In this third part of our interview with The Burmese Chronicles author, we explore the similarities between George Orwell’s “science fiction” and the current state of North Korea, and discuss why all of the independent cartoonists in France are getting really into kids’ books.
One of the pivotal moments of Pyongyang occurs when the North Korean guide hands back your copy of 1984 and says, “I don’t like science fiction.”
Yeah. I was glad to get rid of that book, because everyone was giving away their books, things like detective stories. These guys learn French, but with the classics, not the books we read today. They are quite boring, so they were very happy to have a magazine or a different book. I said, “I have a book, it’s called 1984.” He didn’t react, so I said, “well, if you want to read it,” and he said, “yeah.” I gave it to him and said that it’s kind of science fiction, just to see if he would go for it. He said, “yeah, okay, I’ll try it.”
A few weeks later I had to ask—I was waiting for his feedback. He said, “no, I didn’t read it. I don’t like these types of books.” Obviously he realized that it’s not a book you should have in your hands, being North Korean. He gave it to me, quickly, and he was quite nervous. I don’t know why, exactly, but it’s really interesting, because it says a lot about their situation, and we can fill in the blank space, easily. But I don’t want to answer all of the questions, because just exploring the situation is enough.
That’s the type of work you can do in a comic. If you’re a journalist, you have to tell what he’s feeling and all of that. When it’s just a few pictures, I can show that he’s nervous with just a few drops of sweat. And that’s perfect. It’s very efficient, and I can tell a lot. That’s why the comic book is such a powerful medium. When I have to tell these types of stories, I’m always amazed at how efficient it is.
Using that example specifically, do you get the impression that they have a similar view of their situation as we do?
Oh no. Well, that’s my interpretation. In the book with all of these details I tried to depict as much as I can how they live. I thought it might get back to them at some point, so I didn’t put their real names. But anyhow, one of these guys asked me at one point whether I had some medicine. His wife has some stomach pains. How can you answer that? I said, “I have some aspirin.” Can you imagine the situation? And these were the happy few. They were the translators for the foreigners. They won’t put foreigners in the hands of anyone. And he was asking for pills for his wife. George Orwell talks about “dual reality.” There’s their reality and then there’s another side.
Doublethink, yeah. And it’s amazing, because it’s exactly that. I was asking why there are no handicap people on the streets. And he was saying, “our blood is not mixed at all. It’s strong, and one of the purest in the world.” Which is not a good thing to me… and then, because of that, they’re all born healthy, intelligent, and strong. He was saying that after almost two months. He knew that I wasn’t going to buy that. But he still told me that. He was in that dual thinking.
He had been to Paris and Rome, and he knew about the reality there. He knew that the country was not the social paradise that they said it was. And this was the happy few, so if you think about all of the people in the countryside, or the people in Pyongyang that work in a restaurant, they don’t know what’s going on. They didn’t know about the football that was going on in South Korea, 15 kilometers away. And South Korea was doing quite well. They were in the finals, and everyone else was talking about thay, but they weren’t even aware of that.
You said before that you’re at a point in your life where you’d like to stop traveling.
You’ve obviously done other comics and a children’s book.
Yeah, I have two children’s books and then I did three other books that are detective stories—but they’re funny. It’s in a classic format, 46 pages in color. And it didn’t work so well, so they stopped it. It was more classic cartoony.
But people know you best for the travel books.
Yeah, yeah, sure.
Is there a fear that once you stop traveling, you’re going to run out of things to write about?
I was thinking about that, but I still have other ideas, and I think they would be as interesting. They might still have a little bit to do with traveling, though. For example, I’m doing these sorts of trips, here and there. And I’ve started to take notes about that, because, sometimes when you do signings, you have conversations with people. Sometimes it’s quite crazy. You have some moments at a book festival, or just in traveling. So I take notes. I could make a book out of that, and it would be fine enough for me. And I have a lot of projects. You never know if it’s going to work.
When I did Shenzhen, it took a long time for the public to read these sorts of books, and now it’s selling. Shenzhen was 2,000 in France in it’s first year. Burmese Chronicles in France was 40,000. Things have changed a lot in the past 15 years in France and I think around the world. Now the graphic novel exists and has its place in bookstores. In France they have a big space now in bookstores and festivals. It’s really changing quickly. You have more choice now.
It’s funny, because people here who are into independent comics tend to idealize France, things like the album system. There’s a great history there.
Yeah, I can understand that.
But it sounds like you’re like us in that comics haven’t been fully accepted until fairly recently.
Yeah, well, historically, L’Association was a mix of very successful authors. This doesn’t happen very often , and it could have happened in Japan, it could have happened in the States. But look at who it was—David B., Lewis Trondheim, and then people like Marjane [Satrapi] came. And then you take all of the independent comics, you’ve got a wave big enough to change things, because there was Art Spiegelman with Maus. Everyone read that and thought it was amazing. People like me said, “I knew this could exist.” And now, we have this type of book.
As usual, these guys were fed up with the system and they started publishing their own books. But historically in France, there’s been a constant evolution of children’s comic books and then teenager comic books with some very dark humor. And then there’s a little gap. At one point I stopped reading comic books, because it was too much science fiction and adventure. I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. And then the independents came, five years after that.
We’re offering what people wanted—people of my age, 30, 40. And now these people have money, they love comic books. They want to read Marjane and David B. And they wanted to read more, so France is translating a lot. the situation was perfect, because we had bookstores like Forbidden Planet all over the city, and the one I saw in Brooklyn—
Yeah, Rocketship. That’s a very nice store. In my town, we have two like that and a big one. So everyone is reading comic books. And it’s been a constant history, so that’s why we don’t have to call graphic novels or comics—it’s all comics. Except some are in small format and black and white, so they’re going to be more out in public. But the choice is really wide.
The kids stuff and teenage stuff is still there?
Yeah, it’s still there, which is good. And the funny thing now is that the independent artists are asked by the more classical people, “why don’t you do something for the children?” I was asked, so I did Louis au ski, which is like Aline et les autres.
Yeah. It’s one drawing per page, about one day in the life of a little boy. So I did that and I mixed my independent influence with the stuff I read as a kid. Now there’s a lot of that today. There was a magazine called Cosmic Planet that had a lot of people from the independent world doing stuff for children. And there’s a lot of great stuff in there. And now they are going in other directions for children. I buy a lot of their stuff for children.
You’ve got children of your own now.
Yeah, so I buy them for them.
It’s for you and the kids.
Yeah, that’s right, because look at Lewis [Trondheim]. He does independent stuff for certain book, but then he has some books that are just for children. I read them with my kids, and they’re fantastic.