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review: graphica

Guy Delisle at work

There's a point in Guy Delisle's new graphic novel, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, when the cartoonist finds out that his attempt to organize a comics workshop in Gaza has been foiled by Israeli authorities. As a friend explains it, his application to enter the blockaded Palestinian city was denied after border officials discovered what Delisle did for a living.

"They said, 'The guy who draws comics? Forget it.'"

Disappointed and dejected, Delisle wonders out loud, "Maybe they've got me mixed up with Joe Sacco?"

It's precisely this kind of moment – part in-joke, part self-deprecating jab – that fuels much of the appeal (and charm) of the Canadian cartoonist's work.

Delisle, a Quebec City native who calls the south of France home, is internationally known for his slice-of-life dispatches from China, North Korea and Burma, where he has spent time living and working during the past decade. Over the course of three well-received graphic works, the cartoonist and former animator has fostered a unique voice as a chronicler of the quotidian from inside some of the most sequestered states on Earth.

Sacco, on the other hand, is a U.S. cartoonist/journalist who is known for his rigorously researched comics from hot spots such as Palestine, Bosnia and the Gaza Strip.

Though the two cartoonists may occasionally tread the same geographical ground, their comics really couldn't be any more different. Sacco is synonymous with unflinching comics reportage; Delisle conjures up the image of a bumbling, fish-out-of-water everyman character, more Woody Allen than Bob Woodward. Only a clueless bureaucrat could mistake the two. To his credit, Delisle is not afraid to point this fact out in the panels of his own book.

That book, the English-language version of which is out this month, drops anchor amid what is easily the biggest fanfare for any Delisle work to date.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, which recounts a year that Delisle and his family spent living in the ancient Middle Eastern city, is not only his biggest book and his first in colour, but it also won the Best Comic Album prize (the Fauve d'Or) at this year's International Comics Festival in Angoulême, France, making him the first Canadian to win the prestigious honour.

Jerusalem is not only an extremely handsome book (its size and heft masterfully packaged, as always, by Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly), but it also presents Delisle – who has received his knocks in the past for his handling of social and political issues – at his career best.

The book begins in August, 2008, as Delisle arrives in Jerusalem late at night with his wife, who is there on a posting with Médecins sans frontières, and two young kids in tow. Over the next few days, Delisle explores the streets of Beit Hanina, the Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that he will call home. "Non-existent sidewalks, cratered roads, random parking, stifling heat," he says as he checks off an invisible list of telltale signs of a developing nation.

His deployment of colour here is subtle but striking, with blue and brown hues serving as the backdrop for the mundane streets. He saves the bold use of reds and yellows for later on in the books to highlight action, including gunfire and explosions.

Pretty soon, he is also exploring the politics of the region, which are as complicated as they come. Delisle has been criticized for oversimplifying the politics in the regions he has written about, but here he wisely allows these issues to be explained by locals, such as the MSF woman who tries (in vain) to explain to him why Israel has two capital cities.

In the remaining 300 or so pages, Delisle skillfully presents episodes from his daily life (dropping his kids off at daycare; scouting out and sketching ancient buildings) interspersed with engaging lessons on the history of the region.

His insights into daily life are often keen (for example, he notes how blasé everyone seems to be about firearms) and occasionally deep, but he always stands his ground in the commonplace. Outside of his description of a couple of high-profile incidents that took place while he was there, Delisle avoids being stridently political. (At one point, he wonders about the locations of gravestones related to an ancient prophecy, and says, "Ah … If I were a journalist, I'd investigate a bit.")

If, like the Israeli border officials, you're expecting Joe Sacco, you'd best keep moving down the book aisle. But if you're accustomed to Delisle's brand of episodic storytelling, one in which the sum of its seemingly random parts adds up to a satisfying and substantial read, then his latest will certainly meet, if not exceed, your expectations.

Brad Mackay co-edited The Collected Doug Wright: Canada's Master Cartoonist, Vol. 1, and is director of the Doug Wright Awards.

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