Frontier Psychiatrist

Words & Pictures (for sub-literates): A Review of Pyongyang

Posted on: October 17, 2011

PYONGYANG, by Guy Delise

“Our Father is Marshall Kim Il-Sung.
Our abode is the bosom of the Party.
We are brothers and sisters.”

The above is a poem read to Guy Delise by a student in The Children’s Palace and, if his 2003 graphic novel, Pyongyang, were a dystopian fantasy set in a chilling future where the human race has been reduced to dominated vessels of some cartoon God-King, it might be easily dismissed as almost adorable.  That Pyongyang is an auto-biographical memoir about Delise’s time spent as an animator in the capital city of North Korea makes it neither cute nor easily brushed away.  Instead, it distills the surreal and hidden terror which permeates both Delise’s novel and, it would seem, North Korean society.

North Korea is the most isolated country on the planet.  It is almost entirely closed to journalists.  Fewer than 2,500 Americans have visited North Korea since 1953.  In Pyongyang, the capital city, all foreigners must be accompanied by a guide at all times and they are never allowed into the countryside.  It is not connected to the internet.  There is only one TV station and 3 for radio.  At the time of the events depicted in Pyongyang (2002), out of 24 million North Koreans, less than 20,000 had cell phones (these days it’s closer to 600,000).  There is no outside media.  Every newspaper, every movie studio, every television show is produced by the government, all to propagate a god-like reverence towards the ruling family and create a culture of militant fear.  All of which makes any insight into the inner workings of the world’s first Communist dynasty invaluable.

Guy Delise is a Canadian animator sent by a French company to supervise North Korean sub-contractors.  Pyongyang is a chronicle of his months in the capital city.  He’s treated with respect, shown the sights:

  • * A 22 foot tall bronze statue of Kim il-Sung (the founder of North Korea and, despite his death in 1994, “the Eternal President”).
  • * The International Friendship Exhibition (a museum entirely dedicated to all the gifts given by the grateful nations of the world to Kim il-Sung and his son).
  • * The largest granite tower in the world, erected for the Eternal President’s 70th Birthday (on its top a flame which is the only light in the nighttime Pyongyang sky).
  • * The Pyongyang subway (with marble walls and golden chandeliers yet there is rarely enough power to turn on the lights).
  • * The Children’s Palace.

Delise maintains a light hearted tone throughout the novel which seems to match the surreality of North Korean existence.  His cartoony style matches the strangeness.  Thus, when Delise tells us it is the common understanding amongst North Koreans that Kim Jong-il was born on the highest peak in the Korean peninsula under a double rainbow and a shining star, we are able to absorb it because this is just a comic book we’re reading after all, with squiggly font and Flintstone faces.  It allows us the appropriate distance to approach the truth slowly.

Delise is not an expert storyteller.  Far from it.  Pyongyang, occasionally, feels like an illustrated blog, filled with irrelevant details and clunky story structure.   And there are times when we might wish Delise to delve deeper.  He seems content to treat the whole experience like a ride at some warped mirror version of Disneyland, and though we might hope he would demonstrate more investigatory introspection, we must remind ourselves of his limitations.  He is neither a journalist nor a professional graphic novelist.  He is an animation supervisor sent to do a job.  He was only allowed essential contact with the natives.  He was kept sequestered in the island hotel where only foreigners stay with specific permission required for every outing.   And no matter how much we may want just one North Korean to answer the question Delise poses to the reader:

“Do they really believe all the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?  They didn’t.  They couldn’t.”

Delise can only give us the truth of his experience, without judgment or moral.

In the end, Pyongyang reads like a section of Gulliver’s Travels as written by Orwell.  We must be thankful to Guy Delise for giving us even the briefest of glimpses into a world which strains credulity.  And we must be thankful for the way in which he delivers it.  Without the buffer of the cartoon and the tourist tone, we might have to confront this sad insanity directly, in flesh and bone, brick and granite, which might be just a bit too much to bear.

PYONGYANG is available from Drawn & Quarterly Books.

Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn.  His works include Sandoval, The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha and Gre & The Devil.  His  column “Words & Pictures” appears regularly on Frontier PsychiatristSee his previous work here.  He can be reached for correspondence at


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