Comics journalism is a growing phenomena. Joe Sacco, its best-known practitioner, goes to trouble-spots and creates documentary comics about what he sees and who he talks to.
Although reading the blurb on the back, you might think that Burma Chronicles is a similar sort of project, Guy Delisle isn’t the same kind of writer as Sacco. Burma Chronicles is rooted more firmly in Delisle’s life and experiences than the politics of the region. And while it doesn’t shy away from exploring the military dictatorship and its effect on Burma’s people, the book as a whole comes across as more of a travelogue than a serious piece of journalism.
Some of this inevitably comes from the fact that Delisle hasn’t specifically chosen to visit Burma. Instead he escorts his wife, who works on location as a manager for the French medical charity Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF). She’s stationed in Burma, so the family (Delisle and their one-year-old son) go along for the ride.
With MSF funding, the family have a surprisingly comfortable ex-pat lifestyle. Deslisle walks his buggy freely around the streets (except for the street containing the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time for speaking out against the government), and his white-skinned son becomes something of a local celebrity. They have staff to clean and guard their property, Western toddler groups for child entertainment, and privileged access to ex-pat health clubs.
While Delisle’s observations and anecdotes address the politics of the region to some extent, it’s always from the viewpoint of a transient Westerner. We come out of the book with barely more understanding of the country than when we started. Delisle observes and writes about situations he comes across, but he fails to ask enough questions, leaving the reader to ponder over the unfinished business. The illustration is charming and clear, the dialogue authentic and very readable. It just feels like something substantial is missing.
It leaves the reader feeling like Delisle has been unable to close this chapter of his life. While the time between his arrival in and departure from Burma may seem like a logical beginning and end, Delisle comes over as a spare part to the bigger picture. He’s bringing up the baby while his wife is adventuring around Burma, and you can’t help but feel that we’re following the wrong person.