Whew. After a long and, to me, painful drought,I'd like to help kick Thought Balloonists back to life with the first of a series of posts reviewing some of the highlights of our comics-reading over the course of 2008.
First off, though, deepest thanks to my partner in crime, Craig, for carrying the torch with a series of splendid posts between mid-August and late October, during which I was pretty much in a cocoon. Craig's concept of "A Week of Wonderful Comics" is something I hope to revisit and try my hand at, and, again, I thank him for keeping up the energy and the output when we sorely needed it.
The rules for our "Highlights of 2008" series are simple:
- We'll be talking about comics actually published (or translated and republished) in English during calendar year 2008.
- We'll make no pretensions to a comprehensive "best of" list. Speaking for myself, there remains a lot of promising comics from 2008 that I have not had a chance to read, including titles I've been looking forward to for a long time. Scheduling issues this season have been murder, so I've got a wealth of comics reading to catch up on. With that in mind, we won't presume to identify the "best of" the year.
- We'll confine ourselves to comics that we have not already written about here at Thought Balloonists. So, no Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front, no Little Vampire, no Look Out!! Monsters, even though these were among the highlights of the past year for me. Just new stuff -- new to us, that is.
With that in mind, I'd like to present my first contribution to our series, regarding a recent favorite of mine:
by Guy Delisle. Drawn and Quarterly, publisher. $19.95.
Guy Delisle is a comedian. He's also a sharp observer and, implicitly, a political journalist. With his unglamorous, decidedly unheroic autobiographical persona as a conduit, Delisle has a way of sidling up, in offhand, nonchalant, but insinuating fashion, to issues of heartbreaking gravity.
The recently published Burma Chronicles continues this strategy, once again using Delisle's persona, that of a self-absorbed and obtuse tourist, to wring bitter humor from the telling routines of everyday life in a despotic state, in this case Burma (rechristened Myanmar by its ruling junta). The strategy has its risks -- we are likely to get impatient at times with Delisle's self-involved manner and seeming insensitivity to Burmese circumstances -- but through it he is able to lure us into a deeper portrait of the country, by short-circuiting the wariness with which we might read a more sober, obviously journalistic account. At the same time, Burma Chronicles does something Delisle's previous books in this vein (Shenzen, Pyongyang) have not done, which is ground his account in domestic comedy by way of bringing in his family, including his wife Nadège and his infant son Louis, to enrich the story. The result is an accessible, disarming book that starts with the most basic of domestic riffs -- watching TV, taking care of the kid, napping with the kid, suffering the usual indignities of traveling with a kid and his abundant baggage -- and then opens out into a surreal account of what is clearly a complex and cruelly oppressed culture.
Loose, ambling, and generous, Burma Chronicles surprises with its sly, circling treatment of its subject. It's funny and revealing, playing up the disconnect between Delisle's at times narrow personal focus and the larger cultural milieu of Burma/Myanmar. After what seems like a blinkered, unthinking opening -- supermarket shopping, house-hunting, strolling with the baby -- the book brings that milieu gradually, poignantly, to light. Delisle's method is telegraphed by the quiet surrealism of the situation on the book's cover:
As in Delisle's Pyongyang, an incremental piling-up of events serves to conjure the absurd and paranoid vibe of living in a police state. It's a slow-motion avalanche of disclosures: the operation of censors and the monitoring of communications; the suppression of dissidents; the pressure placed on Burmese artists to avoid any taint of political critique, a demand that makes Delisle himself a danger to his fellows; the sudden, arbitrary and bizarre moves of the military regime, for example abruptly relocating the country's capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw; the terrifying conditions in Kachin State, where miners are paid in shots of heroin and addiction is pandemic. Against these wretched particulars, Delisle pits the unflagging character of the Burmese themselves, whose gift for survival and improvisation is figured at book's end by the sight of a ferris wheel literally powered by hand (click the thumbnail to get a bigger, better view):
At the same time, Burma Chronicles contains masterful cartooning, looser and more minimal than Delisle's prior efforts in this vein but targeted for maximum effect. Wordless sequences, as above, enliven the story at intervals. Scenic particulars are vivid, and the occasional very detailed drawing of a building, vehicle, or tool lends a dose of verisimilitude to Delisle's cartoon world. Body language is minutely observed, despite the spareness of the drawings. The art is at times self-reflexive, playfully pointing to its own making: variations in line convey the effects of an injured hand, or of Burma's monsoon season weather (you're really going to need to click the thumbnail this time):
Here is a favorite page of mine, from the chapter recounting the Burmese celebration of the Water Festival, a ritual observance of the Buddhist new year. Guy tries to avoid being festively doused by the locals, but you can see the results for yourself (click it!):
Burma Chronicles consistently combines this kind of charm with an astuteness of observation and an implicit seriousness of purpose that together add up to an admirable and captivating book. Handily translated by Helge Dascher and beautifully designed and presented, this is a first-class project, for me one of the year's true highlights.
[A complimentary review copy of this book was provided by Drawn and Quarterly.]