A question for the history of the graphic novel: Will anyone ever write a cartoon equivalent of Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Will there ever be a cartoonist who in his or her real life does a bunch of dangerous and exciting stuff, such as work on a whaling ship, pilot a river boat, or fight in a war, and who then sublimates those experiences via the imagination into a work of fiction that’s vivid and dense and spiritually substantial? More specifically, will there ever be a cartoonist who can combine with his or her comics all that you get in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin (the audacity, the action, the energetic globetrotting) with all that you get in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (the disappointment, the ambiguity, the baroque psychology)?
Guy Delisle’s new Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a nonfictional graphic novel about being far away from home in an occasionally dangerous and precarious and confusing place. It’s about living for a year in Israel while trying to be a husband, a father, and an itinerant cartoonist. Insofar as it’s a memoir, Jerusalem is low-key and humorous, and brings to mind Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March. Insofar as it’s a travelogue, Jerusalem is inquisitive and observant, and brings to mind another doc: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. As a whole, the book is both enjoyable and instructive; it makes you chuckle and grin, and it makes you feel like a more informed, concerned citizen of the world.
The reason Delisle camps out near the holiest of the world’s geopolitical hellholes is that his wife works for Médecins San Frontières and she’s been assigned to work in Israel for a year (particularly in Gaza). Delisle’s purpose therefore, while living in Jerusalem, is more or less—and he admits as much—to be a housewife and to help take care of his two little kids while mom is out there making a difference. Most of Jerusalem’s chapters are just one, two, or three pages in length. They’re all vignettes, and many of them involve driving the kids to school, taking them on vacation, or wandering around trying to find a place to get some drawing done before they have to come home. But there’s also encounters and interactions, with other expats, with locals, with Jews and Muslims and Christians, with Israelis and Palestinians.
Delisle’s drawing style fits nicely with his narration. His lines are plain and clean and casual without being sloppy. Most of his frames are in black and white, with color used from time to time to bring attention to a map, a memory, or an obnoxious noise. He’s also a pro at compressing his scenes down to just a few beats, phrases, and gestures. In Jerusalem, there are no longwinded monologues, dialogues, or explanatory introductions—just one curious, quiet moment after another through the months of the year, from Ramadan, when Delisle gets self-conscious walking down the street eating an apple, to Yom Kippur, when the roads are blocked and everyone’s out riding bikes, to Christmastime, when bombs start dropping in Gaza, to Purim, when the ultra-orthodox Jews are so drunk they’re puking in the streets, to Passover, when all the food in the grocery stores that has yeast in it is covered in plastic.
Delisle has written several cartoon travelogues in the style of Jerusalem, including Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and Burma Chronicles. With respect to the question at the start of this review, it can only be hoped that Delisle, or Joe Sacco, or Craig Thompson, or Marjane Satrapi, or any cartoonist who spends or has spent some of his or her time away from the studio and out in the world living to at least some extent dangerously, that he or she will struggle to do for comics what Melville did for the novel: to make it a medium with the space for an epic, for a hero quest, for a search far from home for the big slippery something “that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain,” to make comics a place where the Ahab-like reader can go.
Drawn and Quarterly released Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem on April 24. To purchase it, click here.