Journalism in comics has a much greater pedigree than you might think. Political cartoons have been with us since the Romans, who daubed parodies of disliked senators on the walls of their cities. To this day, the form has the ability to shock, provoke and anger to the point of murder, if you consider the case of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist killed for his depiction of Mohammed.
Travel journalism is less well represented. You could argue that Herge’s Tintin took place in such carefully researched and exquisitely rendered locales that it equated to a kind of travelogue – although it would be decades before we could see how accurately he’d got the moon. For most people, Joe Sacco’s work in Bosnia and Palestine is the definition of travel journalism – angry, passionate comics that get to the heart of the conflict.
A different approach is taken by French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, whose Burma Chronicles is out in a new paperback edition from Jonathan Cape in the UK. Delisle is married to Nadege, a Medicins Sans Frontieres administrator, and their journeys into strife-torn areas give him unprecedented access. The book tells of their trip to Burma at a point when the generals who run the show are beginning the next in a long series of clampdowns. As funding and visas are pulled, Guy, his wife Nasege and their baby son Louis struggle to find a life in a country that, officially at least, refuses to admit that they are needed.
Delisle approaches his story from the opposite angle to Sacco. He is no journalist, and never agitates to get into the dangerous areas. He’s principally a house-husband, there to look after Louis, an adjunct to Nadege and her work. Tootling around town with Louis in a buggy, he becomes almost invisible, and is free to observe the everyday life of the people. He discovers that the place they have rented is just around the corner from the house where Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for decades. He never sees her, of course, despite vague efforts to at least walk down her street (an effort that’s finally rewarded in an unexpected way). But, as in life, she is an unspoken presence, a thread running through everything, binding her people together in the face of crippling poverty and brutal repression.
Delisle has a simple, clean style that again is the polar opposite to Sacco’s pyrotechnic, fish-eye-lens freakouts. He draws himself as an abstraction, a simple collection of lines that reminded me a little of the 1992 Olympic mascot Cobi. Otherwise, his settings and characters are picked out with care and grace. As we follow Guy, Nasege and Louis through their year in Burma, we get to know and care about them and the lovely, punished country around them.
The story unfolds quietly, and always with a wry humour. Guy is lazy despite his best efforts, his promises to do more frequently washed away in the everyday tasks of looking after Louis or getting some drawing done. But he does, gradually, come to an understanding with Burma. There’s a lovely sequence towards the end of the book where he finally tries a three-day meditation retreat (granted, just round the corner from his house). Burma Chronicles is full of moments like these – the wordless, 24-panel pages of his trips to tourist destinations are sheer, joyful cartooning at it’s purest and most skilful.
If you need an antidote to the DC Comics reboot sturm und drang, Burma Chronicles fits the bill perfectly. It’s subtle, sharp and intelligent comics work, an incisive commentary on the state of Burma at a low point in the country’s history. Moving, hilarious and insightful stuff.