Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle

There was a time not so long ago that I thought I didn't really like graphic novels. I can no longer remember exactly what I thought graphic novels were--a roommate I'd lived with for awhile was big on Love and Rockets and a very cursory glance made me think it was too cool or countercultural or something for me. I felt that I'd outgrown whatever interest I'd ever had in superheroes long before, ditto comics based on cartoon characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or Scrooge McDuck. I'd never really been crazy about Japanese cartooning style--frankly, the eyes kind of freak me out. In short, nothing really spoke to me.

Then, a couple of things happened. First, we had a really creative guy on staff who was very into them, and then I came across Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. McCloud's impassioned advocacy for the form and it's possibilities, not to mention the fact that he wrote the form in comic book form himself, won me over. I discovered Adrian Tomine's Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Dan Clowes' David Boring, Posy Simmonds Gemma Bovery,  and R. Kikuo Johnson's Night Fisher. Turns out that I really like graphic novels. I forget about them sometimes, but when I come back to them, I am almost always gratified. Such is the case with Burma Chronicles.

I had heard of Delisle before, but it took Adrian McKinty's blog post on the book a couple of months ago to get me interested. I seem to have forgotten about it until he mentioned it again elsewhere. We had a couple of copies around at the bookstore, and I picked one up and read it while hanging out at the information desk. It was a nice way to do it, actually, as I didn't race through it, a problem sometimes with graphic novels, but read it over the course of a couple of days.

Delisle has written several travel style graphic novels by now. This is because he is married to a French, or at least French speaking woman who works for the heroic organization Doctors Without Borders (or in their case, Médecins Sans Frontières). His episodic story chronicles the year they and their young son Louis spent in Burma/Myanmar. As is the case with North Korea, sometimes we forget that there are real people just trying to live a life under a repressive regime. Delisle doesn't have a huge political  ax to grind--he's just an observer. But his observations often gain an extra charge from his understated style. He portrays himself as just a guy, who often complains and often wonders why a certain thing must be so.

I like reading the printed word--a lot. But the graphic novel is a very compelling and absorbing form if you allow yourself to surrender to it. There is something about the marriage of image and word that takes you very far into a story, or at least it does me. I don't think that if Delisle had just decided to write a kind of diary of his time, it would have worked as well. He would have had to fill it out more, introduce some other elements. But as it stands the book is just right. Thanks to his illustrations, we can read between the lines.


  1. Seana

    I liked that book when I read it but it has really grown on me and still resonates with me now a few months later. Nothing histrionic about the art, just simple drawings that are very clear and good.

    I gave it to my wife to read and after she finished she said I know why you liked it - because he IS you.

  2. You know, I kind of thought you might identify with it a little.

    It's very absorbing in an understated way.

  3. MSF are in the heart of the Libyan civil war. Total heroes those guys and gals.

  4. Absolutely. Also, my current reporter hero, Richard Engel.

    There was a great short piece on Rachel Maddow tonight about an eleven year old who had taken it upon himself to take over traffic control in Benghazi.He seems to think of it as doing his part towards Libyan freedom. Not doing a bad job of it, either.