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.
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.
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.
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.