CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 8 . . . .December 8, 2006
Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China.
Montreal, PQ: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006.
148 pp., cloth, $24.95.
Shenzhen (Guangdong Sheng, China : East)-Fiction.
Canadian wit and humor, Pictorial (French)-Québec
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Danya David.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
I’m back in China, in the south this time.
The first time I was north in Nanjing. I rediscover what I’d forgotten: the smells, the noise, the crowds, the dirt everywhere.
Potent words ring in one’s ears for a lifetime. Powerful images can brand onto minds and souls. When words and images join, magic occurs, and it is often through the graphic novel that this alchemy is born. This dynamic medium, the graphic novel, can be described as the book-length and more serious manifestation of comics, often telling complex stories. Good comics have long been valued by kids, social recluses, and pop culture enthusiasts, but over the last two decades or so, it is the graphic novel which has risen in popularity, emerging as a legitimate and powerful storytelling medium, capable of handling subject matter from as varied as the Holocaust to whimsical high school love stories.
Breaking through in 2001 with Pyongyang, Guy Delisle presented his accounts of a two-month stay in North Korea as an animation project supervisor. Now, with Shenzhen, we see much of the same - the memoir of a partly funny, pathetic, pretentious, and sweet comic artist who is lost and unfulfilled much of the time as he questions and discovers the bizarre nuances but mostly the grim realities of life in an industrial Chinese city. We are guided through the streets, restaurants, shops, the hanging animal carcasses, the ominous political billboards, through pungent street smells and bleak stretches of surreal empty spaces where “huge construction sites rise out the of the ground” with no surrounding cities to justify them. Delisle’s sketchy black and white pencil drawings convey the industrial scape effectively - the watchtowers, scaffolding, and electricity lines. The minimalist and iconic rendering of figures and buildings reflect Delisle’s European style (the charming Tintin, etc.), proving to be an interesting match for the grit and stench of Shenzhen.
Delisle’s work is bold in that it is honest, and his non-regard to “pc-ness” is refreshing. But he reveals himself at times as a close-minded pomp, not only devoid of understanding and compassion for China’s differences, but also lacking any interest to understand these differences. Delisle comes from a Western culture, and rather than being open and motivated to understand the differences he sees, he responds with scoffing, at times revulsion, or at best ambivalence. Phrases like, “It’s the good old Chinese method” and “China has the unfortunate reputation of being the filthiest country on earth,” are dribbled with no regard. Delisle also makes no attempt to humanize the Chinese people he meets. The only real human seems to be himself, and he indulges in narcissistic introspective, pondering about his life as an animator, while the faceless people he meets are simply bizarre and definitely have it all wrong.
With more elaborate use of the graphic novel format (e.g. playing with framing and borders, typefaces, time lapses, symbol, metaphor, etc.) perhaps Delisle could have rendered his story more layered and complex. Generally, the icon is used to capture the concept, the universal, the package bigger and more universal than its realistic version. According to comic artist and scholar Scott McCloud, the icon is so potent because it has been stripped down to its basic meaning and is thus capable of allowing for universal recognition. Although Delisle’s art appears to be iconic (for example, the faces that he draws are very simplistic, with eyes, noses, and mouths roughly implied by two dots, a triangle, and a line), it does not have the weight of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Herge’s Tintin and certainly not of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (though few cartoonists touch Spiegelman’s genius manipulation of the icon). Delisle’s drawings are simply simple (and at points charming), rather than loaded or poignant. McCloud talks about the pregnant spaces between panels in comics and that the reason that comics are so consuming is that they necessitate, without permission, full reader immersion by making the reader fill these gaps with his or her own imagination. With Shenzhen, Delisle falls short of taking full advantage of this complex literary form in many ways. Yet he does succeed in carrying the reader through a journey of self-indulgent reflection and interesting (though cynical) meditation. The grim geometric structures and the bland faces he draws are clearly reflective of his own take on China. His experience, Shenzhen, and the Chinese people, are presented only in their superficial manifestations. He is constantly critical of the world around him, but in a nonchalant sort of way, making his critique even more scathing.
Despite the shortcoming, this graphic novel is a fast and interesting read. Similar to his Pyongyang, there are moments of humor and wit but past them are frightening and illuminating tidbits which touch on universal dangers, like, for example, government propaganda. The reader gets a sense of at least one view of this region of China, bleak and somewhat 1984-ish, though one may guess that a Chinese person may take offense to this highly Western-centric review of their country.
Any graphic novel enthusiast would appreciate this documentary, if only for merely expanding the nonfiction/political subgenre of graphic novels, and for further validating the broader medium as an esteemed literary form, which, like a regular novel, is capable of surmounting any theme or topic. Graphic novels are exceedingly popular among teenagers, and they are thus finding their way at a steady pace into school and public libraries. Shenzhen is older in nature in terms of its political subject matter and ironic treatment, though it would be an interesting add-on to an 11th or 12th grade history or politics course.
Danya David is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program at University of British Columbia.
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