Graphic novel review – Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City
– by Shawn Conner
File this one under “only in France”. Not only did the original French version of Guy Delisle‘s Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City (out now on Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 336 pps, $24.95) win last year’s Prize for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, but the book went on to become a bestseller.
Over here in the real world, however, Delisle’s travelogue cartooning isn’t likely to get much notice outside those salons where the caviar is served with a side of foreign policy. Oh well, 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, but his work is much more investigative) and, in books like Pyongyang and Shenzhen, 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 (just published in North America), 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.
However, Jerusalem is not a wholly satisfying read. For this reader, at least, Delisle’s style is starting to wear a little thin. The book feels incomplete – in more than one instance Delisle (or rather, his character) seems more interested in sketching the sights than keeping up with this work. Maybe that’s why the art seems fully-formed while the story seems to be meandering and shapeless. Jerusalem is clever and funny and interesting, but it also points to the limits of the form Delisle has made his own.
But what do I know? He won a frickin’ award. In France, no less.