Maybe they’ve got me mixed up with Joe Sacco?
—Guy Delisle in Jerusalem
In the world of nonfiction comics, you have mostly memoirists of varying subtypes-—twee indie shoegazers (Jeffrey Wright) and scalpel-wielding precisionists (Alison Bechdel), for a couple common examples-—but relatively little in the way of original journalism; one of the great exceptions here being the war-zone adventurer Joe Sacco. Regardless of their approach, the memoirists, occasionally excepting people like Josh Neufeld (his backpacking account A Few Perfect Hours), tend to keep things pretty close to home. This is what happened in my life, here.
Until Guy Delisle came along and made the comics world that much richer for all of us, there weren’t many nonfiction artists you could characterize as traveling memoirists. Even if there had been, he would still likely be in a category nearly all by himself.
In earlier works like Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles, Delisle wrote and drew about the experience of hopping along after his wife, who goes on year-long assignments in far-off places for Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The model was generally the same: Delisle shows up in the new place, sees the wife off to work, and then sets about exploring. His wanderings are complicated at first by having one child and then two to have to worry about. But whether or not he has to tug a squalling child behind him, out Delisle goes to do what every cartoonist does when coming to a new place: find somewhere to sketch.
Key to Delisle’s easygoing, self-deprecating approach—-he is Canadian, after all-—is this all-access take on his artistic endeavors. In theory, this should be a painfully navel-gazing type of thing; the artist trying to create his art generally being one of the most enervating brands of narrative. He makes this quest a running theme of his newest and likely greatest work, Jerusalem, looping it neatly into his explorations of this uniquely fractured city.
In between his threading the needle of transportation, whether braving the epic traffic jams or just trying to find a cab that will take him to East Jerusalem, he is always stopping to note an especially spectacular site. Like most Westerners new to the Holy City, it’s nothing like what he expected. Unlike many of those visitors, fortunately, he takes everything in stride and eagerly experiences everything that he can.
What makes Jerusalem stand out from Delisle’s work is that he is not entirely a foreigner in this place. Unlike the Asian locales his wife had been assigned to before, Jerusalem is many degrees, culturally speaking, closer to the West. Everywhere he is able to find somebody he can converse with in English or French, even though the particularities of each neighborhood take a fair amount of parsing to truly understand.
A good deal of the humor in the book comes from Delisle blundering his way through the delicate web of improprieties that strum invisibly through the fractured city. He shows himself hopping onto an Arab minibus (since “they stop anywhere, anytime”) and sitting there blithely grinning and munching on a snack while the veiled woman in the next seat looks askance. In another, he accidentally drives into an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in the middle of the Sabbath (the residents are not pleased).
As usual, there’s no particular through-narrative here, just a moseying account of Delisle trying to pass a year in a foreign place while being a somewhat productive stay-at-home dad to his two children. His expansively simple and direct drawings, matched with a softly earth-tone palette, usually frame his figure in the midst of some comic confusion (perspiration shooting off his brow like in a Tintin comic), bringing a spaciousness and reflection to a city that he initially finds baffling, overwhelming, and fractal in its tribal complexities. In between little tales of everyday life in a new place (finding a daycare, discovering new sites to check out, making friends), Delisle inserts micro-essays on the various subjects he comes across, from the Balkanized Christian circus that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the ugly oppression of a place like Hebron.
From time to time, Delisle’s attitude of take everything as it comes results in scenes that could have used more reflection. One frame in particular that shows Delisle and a friend in the zoo laughing at seeing several black-haired monkeys lined up near a group of Orthodox men in traditional black garb comes off as tasteless at best. While the book makes for an excellent thumbnail study of the expatriate bubble-—in which people in certain jobs, NGOs in particular, seem able to hop from one country to the next without ever quite taking any of them in-—Delisle doesn’t always seem aware of how fully he’s immersed inside that bubble.
The argument could be made, of course, that everybody in Jerusalem lives in different bubbles. The life that Delisle lived in his rundown apartment building in an Arab neighborhood on the eastern side of town (the political sentiments of the aid workers his wife’s job puts him in touch with mean they won’t live in the much nicer settlements nearby, to avoid supporting them) is leagues different from those living a short distance away, both for the better and the worse. Because the city is so fractal in its complexities, Delisle is forever coming across new surprises.
There’s the Lutheran pastor with the wild past living in a church that looks more appropriate for a small German village than the desert who gives Delisle a studio in his church to draw in; or the Palestinian Christian who doesn’t mind living in a West Bank settlement since it’s so affordable, and notes that other Arabs are doing the same: “It’s like we’re resettling the settlements! Ha ha!” The longer Delisle is in Jerusalem, the more he discovers that while there are any number of barriers (from invisible lines of etiquette to imposing, wire-bristled checkpoints) keeping different groups apart, the simple fact of proximity and expedience continue forcing them together.
Even more than Delisle’s deceptively simple art, it’s those moments that take Jerusalem from being just another of Delisle’s enjoyable foreign sojourns into an engrossing work of literature. While many of them aim for a kind of bemused jocularity, the weight of tension from barely-suspended conflict is a kind of acid on the nerves, and it eats well into the book’s good-naturedness by the conclusion.
In what appears to be another throwaway party scene near the end, Delisle is chatting with an Israeli psychologist who tells him something that crystallizes the heartbreak that comes with generational schismatic conflict. She looks at his many drawings of the security walls separating Israeli from Palestinian territories and says that she had been in Northern Ireland `15 years earlier, looking at the security walls dividing Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones, and thought to herself: “At least we don’t have this in Israel. And look at where we are today.”
It’s a shame that not long after that, Delisle and his family are on a plane out of Israel. It would be incredible to see what he would have come up with in a second year.