mining this territory in his output. Shenzhen and Pyongyang are autobiographical memoirs that recount his stay in the titular cities, in comics form. His third book in this vein, Burma Chronicles, is being released by Drawn & Quarterly in September.
I have to admit up front that I’ve never read Delisle’s previous books, but after my experience with Burma Chronicles, they have quickly risen to the top of my “must read” list. In Burma Chronicles, Delisle, his wife Nadege, and their young son Louis travel to Burma under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders, where they live for several months. Delisle recounts his period of adjustment to life in the dictatorial country, coping with everything from linguistic deficiency, culture shock, bureaucratic insanity, sweltering heat, and carpal tunnel. Everything from finding a house, to bribing the local officials, to searching for ink to work on his children’s book brings with it a new series of surprises, sometimes pleasant, sometimes thrilling, sometimes harrowing.
The politics of Burma are unavoidable, and color daily life for the locals and visitors alike. The house they end up staying at is within walking distance of Aung San Suu Kyi,the Nobel prize winner and political prisoner who has been kept under house arrest for over 12 years by the military junta she opposes. Between the daily sight of soldiers surrounding her house, the obvious and widespread censorship in domestic and foreign media, and the counterproductive machinations of the military bureaucracy, the atmosphere of Burma Chronicles is permeated with oppression.
Not everything is dour and cynical though.The family’s interactions with the locals run the full gamut of possibilities, from selfless generosity to annoyance and anger. Through the people they interact with, we get a vivid picture of daily life for Burmese people of all walks of life. Details like their household assistant’s Betel juice stained teeth, or the fat monk who comes by at an inappropriate time for alms, flesh out the social environment of the country.
His artwork is highly stylized, with angular, iconic figures that are nonetheless expressive. His backgrounds and scenery truly shine though, giving a real sense of locale and character to the places he’s presenting. The architectural pretensions of the nouveau riche are contrasted with the practical, rustic sprawl of the outlying areas. A handful of side trips are illustrated as wordless grids of small panels that feature surprisingly evocative drawings of the countryside and it’s ancient temples. There are beautifully detailed panels highlighting everything from the local plant life, to the evolution of a streetside folk art monument.
Burma chronicles is a quick, compelling read, that feel surprisingly deep and rewarding. The casual, personal tone is only occasionally interrupted to present essential background information on the history or culture of the region, but even that is engagingly presented. It’s ultimately a rich picture of a land that is completely foreign, both culturally and politically, through the eyes of a Western visitor. I finished it with a sense of familiarity, as if I’d been there myself, and seen it with my own eyes. It’s refreshing to see more work like this, or Persepolis, or Palestine, being released. An understanding of other cultures, especially ones that are presented antagonistically in much of our social discourse, is essential to a balanced an informed worldview. Comics are an accessible way to present that understanding to a wide audience, and thankfully, there is a small but growing number of authors willing to do that presenting.1 comment | Categories: Artist, Reviews | Permalink