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During his years working as an animator, Guy Delisle traveled all over the world to consult with other studios. At one of those stops—in Shenzhen, China—Delisle started recording his reactions to the culture and to the work. Delisle then turned those notes and sketches into a book, Shenzhen, and followed that up with Pyongyang, a book about a similar assignment in North Korea. Since Delisle quit animation to become a full-time cartoonist, he’s continued to tour the world with his partner, who works with Doctors Without Borders. Their travels with their children have thus far produced two books: Burma Chronicles and Delisle’s latest, Jerusalem, now available from Drawn & Quarterly. Delisle spoke with The A.V. Club about his work and travel habits, and about what he has planned for the future.
The A.V. Club: Where are you living now?
Guy Delisle: I’m in the South of France, in Montpellier. That’s where we’ve beenfor a very long time; I’ve spent half the years of my life here. I’m still Canadian, but I left when I was 20, and I’m 46, so I’ve spent half my life in France. And my wife isn’t going to do humanitarian work anymore, so we’ve settled for good.
AVC: Is it strange not having a big travel destination in mind in the near future?
GD: No, actually. It was okay for a while, but now with the kids it’s just too complicated. For the books, it’s not really a problem. I’ve done four books more or less about different countries, but it’s always about the culture gap and the way you adapt in a foreign country to a strange situation. I wouldn’t mind doing autobiography again, because I really like using that character, but it’s not going to be with one big country where I go for a year and come back and do a book. It’s going to be shorter stuff.
AVC: You said “character.” Do you think of yourself in these books as “you” or as somebody that you just draw?
GD: Well, it’s both. It’s me, definitely, because I take the notes and I draw myself in these situations. At the same time, it’s just a few facets of my character. I don’t have time to show everything; that’s not the point. This very naïve and stoic aspect of myself is there in front. I have many more facets, but these aspects are very convenient to tell what I have to tell.
AVC: Do you work on the books while you’re on location, or do you do most of the work when you get back?
GD: The Burma book I tried to work on while I was there, but it’s not very good for me. I would experience something, and then the next morning I was drawing it on paper, and it looked okay while I was there, but when I was almost halfway done with the book, I read the 200 pages back and I realized that it didn’t work. As a foreigner, I need that culture gap to do it right. If I’m doing it in the country, it doesn’t really work. So now I just try to enjoy or understand whatever I’m seeing while I’m there, and it’s better. I get to meet people, have different experiences, and then come back and decide if I do a book or not. I don’t go anywhere thinking I’m going to do a book. I had that experience, working, for example, in Vietnam, and thinking, “Well, I’m going to do a book about Vietnam, that’ll be fun.” But I came back, I read my notes, and I didn’t have much to say, so I didn’t make a book. Now I always go into it thinking, “I’m going to take notes, and then I’ll see once I get back.”
AVC: You structure your books chronologically, as in Jerusalem, where you go month by month. Did everything in that book actually happen within those exact months, or did you move some events around to give the story a better structure?
GD: No, I don’t really move… Actually, no, I did move a few things in Burma. The thing about the censors. I had these censored books in my hands throughout the year but I concentrated on this topic of censorship in just a few pages, so that was something where I was taking things apart and putting them together for the sake of that subject. But otherwise, no. The only liberty I take is to read my notes and choose what fits: what’s funny enough, weird enough. Or something that in the future is going to be useful to know, like my discovering the old city at the beginning of Jerusalem. After a week, we finally get into the old city; so then I take my time to discover the Jewish side, the Armenian side, the Catholic side, to explain right at the beginning how the city is laid out. And it’s true that I got lost as well, so I just turned it into a little story, and it was convenient to put all that at the beginning. But I don’t change more than that.
AVC: As the book goes along, you begin to give more and more of your point of view on the Palestinian/Jewish situation. Did you come to Jerusalem with some definite opinions in mind, or was your opinion shaped by the time you lived there?
GD: It was the same as with North Korea, except that before I went to North Korea, I read as many books as I could on the subject, because I knew I wouldn’t find anyone to give me information there. I was ready to go to North Korea and find whatever, maybe even find people who resist, like Cuba a long time ago. People who are very proud, and just fighting against the way things are. But after two months, I made up my mind that these people are just trying to survive, and it’s a horrible country. I wasn’t thinking much about Jerusalem and the Middle East ahead of time since I knew that once I was there for a year, same as with Burma, I would meet people. I was regularly talking with journalists who’d been there for eight years, so they knew a lot about the country. That was really interesting. Every question I had, they could answer really precisely.
