Nonfiction Graphic Novels

I previously read Pyongyang and Shenzhen by Guy Delisle, and really enjoyed them, and when I saw that he also had books on Jerusalem and Burma, I was very interested in reading those, as well. I was living in Boulder at the time, though, and the local library didn’t have copies, so I backburnered it and of course forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago, when I thought to try my new library system, which happily had both! Jerusalem was available first, and when I went to go pick it up, I browsed the other offerings in the adult travel graphic novel section (a small section, certainly). I picked up Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story as well.

Being your typical clueless American, I hadn’t quite put together that all three books were pretty much talking about the exact same region. I had just figured that I am generally sort of confused over issues in the Middle East, and perhaps a graphic novel or three would be able to break some of the issues down in a way that I could understand. If libraries weren’t stringently against keeping rental records (for exactly this reason), I’m sure I’d be on some list somewhere.


By Guy Delisle

Book cover: JerusalemJerusalem is about twice as long as Delisle’s previous books, which is explained toward the beginning when he describes how he and his family are moving to Jerusalem for an entire year for his wife’s work for Doctors Without Borders. By this point, he has made enough of a name for himself as an author that he is spending the year solely working on this graphic novel, while also taking care of the children and doing the occasional lecture.

Delisle’s style is quiet and nonjudgmental. His strength as an author and illustrator comes from showing the reader these foreign cultures through his eyes as a traveling Westerner (he’s French Canadian), so it feels very personal. Several times, I laughed out loud, which is somewhat unusual in a visual media such as graphic novels, and two specific pages related to the other two authors of this blog: 1) Kinsey, apparently you are not alone in playing the game “Hipster or Priest”, and 2) Rebecca, I believe you, too, own some of the Helsing manga?

Like his previous books, this one focuses primarily on his own small, daily experiences trying to navigate a new culture, only referring to more global politics when it touches on him directly. For instance, a recurring theme throughout the book is him attempting and failing to get permission to travel into Gaza to lecture at a university there. In fact, after his fourth and final failure, he wonders if perhaps he is being mistaken for Joe Sacco, a reference that pleased me since I was reading his book next.


By Joe Sacco

Book Cover: PalestineI have to admit that after Guy Delisle, Joe Sacco came as a bit of a shock and I was initially quite turned off. Like Delisle, Palestine is an autobiographic account of Sacco’s experience in Palestine, but where Delisle is quiet and personable, Sacco is loud, crude, and in-your-face. He is very clearly influenced by the R. Crumb school, which is not my favorite either, and I found his bold lines and clustered text boxes aggressive and claustrophobic. Sacco portrays himself as a bit of an asshole, self-centered and cowardly, and I initially took his word for it, but slowly began to think it is defense mechanism on his part, protecting himself emotionally from so many needy people that he is not in a position to help.

What finally sold me on the book is the sheer amount of information he has managed to pack into it. While I enjoyed Jerusalem more, Palestine gave me a much better understanding of the current situation, and the history that brought about it. As the title might reveal, the book is very much in support of an internationally recognized Palestine, which is not a perspective we hear much here in the United States, and it seems to me that it is an important perspective to hear.

Once I got over my initial bias, too, I started to notice that Sacco is a beautiful illustrator when he wants to be, drawing very detailed and delicately inked vistas depicting the scope of the conditions in the settlements.

Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story

By Ari Folman

Book Cover: Waltz with BashirI had initially picked this one up because the illustrations are beautiful, like little paintings in each panel. I was not real clear on where Lebanon is (I may or may not have thought it was in South America, the Texas public school system at work.) I had certainly never heard of Bashir before.

It turns out Waltz with Bashir was actually an animated film first (you can see the trailer here) and the graphic novel is made up of frames from the film. It also turns out that Lebanon is just above Israel, and Waltz with Bashir centers around the Israel Defence Force’s invasion of Lebanon. I figured that after the previous two pro-Palestine books, this would be my Israeli perspective.

The book (and film) is an autobiographical account of Folman attempting to recreate memories of his experience as a young soldier in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War, when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to install a pro-Israeli Christian government headed by the titular Bashir Gemayel. Folman knew that he had been stationed near the horrific Safra and Shatila Massacre (Christian soldiers under Israeli protection slaughtered between 762 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians), but had no memories at all of that time or place.

A friend of Folman’s, also stationed nearby, began having nightmares 20 years later, which inspires Folman to begin to dig into his own past. Clearly, it is not a happy book, and it, too, is quite critical of the Israeli military, so I am three-for-three on the pro-Palestine front. (If anyone wants to recommend a solid pro-Israel book on the subject, I’d be happy to check it out, though I’d prefer a graphic novel, clearly.)

Which brings me to my conclusion: while nonfiction graphic novels seem a little odd at first, they are palatable media for communicating very complex and charged information. There is no way that I would read a multi-hundred-page book, or even a dozen-page article, on the Israel/Palestine issue, but I happily and quickly ran through several hundred pages of these three comic books combined. They only made me marginally more informed, but they made me a lot less ignorant, if that makes sense. I don’t think that I could instruct someone else on the nuances of the various issues, but I know enough now not make pat judgments, either.

Burma Chronicles

By Guy Delisle

Book Cover: Burma ChroniclesDelisle’s Burma Chronicles came as a welcome relief after the building heaviness of the Israel/Palestine books above, though it is also Delisle’s most political book. He still writes very much in his first-person perspective, but Burma (or Myanmar, depending on your politics) has such a restrictive government that it interfered quite a bit in his daily life. Burma Chronicles takes place after Pyongyang and Shenzhen, but before Jerusalem; Delisle, his wife, and their infant son travel to Burma for his wife’s work in Doctors Without Borders. For the nine months that they are there, Doctors Without Borders attempts to reach outlying minority groups, with the government blocking their efforts until they eventually pull out altogether. This book highlights Delisle’s main charm for me: at the same time as he lightly touches on global politics, he shows us individuals in a very real light, so it becomes easy to look past the cultural differences and see the basic humanity underneath it all.


Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea; Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China

By Guy Delisle

Kinsey, these may be the comic books for people who don’t really like comic books. They are really more travel journals that use the illustrated panels to give atmosphere in a way written descriptions can’t quite capture.

The author is an animator who gets sent to various sites to oversee the outsourced animation, so in addition to the interesting locales, he also throws in a few details about the animation business, which is equally interesting to me.

Book Cover: PyongyangPyongyang: A Journey in North Korea was published in 2005. A couple of pages in, I realize that this is Eloise for adults! He lives out of a hotel for the entire trip, and has a guide and translator who serve as nannies for him, escorting him anywhere he travels outside of the hotel. The atmosphere he describes in North Korea also sounds very similar to that in Eloise in Moscow, first published in 1959.

Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, published in 2006, is a disconcerting contrast to Pyongyang, still very foreign, but in an almost diametrically opposite way. After being immersed in the very communist North Korea, every mention of Rolexes and Gold’s Gyms comes as a bit of a shock.

Book Cover: ShenzhenAt the beginning of Shenzhen, Delisle says that he has trouble starting the writing/drawing process, and I have to say that it shows. It is much more a collection of vignettes and is a little disconcertingly random, while Pyongyang has a much tighter story narrative. I think that Delisle found his stay in Pyongyang not more enjoyable, exactly, but more interesting, just due to the foreignness of it all. He finds Shenzhen a bit of a grind, and it shows. I would recommend reading both back to back like I did, since I think they are good companion pieces, but if you are only going to read one, go with Pyongyang.

(From my quick research, he has also done graphic chronicles of Jerusalem and Burma, both of which I very much look forward to reading.)