Illustrated Man, #6 – Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle gets around, notably to places most of us don’t go. Pyongyang, perhaps his best known work, is a graphic memoir of his travels in North Korea. An animator by training Delisle was granted a two month work visa to oversee the production of a children’s cartoon in that isolated nation. A similar work situation found Delisle temporarily placed in Shenzhen, China, an experience that was also turned into a travelogue. Comic fans and other curious characters can find previews of these works over at Drawn and Quarterly, he also keeps his own website with a blog in French (the man is Quebecois).

In this installment of Illustrated Man, we turn our attention to Burma Chronicles, Delisle’s most recent foray into the graphic representation of a westerner’s encounter with an Asian culture. Why Burma Chronicles you ask? They shuttered our local Borders Books and I got it on clearance, that’s why. I for one am not thrilled at that company’s implosion (unlike some snarky others). Shit man! I live in a city of 180,000 and now we have one bookstore left, a Barnes and Nobles. Okay, two if you count the used store that specializes in romance novels.

Back to the comic. Guy’s wife, Nadege, is an admin for Medecins Sans Frontières, and she brings them to Rangoon while MSF attempts to reach a remote and stigmatized ethnic group who reside along the border with Thailand. While Nadege is away Guy spends a lot of time caring for their infant son Louis, socializing with the NGO crowd, trying to squeeze in a little work on the side, and making wry observations about everyday life under the military junta.

Delisle’s art is highly skilled and alternates between a deceptively simply cartoony style (usually reserved for facial expressions and people in motion) and awesomely detailed (used sparingly to depict architecture and military uniforms, for instance). In an interesting pseudo-anthropological move, Delisle inserts occasional self-reflections on his artistic process, as when his ink supplies run out and he has to venture into the city markets or when a local artist warns him to change materials during the monsoon season and, after ignoring him, he concludes the story with intentionally smudged and runny pictures.

The author mixes up his narrative techniques too. Some vignettes are propelled mostly by dialogue among characters, while some others consist entirely of boxed narration. There are even a few wordless strips. This combined with the artistic variation helps to keep the reader engaged in the book, which is far from being a profound exegesis on Burmese history and culture. It’s light reading, but thoughtful.

There are a lot of warm, fatherly moments interspersed among the observations of a foreign culture and critiques of the military regime. Delisle pushes his son’s stroller through the streets and is everywhere stopped by locals fascinated to see an occidental baby. Then one day when the milk was gone Guy creamed his coffee from the baby’s bottle. Guy really gets to see how the other half lives when he and Louis join a play group for children of UN diplomats. In particular he has his eyes set on landing a membership at the swank and members only Australian club which features squash courts, a pool, swings for the kids, and steaks on the barbie.

The house is huge. I’m the only dad in the group. The group of moms are on one side… the nannies and babies on the other.

GUY: I draw comics.
EXPAT: Ah lovely… what a nice hobby.
GUY: It’s not a hobby. It’s what I do for a living. How about you? What do you do?
EXPAT: We work at the UN.
GUY: “We”?
EXPAT: My husband.
GUY: Ah, I see. And does anybody here have a husband at the Australian Embassy?

Life under the authoritarian military regime in Burma necessitates dealing with any of a number of apparent absurdities like reading censored magazines with the pages missing. The censors must abide by government mandated quotas and have been known to order the presses to run extra copies of the censored pages so they can seize them. On another occasion Deslisle offers to help MSF troubleshoot an email problem, which keep getting bounced back from the office in France. To meet with Burmese IT he has to wait in a fenced yard until he is allowed to enter a “fortress” by escort only. Next we learn that the Burmese drive on the right (a symbolic rejection of their British colonial past) but economic sanctions have limited the availability of cars. The result is that most cars have their steering wheel on the right as well, making it nearly impossible to pass!

Most of the Burmese people Delisle meets are poor and some are almost totally destitute. When his work as animator and cartoonist necessitates the purchase of a PC, Guy must use several huge stacks of cash so devalued is the currency. The bill denominations oddly enough come in 15, 45, and 90, apparently for some numerological reason by decree of the military.

There is also a sense of wonder at the difference Delisle perceives in Burmese culture, often represented in humorous shorts. In one he comes home with Louis from a UN play group to find a fat monk sitting on his porch but his doorman is gone. He knows that monks are not allowed to accept alms after noon, but he pays him anyway. Then moments too late his guard shows up furious, bad monks are to be chased away with a stick! He clucks his tongue. Helping them is bad luck.

Rangoon enjoys an annual water festival, which grew out a tradition of washing away the misdeeds of the past year at the peak of the hot season before the rains come. Today it has become a four day long citywide water gun fight with hoses spraying from the tops of buildings. The festivities are enjoyed by all as this is one of the few times a year when the junta allowed the Burmese people to gather in groups. “In principle you’re not supposed to spray monks and cops,” but he does manage to shoot a police officer from behind anyway. “Ooh! That felt great.”

A pervasive dissonance or irony runs through Burma Chronicles, which arises between the warmth of the Burmese people and the atrociously repressive political system they live with on an everyday basis. Guy has a political conscience, but also leads a privileged life by Burmese standards. In one short he conducts a death bed interview with a very sick and elderly local artist (who apologizes profusely for the state of his country) and the strip concludes with a game of ball between his doorman and little boy. In another a bomb goes off in the central market, 11 dead and 160 injured. Instead of going shopping that day he and his friends go to the Australian club instead.

I am completely infatuated with Burma Chronicles and will pursue Delisle’s other books. This is like the kind of comic book I envision myself making. Who hasn’t come back from the field with a dozen or more stories told and retold at cocktail parties? I probably have close to a hundred pages of these “tales from the field” already typed and even more that went nowhere. As I stated above, Delisle’s art in this book is deceptively simple, I hope others read it and are inspired to share some of their tall tales. After all, look at how much XKCD has accomplished with just stick figures!

Charming and lightweight, this book is imminently re-readable and thought provoking. Comic fans who haven’t explored Guy Delisle’s oeuvre will be delighted by the discovery and those who work with NGOs will no doubt have a chuckle too.

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.