One of the greatest strengths of the hybrid nature of the comics medium, is that it creates the ability to tell a story in a remarkably personal way. Both textual exposition and visual depiction are processed almost simultaneously, giving the reader an intimate sense of someone else’s mind. In the case of a graphic travelogue, such as Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles, factual events and locations are symbolically recreated: allowing two languages to convey what one alone could not.
Delisle is no stranger to documenting his travels in comic form: 2000’s Shenzhen and 2003’s Pyongyang chronicled his time in China and North Korea, respectively. Burma Chronicles — as the name suggests — is an account of the year he spent in Burma (officially Myanmar) with his wife, who is part of the “Doctors Without Borders” program, and their young son.
Soon after arriving, Delisle finds himself caring for his son and shopping while his wife is treating malaria in remote locations. This leaves him ample time to observe the day-to-day workings of a country living under an oppressive military dictatorship. Burma is a country where objectionable material is cut out of magazines with scissors, the newspapers report only the most optimistic national news, and there are seemingly more soldiers than private citizens. It is also the second leading producer of opium, accounting for an incredibly high rate of heroin use — and subsequently AIDS. Yet, Delisle finds hope, humor, and respect for the culture and people of Burma while examining evidence of a comically paranoid government. In the hands of Delisle, Burma becomes a character as much as a geographical location. This relationship between man and country — awkward from the start — forms the basis of his story.
In addition to the aforementioned travelogues, Delisle is the author of Albert and the Others and Aline and the Others: two books of bizarre wordless humor comics. While the subject and tone of Burma Chronicles differ vastly, sequences of “silent” pages find their way into the book. These wordless panels do wonders to anchor the story and — paired with the heavy exposition of much of the book — offer a subtle and affective counterpart.
At times the visual pairing of dialogue and image is a bit perfunctory and even clunky, but it’s easily forgivable in the service of the storytelling and strong pacing. Just the same, it often gives rise to beautifully candid drawings and sequences. The drawings in Burma Chronicles are direct and sketchy, employing a loose line and seemingly off-the-cuff renderings. While more flawed than his wordless books, Burma Chronicles is admirable for its ambition and voice.
Burma Chronicles is a solid example of cartoon journalism: a genre becoming ever more vital as it continues to be explored. Delisle’s story is certainly biased, but that’s to its advantage. Instead of simply reporting the facts, it explores culture-shock, conviction, and the capacity of the human spirit to overcome oppression. The book, though rather unassuming, soon reveals itself as a vibrant portrayal of a country most of us will find quite foreign. Like other autobiographical cartoonists, Delisle’s honest storytelling gives not only a view of Burma, but his view of Burma. For those of us who will probably never visit the country, Burma Chronicles is the next best thing. Actually, it might be better.