Guy Delisle seems to have accidentally found a career as an observational cartoonist specializing in studies of Asian cultures and has made it the focus of his career. At the very least, these books (PYONGYANG, SHENZEN and the new BURMA CHRONICLES) have certainly drawn the most critical attention for this animator & illustrator. He started drawing these comics as a way of both documenting and coping with the alienation he felt as a foreigner in North Korea and China. He was working at animation studios and was there alone, and there's a mix of his own ennui combined with his bemused observations of life in a totalitarian state. The difficulty I had with those first two books is that they became as much about his own boredom as they did about his environment. There came a certain point where his inability to connect with the locals led to a certain sameness in his anecdotes. This wasn't entirely Delisle's fault due to the xenophobia of those cultures, but his smartass style of delivering anecdotes exacerbated this difficulty.
The circumstances surrounding BURMA CHRONICLES led to a different sort of book. He lived in Myanmar (called Burma by much of the west, which doesn't recognize the government that took power in the late 80s) for an entire year with his wife and infant son. His wife was working with Doctors Without Borders, and she mostly remained a peripheral presence. Delisle found a way of engaging with the local community, with his young son as a sort of passport, in spite of the restrictiveness of the police state. The resulting book is a series of anecdotes that form a narrative of sorts. While Delisle is the narrator and the view of the country is filtered through his narrative interpretation of his experiences, the reader learns relatively little about him. I think this is by design, since Delisle is trying to depict the nature of his interactions with his environment, not provide introspection. While the book can't help but be about his own perspective, and every story involves him on some sort of adventure, he wants to make his character blank enough to identify with.
Years of creating comics drawing interesting details from everyday life have sharpened his skills in breaking down anecdotes into bite-sized stories. Delisle also has a way of bringing people to life with his loose, stripped-down line. He packs a lot of information into his panels, but his compositional eye is superb, always allowing the reader to absorb expression and gesture while flowing from panel to panel. Despite the simplicity of his character design (lots of dots for eyes and characters built out of basic geometric shapes, with the triangle as a basic unit), there's a playfulness to his line that's quite appealing. It's a genuine pleasure to study his pages, especially the way he contrasts his lusher backgrounds and drawings of buildings with his simpler character work. One can see two factors influencing his method: the first is his training as an animator and understanding motion & spacing on a page, and the second is the sheer necessity to keep his style simple so as to make it possible to quickly record his thoughts.
The stories fall roughly into three categories: quotidian observation of daily life taking care of his son and engaging his environment; the occasional trip out to the field or other locations; and Delisle's attempts at connecting with Burma's local artists. The latter two concerns add depth and variation to the proceedings. Many of the trips are depicted in tightly-packed, 15-panel silent pages. The trips out to the field and Delisle's meditations on the life of an imprisoned opposition leader give us a sense of his political awareness and engagement. He's enormously sympathetic to her cause even if he knows there's nothing he is either willing or able to do about it. He even mocks his own occasional outbursts of activism by depicting himself forgetting his grandiose plans the next day.
It's his stories about interacting with local artists that are most memorable. The workshop he did for some local aspiring animators and the way their relationship deepened in unexpected ways was one of the book's emotional surprises. The scene near the end of the book where Delisle attends a party honoring an older cartoonist and his audience with him is the emotional climax of the book, as Delisle finally feels at home for a little while. Despite the way the populace is repressed, there is a strong cultural memory of better times and a feeling of defiance. That's a marked contrast to PYONGYANG and SHENZEN, where everyone either bought into the national culture or was too afraid to say anything to the contrary. In Burma, everyone was perfectly happy to complain to Delisle, with many older citizens apologizing to him for his living in such a "rundown country". While Delisle was not in a position to actively work for change the way his wife was, that forced detachment gave him the freedom to seek his own connections. Ending his stay with a three-day retreat in a Buddhist monastery, his view on leaving Burma was very different than the way he left China and North Korea. The ways in which the connections he made affected him shine through each page in this book, as he pays his debt to the people behind those connections by bringing them to life.