A comic book can be more than just a comic book. In fact, some are essential reading. Guy Delisle’s ‘Pyongyang’ is one of them. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Delisle, he has a number of graphic novels under his belt (all of them excellent), but perhaps the most illuminating is ‘Pyongyang.’ In 2001, the artist was sent into the North Korean police state to work on a project for a French animation company. ‘Pyongyang’ is his first hand account of a country that comes straight out of the Twilight Zone.

Guy Delisle Pyongyang

Did you guess who the spy was? The answer was #6, because he wasn’t wearing his official Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il pin.

Guy Delisle

In America, people who wear American flag pins are sometimes laughed at for their patriotism. In North Korea, citizens wear pins of the “Dear Leader” because not doing so might get entire families a one-way ticket to the gulags.

If Shin In Geun’s “Escape from Camp 14” showed the free world the bowels of North Korean police state, Guy Delisle’s ‘Pyongyang’ is the skin — more specifically the dermis — the middle layer that is more authentic than what the majority of the outside world is allowed to see (the epidermis), but also not the inner workings of the Communist regime (the subcutis).

Before we move on, let us briefly revisit ‘Escape from Camp 14,’ if only to appreciate a bit more just how close Mr. Delisle was able to get to the belly of the beast:

Shin’s story revolves around his life at Camp 14, a “total control” camp, which meant he was born there and he would die there. His earliest memories were of watching executions—mouths filled with rocks and bound tight (we can’t have anyone criticizing the Dear Leader in their last moments) before rounds of bullets blew their heads off. Camp 14 had a prison camp within a prison camp (where Shin was tortured). Sons and daughters are taught to snitch on their parents, snitch on their peers and to live in a constant state of paranoia. Women are raped and then executed when they become pregnant. Starving kids like Shin find themselves picking undigested kernels of corn from animal feces…to eat. In short, the North Korean regime seeks to strip every ounce of humanity from its citizens, and they have shown that they are willing to go to great lengths to succeed.

Not everyone in North Korea was born into a “total control” camp; some of them have a modicum of freedom. They use that to … buy red or blue shoes. Sadly, no white at the department stores Mr. Delisle was given access to.

Guy Delisle Pyongyang store

The entire book is fascinating, from the stone-faced translator “Mr. Sin” to movies like ‘The Destiny of a Member of the Self Defense Corps.”

Guy Delisle’s ‘Pyongyang’ manages to be informative, funny, sad, irreverent and incredibly frightening all at the same time. If you have a know-it-all teenager or relative who takes their own freedom for granted, slip a copy under their door one night. If you want to know what it might be like to live in another dimension (or perhaps the United States on a long enough time line if we continue to erode the pillars of Western Civilization?), head on over to your local comic shop and purchase it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Guy Delisle Kim Jong Il

Guy Delisle Journey

Guy Delisle Journey into North Korea

Guy Delisle KJ

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

40 comments

    1. Well, doesn’t school survey sound like something the Kims would do or did right before coming to power?

    2. Well, speaking about the Kims, how exactly DID they take over North Korea? For that matter, how did Communism hit the Korean peninsula in the first place?

    3. Well, I’ve had a long day at work, so unfortunately I can’t give you an extended run-down. Long story short (and someone can correct me if I’m wrong): World War II ends, and pieces are divvied up among the winners. The U.S. gets South Korea and the Soviets get North Korea. Stalin installs Kim Il-Sung. The North tries to take the South soon afterward; The Korean War begins and ultimately ends in 1953 in a stalemate. Hence, the 38th Parallel.

    4. Furthermore, why does North Korea like to invite foreigners there like the writer of this graphic novel? Do they HONESTLY think they’ll write about how great it is there and educate us ‘poor, deluded Westerners?’

    5. North Korea needs a certain amount of outside help, and it gets it through a pretty selective process. Overall, they actually do a pretty good job of preventing the flow of information out of their country. As time has gone on that’s become increasingly difficult, but in general they’re masters at allowing individuals to see only what they want them to see. As Carl’s post demonstrates, Kim Jong-Il was running gulags where men are tortured by having giant hooks jammed through their testicles, but yet the world’s focus for many years was on whether or not al Qaeda scum in Gitmo got three Islamic meals a day and a prayer mat.

