Jonathan Cape (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (Canada/US)
I’m a huge admirer of the work of French-Canadian creator Guy Delisle, one of the pioneers of comics as travel literature. It’s odd considering how popular travel lit is in bookstores that it’s not a subject used more often in comics, which in the right hands (like Delisle’s) you get the best of both worlds, a travel book detailing first hand experiences of other lands and cultures plus art of those places and peoples. And much as I love travel photography I think the comics medium captures much of the essence of places and people, especially here with Delisle, who has a deceptively simple looking, very cartoony approach for the most part, and yet with an uncanny knack for depicting things superbly well with a few simple lines, where others may have opted for heavily detailed realism, which is a mark of a fine cartoonist (although sometimes when visiting major landmarks he will create much more detailed panels).
Really I’d recommend any of his comics tales of stays in (to most of us anyway) unusual places, but this, his most recent travel work (2011 in the original French) is a great starting point if you’ve not read him before. An Angoulême festival winner (a huge recommendation in itself), this one sees the artist once more relocating for a whole year for his wife’s role in the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, but this time with two young children in tow. His book on their year in Burma was wonderful, and there he was also looking after their first child, but in Jerusalem there’s that nice feeling of it being the whole family, husband, wife, two kids, and this makes all of Delisle’s observations of life in different lands more accessible and something many readers will be able to empathise with, even if they themselves never travel to such places.
And that’s part of what makes his books so compelling – it isn’t just a chance to see into a country and culture that most of us won’t experience (or if we do it is only for a fleeting holiday visit – he actually lives there for a year in the community) and to see it through the eyes of an artist (which see elements sometimes the rest of us might miss). It’s the human, family-level aspect of Delisle’s works that makes them so appealing. He’ll pay as much attention to a first visit to a landmark like the Wailing Wall or to one of the controversial settlements as he does to the problems of a young family moving into a strange land and trying to figure out which are the best local shops to pick up their regular needs in (they feel they should support local Palestinian businesses by shopping there, but the Jewish run supermarket is the one that does the best nappies for the youngest child. Of course it isn’t open on Saturdays…).
And then there are the peculiar things to being in that place – Christian preachers from different orthodoxies fighting each other over a sacred site (only in the Holy Land…), suddenly finding the Palestinian neighbourhood is sealed off because it is a Jewish festival (Yom Kippur as it happens, Delisle only knew it as a war and didn’t realise it was a major religious holiday) or discovering how seriously Israel takes its security – understandably – when he travels abroad for a comics festival then tries to return (cue some serious time being interrogated about why he travelled, who he knows in Israel etc before being allowed on the plane back to Israel), or the nets strung between tall buildings in some sections of town where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side, but not happily (the nets there to stop objects thrown by settlers). Or being on a flight back to Israel after a convention, talking to friendly old grandfather type on the plane, seeing the number tattooed on his arm and realising he is a survivor of the Holocaust. There are ups and down, but for any down sides Delisle also shows there are happy moments – family trip to the beach, party with new friends, the simple pleasure of exploring a new and strange place, making comics with locals, discovering new sights and of course sketching them to put into his comic travelogue later.
As always in his books it isn’t just the outsider dropped into a strange environment that drives the story, it’s the roots he and his family put down during their extended stay, the friends they make, the different impressions and views of that land they get from their long stay and from the different people they get to know. It all offers a very human-level experience of different cultures and ways of life. Delisle usually tries to go with a fairly gentle approach for the most part and is rarely judgemental, at least not to stridently, although you can probably infer from certain scenes where his sympathies may lie in regard to some of the controversial areas, while others he simply presents to the reader and leaves them to draw their own conclusions; he gives you his impressions in this very open, accessible (and indeed entertaining and sometimes emotional) way and then, like a good writer should, let’s the reader take from it what they will. Delisle’s travel works are also ideal books to give to friends who don’t normally read comics; I’ve loaned several of my Delisle books to friends who absolutely loved them (and now ask what other graphic novels I think they might enjoy), he’s a great artist to share with comics and non comics readers alike. An interesting way to look at another part of the world.