Graphic novel review—Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City by Guy Delisle
The original French version of Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem (out now on Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 336 pps, $24.95) won last year’s Prize for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival
The book also became a bestseller (in France).
Over here in the real world, however, Delisle’s travelogue cartooning isn’t likely to get as much notice. That’s what you get for writing and drawing over 300 pages about walking your kids through inhospitable neighbourhoods in Jerusalem instead of Black Widow taking on Thor.
Not to belittle Delisle’s accomplishment. The French-Canadian artist practices a kind of cartoon journalism that is uniquely his own. (Joe Sacco also does political/travel cartooning too, but his work is much more investigative.) In books like Pyongyang and Shenzhen, Delisle has illuminated worlds many of us will never get to see.
In those two volumes, Delisle was more or less on his own recognizance; as an animator, he was a working visitor. In more recent work like Burma Chronicles and now Jerusalem, Delisle is situated in foreign countries courtesy of his wife, an administrator with Medicins Sans Frontieres. This distinction isn’t really pertinent, except that Delisle has a little more free time (when he and his wife can find a nanny) to roam the streets of his new milieu.
Jerusalem is basically over 300 pages of these peregrinations, including slice-of-life vignettes (Delisle finds himself in the wrong area of town – the ultra-orthodox area – at the wrong time, the Sabbath), observations (a soldier with both a rifle and guitar strapped to his body), absurdities (the University of Jerusalem is no longer connected to Jerusalem) and tragedies (the Israeli government notifies the Delisles’ Palestinian nanny that her family home could be demolished at any time).
Delisle’s triangular and blocky art, in two tones of various earth colours, serves his tales well. (There are also flashes of colour: for instance, a red dialogue box denotes a scream coming from a TV set as the cartoonist watches the French horror film Martyrs.) His characters’ (and his own) dialogue and thoughts, their facial expressions, and the deliberate pacing evoke the stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling that Delisle has perfected.
One page I liked, and that came as a complete surprise, is where Delisle sits down to watch a movie. It’s not just any movie—it’s the devastating French-Canadian horror flick Martyrs. There’s a nice little panel with a word balloon in red denoting a scream coming from the speaker as Delisle watches on his computer. Otherwise, there’s very little colour in the book.
However, Jerusalem is not a wholly satisfying read. For this reader, Delisle’s style is starting to wear a little thin. The book feels incomplete. In more than one instance, Delisle’s narrator is more interested in sketching the sights than keeping up with his work. Maybe that’s why the art is fully-formed while the story seems to drift. Jerusalem is clever and funny and interesting, but it also points to the limits of the form Delisle has made his own.