    6. Wow…I just LOVE how the rest of the world both hates us yet holds us to higher standards at the same time.

      Speaking of the rest of the world, don’t you just love it when people from Britain or Australia call us out for our “dysfunctional” government even though that’s how it was SUPPOSED to and INTENDED to work to make it harder for the kind of BS that goes on in those places?

    7. Well, the funny thing is, we used to have statesmen who operated within our system of government. Now, we have (mostly) goofs. So, instead of admitting that they’re a bunch of goofs, they blame the system. The reason why they can’t agree on budgets is because they’re the morons who let the debt get to $17 trillion. They painted themselves into a corner, and instead of taking personal responsibility for their part in it all … they blame the Founders! How convenient. Let’s blame the dead guys who liberated the nation and set the stage for the U.S. to become the world’s lone superpower within record time.

    8. Guy Delisle is a Frenchman, right? Also, what possible animation project could he accomplish with an animation studio that involved going to North Korea?

  1. Sounds interesting. Makes you feel glad you live in the U.S. and don’t have to worry about being sent to camps. I wouldn’t expect the know-it-all LIVs to understand that, though. They’re too busy demonizing this country and conservatives/the GOP to be outraged by what goes on in North Korea.

    Lord knows I’ve been mocked and laughed at for my patriotism… many times.

    1. Regarding know-it-all LIVs, I remember once told my sister about the work camps in North Korea and asked her why, as a supposedly “compassionate” liberal (an oxymoron if there ever was one), she didn’t bother to condemn that during her anti-Gitmo rants. Her response? “Well, that’s just propaganda. What happens in Gitmo is worse, so STFU.”

    2. Sorry for the triple post… Of course, that isn’t to imply that I’m comparing the two (and I have nothing against Gitmo or waterboarding), but I was showing that by ignoring the stuff that goes on in North Korea and jumping on the MSM-fueled anti-Gitmo bandwagon, my sister’s priorities were in the wrong place.

    3. Hey Carl: speaking of intrusive governments, what do you think about the government spying on US citizens and how they killed the son of one suspected terrorist even though he was not a terrorist himself and was a US citizen?

    4. On that note, how big is government surveillance in North Korea if they are admittedly poor and not exactly technologically up there? I’m assuming they don’t have satellite surveillance and, as this article stated, really mostly on rats to rat other people out, but what other means do they use?

    5. I suggest going to the library and checking out Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Seriously. It’s an eye-opening book. That will tell you everything you need to know about North Korea.

      ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,’ is another great book.

      It really is the definition of Orwellian. Everyone is a potential “rat” — including family members. It’s the ultimate fear society.

      You may already know this, but in many ways North Korea depends on China for its survival. It’s not in China’s interest for it to collapse and be absorbed into South Korea because a.) the U.S. is S. Korea’s ally and then they have us right on their border, and b.) No one wants millions of N. Koreans running across the border looking for a new home, a job, etc.

    6. What happens in Gitmo is worse, so STFU.”

      No offense, but your sister’s ignorance on this issue is painful. It’s cringe-worthy. The fact that she would tell you to “shut the f**k up” with such authority … when she’s so very wrong is both sad and humorous.

    7. None taken, Doug. I feel the exact same way about her. Not just her politics, but her as a whole. That’s her standard response to me, and also our folks.

      And yes she is very ignorant.

    8. I guess the one thing you can feel good about is knowing deep down that you’re right and they’re wrong. If they’re so partisan that they actually equate Gitmo with North Korean gulags, then at some point I’d just laugh it off. I wouldn’t say they’re beyond hope, but their barbs should almost be turned into a badge of honor.

    9. Yes, indeed, I often laugh at clueless people like that, even my sister (who has pretty much said that she doesn’t want anything to do with my folks and I.. long story there, but that would be off-topic). I’ve given up trying to convince them that they’re wrong, because they won’t let facts penetrate through their insane worldview.

    10. For what it’s worth, back when I was still on Facebook, she commented on one of my Bengahzi posts and said, “OMG STFU.” That’s her idea of “debate,” resorting to profanity and even demeaning those with whom she disagrees.

