A Peek Behind the Curtain:

Into North Korea with Guy Delisle in Pyongyang

Guy Delisle’s travelogue, Pyongyang, takes readers on a journey to a country that has been closed off to the West for years, and instead of dispelling fears of a fascist nation oppressing its people in every means possible, it provides visual confirmation of these notions with often-disturbing detail.  Yet, the overall tone of the book does not seem to indicate a particular bias against the country; it merely records Delisle’s continued surprise over the ways in which the country operates, when contrasted with his experiences in Western Europe and North America.  Through use of artistic techniques such as page and panel composition as well as shading, Delisle is able to convey the sense of isolation and warped self-perception he encountered in his time behind the curtain.

Although Delisle regularly employs a more cartoonish and iconic style, as opposed to a more realistic approach [1], his use of panel and page composition is expertly arranged to build the tone and atmosphere that he experienced.  He initially sets the context for his two-month-long journey on the very first splash page of the novel; the reader sees a map of the world with a small square bracketing the Korean peninsula, every country shaded in except for the small, white speck that is North Korea — barely perceptible had it not been bracketed.  At the bottom of the page, we see a zoomed-in picture of the Korean peninsula.  South Korea is shaded while North Korea stands apart in white, much larger than what it initially appeared.  At first, this minor choice in composition and layout might not appear to signify much.  Yet, the contrast of the two images of North Korea — in relation to its immediate neighbor as well as that of the global community — creates a context Delisle seems to suggest that the leaders of North Korea fail to recognize.

When Delisle arrives in North Korea, he is immediately brought before the looming statue of Kim Il-Sung to pay tribute to the deceased leader.  This experience looms large in his memory and in the reader’s sight.  The seventh page dedicates three page-wide panels that start at the base of the statue and proceed to provide snapshots of the middle and top portions of the deceased leader.  It’s a slightly disorienting setup, as one would expect the page to be oriented so that the base of the statue would be at the bottom of the page and the upper portion would be the top panel to best provide the reader with the ability to take in the entire 22-meter statue in one glance.  The effect this has on the reader, then, is to slow down his or her ability to visually consume the image and move along.  In this way, Delisle is able to — in miniature — replicate the experience he underwent.  It is clear that he would not have been allowed to rush through paying his respect to Kim Il-Sung, and this is his way of ensuring the reader is truly immersed in the reading experience by forcing him or her to slow down as well.  Furthermore, he shows us that this is a huge statue without having to tell us first — though he does exclaim “Whoa!  Holy cow… that’s huge” (8) at the top of the next page, in the event this was somehow lost on his readers.

Delisle continues to use panel layout and composition to demonstrate the sense of isolation he experienced in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea.  On the page following his viewing of the statue of Kim Il-Sung, he sees the hotel where he will live for the next two months.  It is a dark tower standing stories above the low-rise buildings, in stark contrast to the white sky in the background.  Further, the hotel itself is located “on a small island, not far from downtown” (9).  As if the building wasn’t isolated enough, it is also removed from the rest of the city as well with only a long bridge connecting it to the mainland.  Delisle wisely chose this visual for his readers to encounter, as there are many subtle connections readers should see between this lonely hotel, separated from the rest of the city, and North Korea and the way it has isolated itself from the rest of the international community.  While this is only one example, Delisle uses imagery such as this in numerous instances throughout the book that continue to reinforce this theme of loneliness and isolation.  That these buildings are man-made affirms the notion that this sense of isolation is self-inflicted.

Another technique that demonstrates Delisle’s expert use of panel layout and composition to create an impression upon his reader is the use of shading.  Delisle regularly makes use of heavy, penciled shading to isolate certain images and create contrast in his panels.  One example of this is when he is driving through the city streets of Pyongyang at night.  Delisle tells us: “I accompany my guide who accompanies Richard through a city lit only by the headlights of cars and monuments to the glory of the great leader” (48). On the next page, we see a full-page splash where only the faintest outline of the city can be seen due to the heavy shading blanketing the page.  In the center, however, is an image of the leader in bright lights, naturally drawing our eye to the only image we have sufficient light to see.  Again, Delisle forces his readers — this time through use of shading — to share in his experience of the heavy hand of the North Korean government allowing one to see only what the government felt was most important to see.  It is no wonder Delisle refers to the residents, wandering around the streets in the dark, as the “zombies of the night” (95).  Clearly, their limited of exposure to actual light mirrors their lack of exposure to the figurative “light of knowledge.”

Pyongyang is a disturbing book that provides readers with a unique insight into North Korea — a country that many readers know little else about other than it being continually at odds with the Western world.  Delisle effectively conveys this feeling in his travelogue through deliberate panel and page composition, as well as other artistic techniques that he employs, in an attempt to replicate the forced viewing experience he underwent while working in North Korea.


[1] See McCloud’s discussion of iconic versus realistic styles on p. 30 of Understanding Comics.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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1 Comment

  1. Miguel Rosa says:

    That page with the statue shown in reverse is just a stroke of genius. That’s exactly how a person sees a statue, from bottom to top. First the legs, then the torso, then the head, the sight moving up slowly. Really well done!

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