Since I have to talk about politics, the biggest thing for me in the book was to give enough information that you learn something, and since most of the readers have basic knowledge of the conflict, I had to go further than that. But I didn’t want to put too much, so that it would be too serious. Because I like to have my books fun, and the reader turns the page and is enjoying himself. I don’t mind explaining a few things here and there a little bit, but not too much. Same with the religion; I wanted to explain a few things here and there, but not too much. Since I’m a left-wing guy, I guess it shows up after a while, because I was mainly meeting Israeli left-wing people—that’s what they’re called, left-wing—and we were sharing views together. I toured some really right-wing centers, but in everyday life, not so much right-wing Israeli people.
The book, I would say, if I were to go back today, would be probably very different. I would meet different people, have different experiences, and maybe I wouldn’t have enough information to make a book. It’s really a picture of one ex-pat trying to figure out what’s going on in 2008-2009. I work more like an ethnologist. I go there and I try to take in information here and there, try to understand. And I’m trying to let the reader make up his own mind, if possible.
AVC: One thing that does come across, though, is the idea that in Jerusalem, or in Israel in general, there are places you can go where you can have a brief moment of unfettered freedom, like at the beach, or at a café. There’s a real contrast between those moments and the rest of the time, where there’s all this tension and people walking around with rifles.
GD: Yeah, and I wanted to show that in the book when I go with my girlfriend on the roof and we have a coffee. I mean, it’s beautiful; you have the sunset going down on the city and it’s just one small place where you can go and just relax and enjoy. And then I go to this market and you have that funny guy who calls the Shabbat and you follow all these men and ladies in black and at the sunset on Friday they go to the Wailing Wall—it’s quite moving. My drawing is limited, but I was trying to show the majesty of a religion like that. I’m not a religious person, but I really respect people who have that faith and are religious. So yeah, I wanted to show what I lack.
AVC: As a parent, you also take time in your drawings to emphasize where the playgrounds were.
GD: [Laughs.] Yeah, well that was a very big part of my year. I don’t talk too much about being with the kids because I’ve talked a lot about that in the Burma one. I didn’t want to do it again because then I would really feel like I was repeating myself, so I just really quickly have a few pages of struggling with the bus and trying to find a playground. But it was a big part of my year, with the kids.
AVC: Who are your own favorite comics artists?
GD: One passed away one week ago. Moebius was one of them for sure. And then I have to mention Art Spiegelman, who did Maus. Before that, there’s a French guy, Gotlib. And even Lucky Luke and Tintin are some of my favorites.
AVC: Did you always see yourself as becoming a comic-book artist? You were in animation for a long time.
GD: No, not really. When I was young, yeah, I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I kind of stopped reading comics after a while ’cause I was traveling in Europe a lot. I was in Germany and everything I could find from the French comic scene was not too much my cup of tea. It was a period of time where it was just science-fiction and fantasy books. I was a bit fed up with that, so I stopped reading. Then when I arrived in France, I discovered this small publishing house, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting, because these are people of my age doing comics for people of my age.” I sent them a few short stories and I’d been publishing with them for a long time before I even thought of doing a book. I was working doing animation and short stories, and thinking I would do that all my life.
But then these short stories became a bit bigger, and then one of them became a book, Shenzhen, and then I did Pyongyang. These books were done just for fun, because I was doing animation, but then I thought, “Oh, I think I can do this, it would be interesting.” Pyongyang worked better, and it was translated a lot. These publishing houses became much bigger, and now some of them are quite big. It just became bigger and bigger, and I became bigger with them. After Pyongyang, I realized, “Maybe I can just try to focus on that and stop doing animation.” So I tried that for five years, just to see how it’d go.
I had some more classical stuff out, but that didn’t work, and then Burma Chronicles worked well and Jerusalem is working even better. I stopped doing animation after Pyongyang. It wasn’t animation anymore, it was just supervising. There’s not a lot of animation in France like there used to be, because there were studios all over the place, like in Montpellier. That’s why I’m here. There were two and even three studios at one point, and now they’re all gone. They don’t exist anymore; everything is outsourced in animation.
I have different projects now. I’ve done books for children; I’d like to go back to that as well. All sorts of stuff I want to try to see if it works, and maybe present as a book.