The Oregonian | Steve Duin | December 16, 2009
BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by The Oregonian
When I finally picked up Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles earlier this week, I arrived with a unique array of biases:
I have not read either Pyongyang or Shenzhen, Delisle's previous two travelogues from Drawn & Quarterly. I was, however, fresh off Secret Invasion Dark Reign.
I was in transit, in other words, from a primitive world in which the Marvel Illuminati -- in this case Harry Osborn, Dr. Doom, Emma Frost and Loki, among others -- sit around large board-room tables in "secret" meetings" (what is this, 1963?) ... to a Third World country where the deceased are quickly cremated because their heirs are afraid of ghosts.
A country where you can find Marilyn Manson t-shirts, even if you must go to Thailand to hear his music.
A country that features a "Water Festival" in which you wash away your misdeeds by letting others pour water down your back, an exercise that quickly evolves into the world's greatest water fight ("In principle," Delisle tells us, "you're not supposed to spray monks and cops.")
A country where "crime is virtually nonexistent" ... other than the occasional bomb, of course. A country where each house must have an odd number of steps.
A country that keeps its Nobel Prize winner -- Aung San Suu Kyi -- under house arrest.
("Actually, the Burmese don't refer to her by name," Delisle tells us. "They just call her 'The Lady.' It's like Voldemort in Harry Potter, 'He who must not be named.'")
Let me put it this way: After spending 10 minutes with Brian Michael Bendis in the ol' Marvel Hovel of Ideas, spending 263 pages with Guy Delisle in Burma felt like quite the holiday.
For 14 months in 2005-06, Delisle hung out in Yangon, the former capital of Burma -- now known as Myanmar by the counties that take the current junta seriously -- while his wife, Nadege, worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
The Canadian cartoonist's primary responsibility is taking his infant son, Louis, for walks in his baby stroller, and teaching the occasional animation class. But Delisle has a sharp eye and a caustic, self-deprecating wit ("That's Karen Carpenter," he notes as the Muzak blares in the City Mart, "the musical equivalent of the laughing cow"), both of which serve him well in a country where the powers that be wield the same "xenophobic, paranoid and hawkish rhetoric that all dictatorships use."
A country where the bills come in denominations of 15, 45 and 90 kyat -- which, Delisle notes, drives people nuts or turns them into math wizards.
A country that will throw any motorist who hits a monk into prison without a trial, but one in which the military gunned down monks on the streets of Yangon only 15 months ago.
A country where 86 percent of the population in some tiny villages are opium addicts ... and yet one that Doctors Without Borders chooses to abandon at book's end. ("At some point," an MSF administrator explains to Delisle, "if we agree to stay, we end up abetting the government's actions, and in the process, we become an instrument of discrimination.")
Because I've never been to Burma, I don't know that Burma Chronicles is the perfect travel guide to this land of sweltering heat and monsoons. But it is a marvelous graphic memoir of a year in the life in a remote world that is beyond the ability of most readers to grasp. Just as Secret Invasion Dark Reign betrays the medium's prolonged, even terminal adolescence, Burma Chronicles presents an ever-maturing format to an adult audience.