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Guy Delisle’s dispatches from a divided city

Guy Delisle accepting the Fauve d’Or at the Angoulême International Comics Festival (photo: Jorge Fidel Alvarez/9e Art+)

The first time Guy Delisle glimpsed Israel’s West Bank barrier during his year-long stay in East Jerusalem, he found it disturbing.

“I didn’t think it would be so high,” he writes in the graphic travelogue Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, Drawn & Quarterly’s lead spring title. In the book, Delisle has drawn himself wide-eyed, looking up at the stark, striking wall that divides Israel from the West Bank. The wall became a bit of an obsession for the Quebec City native. He estimates that over the course of the year, he made about 300 sketches of the barrier, many of which are scattered throughout the book.

“When I see the wall, it’s horrible for what it represents. It separates and divides two nations,” the 46-year-old says. “But you just get used to it. I started to draw it, working with grey marker. I’d just paint the whole piece of concrete grey in the middle of sketches, from so many perspectives. It’s like a big snake going through the valley. It was really interesting to draw.”

It’s this kind of painstaking attention to detail and observation, combined with a certain ambivalence, that provides readers of Delisle’s work a unique perspective on some of the most fascinating – and politically fraught – locations in the world. Pyongyang (2005) gave readers unprecedented insight into the daily lives of the citizens of North Korea’s capital. In Shenzhen (2006), Delisle shared his experiences managing a team of animators in the industrial, heavily guarded Chinese city. After that came Burma Chronicles (2008), which followed Delisle and his wife, Nadège, an administrator with Médecins Sans Frontières, to the isolated country.

Jerusalem, which again piggybacks on one of his wife’s humanitarian missions, is poised to reach his largest audience yet. The book has already received critical acclaim in France, where the author has lived for the past 20 years. In January, the book won the Fauve d’Or, the most prestigious award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, one of the largest comic book festivals in the world; in the two months following its November release, the French-language edition sold 60,000 copies.

Illustration from Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles of the Holy City (Photo: Drawn & Quarterly)

In May, Delisle will be the guest of honour at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which will host an onstage interview and screen a documentary by filmmaker Phillip Rashleigh, The Guy Delisle Chronicles.

“Guy’s work is exceptional for its restraint,” says Helge Dascher, who has translated four of Delisle’s books from French to English. “He has an exceptionally sure sense of what is sufficient, and also an extraordinary trust in the cumulative effect of impressions and experiences that could appear mundane in themselves.”

In Jerusalem, those first-hand impressions have resulted in a surprisingly revealing account of an extremely complex place. A vignette about stocking up on diapers illustrates the high level of security average citizens encounter at every turn. A trip to the beach in Tel Aviv at the close of the short but bloody Gaza War shows how desensitized to violence the population has become, as the author sunbathes while watching military jets taking off and landing in the distance. Seemingly with every excursion beyond his East Jerusalem home comes a checkpoint, a barrier, a group of police with machine guns, an interrogation.

Delisle’s work calls to mind that of U.S. comics artist Joe Sacco, who published the award-winning Palestine in 1996. But Sacco employs a journalistic approach, something Delisle consciously shies away from.

“I want to show what it’s like to be there,” Delisle says. “I see it as the opposite of journalism, a kind of small-details ethnology. I collect all of these details and put them in my scrapbook to make one big picture at the end.”

The author does not plan to follow up Jerusalem with more books about dangerous, far-off places. With two kids now in school, he says he’ll have to think of another topic to work on from their home in Montpellier.

“I don’t want to repeat myself,” he says, “and I want to do other, different types of books. This time, maybe a children’s book, or an autobiography.”

And so it’s back to the drawing board.

“I’ll have to take a look at what I have,” he says, “and start with a big, first, rough-draft sketch.”

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