  2. Hi, I’m new year, great blog. I’m surprised to see how many wide-ranging interests we share. Do you have any graphic novel or comic book series recommendations for conservative readers (even if not overtly political)? I notice you’ve pointed out how leftism has creeped into comics in various ways, but is there anything on the flip side?

    Also I’d be interested in reading your opinion and interpretation of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Though Alan Moore is considered a fervent liberal, these books seem to raise deeper philosophical questions that don’t fit neatly into the left vs. right dichotomy, so I can see them appealing to people of all viewpoints. I’m a fan of them both.

    1. Anon,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll try and give you a decent response soon, but I’d say Guy Delisle’s books on China, as well as Burma are also great reads. ‘Maus’ and ‘Maus 2,’ by Art Spiegelman are classics.

      I think artists in general will almost always be more liberal because, for whatever reason, the right brain lends itself to emotional arguments, etc. Conservatives come across as cold and uncaring because they’re logical (e.g., we understand basic math and economics — and use it). Sometimes we go to far, which is why guys like Mitt Romney come across as uncaring — when nothing can be further from the truth.

      Anyway, I’ve discussed Watchmen before. I’m glad you like it! I think it’s a work of genius that inadvertently makes the case for conservatism. It’s so layered that regardless of your worldview you can enjoy it. That crazy right wing nut job, Rorschach, was the one guy who knew what was going on. He had the most accurate reading of man, even if his way of dealing our fallen nature was … psychotic.

      Have you read ‘The Umbrella Academy’? I definitely enjoyed that. ‘Umbrella Academy: Dallas’ was a good read as well.

    2. (Same person as Anon) I haven’t read any of those, but I’ll add them to my goodreads list. Have you checked out the new series Jupiter’s Legacy? Some of the younger characters are Occupy-types, but they are frowned upon by the older generation and don’t seem to be too respectable, though they do seem aimless and confused by the world around them in a way that isn’t entirely their fault. I’m only two issues in though.

      Yeah, I was blown away by Watchmen, even considering the hype going into it.

      On a different topic, I saw that you or a commenter had gone through an atheist phase before deciding that it still amounts to a belief system — plus Dawkins and Hitchens types are just plain obnoxious sometimes — and then rediscovering religion through CS Lewis or something. I’d like to get back to practicing Catholicism, especially with a baby on the way, but I’ve weighed the arguments for and against religion and the existence of God in my head for so many years I am in a no man’s land of agnosticism. Do you have any recommendations, fiction or nonfiction? Even comic form?

      Btw, I’ll go by Hey Joe as a user name now since I’ve been listening to Hendrix and that’s as good a name as any.

    3. Sounds good, Hey Joe.

      I think I mentioned it in passing, but Dinesh D’Souza’s “What’s so Great About Christianity” is a great book, and it’s written in a way that isn’t preachy. If you’re familiar with Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., then you should check out D’Souza’s counter-argument.

      I think people often look at some of the rules associated with the Catholic Church and scratch their head, but usually there’s a decent reason behind the traditions…

      My brother suggests “Catholicism for Dummies,” by Rev. John Trigilio Jr., PhD, Thd and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD. He says “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel is also good. Strobel also wrote “The Case for a Creator.”

      I hope that helps. Anyway, thanks again for taking time to read the blog and comment. I look forward to hearing your point of view on politics, comics and anything else that pops up around here.

    4. I reccomend the books Life How Did It Get Here? By Evolution Or Creation? and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived. Remember God is not far off from each one of us if you grope for him and are willing to worship on his terms then you will have results.

    5. I’ve never really listened to MCR. I know who they are, obviously, and who Gerard Way is. I might have to check out Umbrella Academy sometime.

      One of the few modern superhero comics worth reading is Archie’s New Crusaders. It features the children of their Golden and Silver Age heroes following in their parents’ footsteps after an old enemy returns to cause havoc. It’s quite good.

    6. For whatever reason I always stayed away from Archie… When I was a kid I remember seeing those “Donald Duck” and Disney comics and I didn’t really like them that much, either? Is that weird? For whatever reason I liked watching Disney cartoons, but I thought they seemed out of place and odd as a comic. If Mikey Mouse ever shows up in a Spider-Man comic I might have to call it quits. 😉

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