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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #12 (March 20, 2007), page 13.
Travelogue in nuanced shades of gray
Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China
By Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly Books, 2006
Hardcover, 148 pages, $19.95
By Jeff Wenger
When art is done well and simply, it can fool you into thinking that itís easy and that anyone could have done it.
Guy Delisleís graphic novel Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China is such a work. The story is illustrated in a marvelously simple way, yet with tremendous attention to detail. Delisle displays a unique perspective that introduces the reader to new sensations and makes the reader see familiar things in a fresh manner.
From Hong Kong, across the New Territories, and into the Peopleís Republic, is Shenzhen, a towering metropolis that stands as a testament to something ó maybe to Chinese industriousness, maybe to what infinite hard currency reserves can do in the hands of central planners. At any rate, it was a fishing village in 1950 with fewer than 10,000 people; today its population is over four million and growing. Few of Shenzhenís teeming millions speak any English.
I visited Shenzhen just a couple of years before Delisle and can vouch for much of his observation. His artwork jibes with my memory.
The skyline was made of Communist concrete tower blocks and, in many of the graphic novelís panels, Delisle seems to have worn his pencil dull capturing detail and then ground it down further portraying the nuanced shades of gray. The full page splashes are especially fine and sometimes quite dramatic.
Delisle worked as an animator on an outsourced project on the Chinese mainland, spending three months in Shenzhen. During that time, he was struck by many of the things that foreigners are struck by, including the Asian custom of covering the mouth when using a toothpick and the resignation to public privies that donít encourage you to have a seat.
He visits the "Windows of the World" theme park, where visitors can walk among scale replicas of global landmarks: the leaning tower of Pisa, the pyramids, the Grand Canyon. He has the very common experience of having the locals ask for a picture to be taken with him.
But to be sure, Shenzhen is a travelogue as a diary, not travel writing that elucidates why things are happening and what it means for the reader.
Capturing the languor of being the only real English speaker in a gray town without cultural diversions is one thing, whereas imposing it upon the reader is Jim Jarmusch territory.
This nearly happens in Shenzhen as the narrative sometimes becomes more about Delisleís bored isolation than about China.
Nevertheless, the work ultimately avoids becoming just a slideshow of his trip to Asia. This is so mainly because of the effectiveness of his varied illustration styles and because, however familiar the story may seem to those of us with similar experiences, Delisle is a gifted artist and it was he who was submerged in the culture and returned with treasure and made it look easy.