An Evening With Guy Delisle

Last week, I met Guy Delisle

His name may mean nothing to you, and his work is somewhat obscure and not as well-known as it should be, but I went way out of my way to attend an “Evening With” event held under the auspices of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival at a Toronto movie theater. It included a Q & A, a screening of a documentary called “The Delisle Chronicles“, and a book signing, courtesy of Toronto’s The Beguiling

Guy Delisle with UT Professor Nick Mount in Toronto May 3, 2012

My father first introduced me to Delisle’s work, when he gave me a copy of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea as a Christmas gift. I was instantly hooked. Sure, I read comic books when I was a kid, graduating through to graphic novels when Art Spiegelman’s Maus was released in the early 90s, which showed a wide audience that comics didn’t have to be all fantasy and superheroes, but I wasn’t an aficionado by any stretch. What I am is a fan of travelogues, insightful, concise, observational writing, and countries so closed off from the rest of the world that they’re all but forbidden to visit.  Delisle’s bibliography is here, and his YouTube videos are here (including a small snippet from Delisle’s visit with a Bedouin family, which is discussed in his newest book). 

I’ve read and re-read Pyongyang many times, and have also read his other travelogues, the Burma Chronicles and Shenzhen . I enjoy tracking how Delisle’s maturation took him from doing animation gigs in eastern Asia as a single man, to accompanying his wife (with kid) to Burma for a year as part of her job with Doctors Without Borders. 

A few years ago, his wife’s work took them to Jerusalem for a year. They lived in Arab East Jerusalem, and his wife’s work took her to Gaza during a particularly tense period. Jerusalem is Delisle’s most ambitious travelogue work to date, and is broken up into chapters featuring particular observations he had during each month of their stay.

During his talk, Delisle explained how the character he uses for himself isn’t fully fleshed out, and represents only a portion of his personality. But he also noted that, except for North Korea, he went into each country as neutrally as he could. He had no preconceived notions of the situation on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but in his own inimitable way, he explains what a horrible place it is, filled with both earnest and terrible people who all essentially practice some religious variant based on the same foundation, yet can’t figure out a reasonable way to co-exist. 

He is torn when confronted with the shopping options at a nearby settlement, but relents when he sees Arabs shopping there, as well. He’s astonished by the separation of Jews and Arabs in Hebron, where each population – unable or unwilling simply to coexist – clings to its particular victimization through past massacres by the other. 

Delisle left Canada about 25 years ago, and lives now with his wife and two children in the South of France. His wife has left her job with Doctors Without Borders, and they have no plans to live in any other third world or strife-ridden countries in the near future. To some degree, then, Jerusalem isn’t just something of an epic, but a coda. Delisle has taken to fatherhood and in his own self-deprecating, insightful way, has begun using that as a theme in his newer works.  During the Q and A I had asked him, now that they weren’t going on any extended third world stays, whether he might do a memoir of his pre-Shenzhen life.  He’s got an interesting story – kid from Quebec City goes to Toronto to learn animation, drops out to work for a Montreal studio and becomes an accomplished animator and accidental cartoonist. He said he did not, and that he was focusing instead on his life as a dad. 

Delisle signs my copy of "Jerusalem"

As for new books, there’s Louis à la plage, and Louis au ski, and I’m sure his younger daughter, Alice, will become the subject of a book or two, as well. He’s also started a series called “Bad Dad” with several entries at his website (in French, click on the images to see the full strip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).  

Delisle’s work isn’t as well-known in the US as it is in Canada, but he just concluded a month-long book tour of North America.  Through following his blog of his time in Jerusalem, I knew a book was in the works, and that I would buy it, but it never occurred to me that I might actually get to meet him, much less do so in a small audience and get there early enough to get a second-row seat. To say I geeked out over the whole thing would be an understatement. 

As I stood in line to have my books signed, a woman came by to tell us that Delisle would sign them all, but he’d draw a picture only in one. A picture. As the line moved along, I watched him look at which book people presented to him for drawings, and he would commence to draw characters from that particular book – a Burmese general for Burma Chronicles, Captain Sin from Pyongyang, or perhaps a rabbi or his daughter, Alice, for Jerusalem. 

When my turn came, I presented a new copy of Jerusalem for him, and he drew his own character: 

I didn’t get some supporting character – I got the protagonist himself. We chatted briefly, and when I mentioned I came up from Buffalo especially for this event, he joked, “but I was just in Buffalo last week!”  I mentioned the story about my dad buying Pyongyang for me, and he remarked, “oh, your father is a comics fan”, and I replied, “not really, but he’s a fan of books about communist countries, since he emigrated from one in the 60s”.  We then talked about certain parts of the book that were typical for any communist economy – like the Yangkaggdo Hotel‘s “Restaurant No. 1” and “No. 2” which were essentially identical to each other, and to the “No. 3” which was undergoing renovations until the last few days of his stay, and when it opened it was just like the other two. We both laughed. He was done signing the other books I had, and like that, the event was over, and I walked out into a monsoon.


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