The Sunday Salon: Comparing Comic Travelogues

by Kim on June 20, 2010 · 15 comments

The Sunday Salon.comThis week I got to read two memoir/travelogues that were also graphic novels — Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson and Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle.

I’m going to try to review them together because what I thought was most interesting was the way the graphic novel format allows for two pretty similar stories to be told in very different ways.

The Plots

According to Craig Thompson, Carnet de Voyage is not his next book after blankets. Instead, it’s a “self-indulgent side project” — a travel diary drawn as Thompson traveled through Europe and Morocco in early 2004 partly on a book tour and partly for his own recovering from breaking up with his lover.

Burma Chronicles offers no such self-deprecating introduction. Instead, it just jumps right in with Delisle and his family getting a call that his wife, a member of Doctors without Boarders, is being posted in Burma and that’s where they’ll go. The book follows their year living and trying to work in, arguably, one of the world’s most difficult regimes.

The Organization

Carnet de Voyage is basically a sketch diary told in chronological order. Thompson marks each date, then includes pictures and notes from the day. There’s not really any overarching plots other than Thompson struggling with pain in his hand and feeling sorry for himself after his break-up. In some ways, it reminds me a lot of Lucy Knisley’s comic memoir, French Milk, except that Carnet de Voyage does even less chronicling with words and more with pictures and sketches.

On the other hand, Burma Chronicles is told as a series of short comics — each no more than a few pages in length — almost like short essays. They’re in roughly chronological order, but not in such a way that you couldn’t just hop in the middle and figure out what was happening. I loved the way each one took just a few pages, and often ended with a frame that was a joke.

The Illustrations

Author’s Note: I got frustrated with a buggy image uploading system this morning, so I’m just going to direct you to a few sites to see what I’m talking about here. For Carnet de Voyage images visit here and here. For Burma Chronicles images, visit here and here.

This is where I think the comics are most different. As a sketch diary, the illustrations in Carnet de Voyage are very rough, use different media, and have this loose dream-like quality I really loved. They’re definitely more sophisticated than the illustrations in Thompson’s first book, Blankets, and I mean that in a good way — he’s improved as an artist while still maintaining the fluidity and grace that are so much a part of his illustrations.

In many cases, Thompson will use an entire page to just sketch something — details of a building, a person, a mountain scene, whatever. It captures the sense of roughness that Thompson was hoping for, and gives a sense of just experimenting and playing. I just loved them.

Burma Chronicles has a very consistent, minimalist style throughout the book. Delisle’s pages are very blocky, both in that they use frames constantly and that his drawings are very geometric. This gives the book a sense of consistency, a sense of being finished and thought-out and planned, which I liked for this story.

But that doesn’t mean to say that Delisle’s personality doesn’t come through int he drawings. In fact, the book is often quite funny, and little jokes in the drawings help convey that. Delisle relies heavily on some “traditional” comic things — little sweat drops to show exertion, jagged lightning bolts to show anger, swirly lines to show confusion — that also give the book a more finished feel.

The Tone

Both books are successful in adopting a self-deprecating tone that makes them good memoirs to read. I hate memoir authors that take themselves too seriously, who assume that they have a good story to tell and that we as readers should just want to read it because they’re sooo interesting. Sorry, but no.

Thompson spends a lot of Carnet de Voyage feeling sorry for himself, mostly because he’s alone. There was definitely a risk in writing so much about this because it could have made the book really annoying. I mean, come on, you’re traveling Europe because you’re a well-loved comic author. Get over yourself, right?

Luckily, Thompson battles some of that with this goofy cartoon of a little monster guy that follows him around saying all the things the reader wants to say (I can’t find an image of it — boo!). Clearly, Thompson had a sense of how annoying he could be, and used the little guy to point it out to himself and to us. It’s an understanding of self that many writers don’t have, and that helps save the memoir from being a pain.

Delisle is also able to poke fun at himself and what life is like in Burma in Burma Chronicles. In addition to scenes that explain what it’s like to live and work there, Delisle shows some of the mistakes and choices he made that, in retrospect, probably seemed silly.

At the same time, Delisle is able to do a good job explaining what is going on in Burma. Even though I had some knowledge about the country from recently reading Emma Larkin’s Everything is Broken, this book added to my understanding in a lot of ways. I think it’d be a good intro to the Burmese situation for those not familiar, and is put together in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re learning something while you enjoy funny illustrated essays.

My Conclusion

I’m not sure that I liked either one of these better than the other because they ended up being so different. Despite that fact that they’re both illustrated travel memoirs, the comic format allowed each author to tell the story in a totally different way. I don’t think they differences would have been as stark if both had just written their experiences.

Neither book is especially long — Carnet de Voyage is only 224 pages and Burma Chronicles is just 208 — so I encourage you to check out both if you’re interested in trying out the comic travelogue genre.

Have you read either of these books? What did you think? Are there other examples of ways in which comics have allowed authors to tell a familiar story (or familiar type of story) in an innovative way?

Updated to Add Other Reviews:

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny June 20, 2010 at 9:35 am

I’ve read both of these, although I didn’t remember the little monster dude in Carnet de Voyage. Neither of them was a fantastic read for me – having read a previous work by each author, I thought these didn’t live up to the former books I’d read (and I did find Thompson rather complainy). But even so, there’s something enjoyable about seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, the details they notice and the way things look to them that may be different to the way things look to me.

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Jenny: I didn’t love this one as much as Blankets, and without anything else by Delisle, I thought this was good. I am anxious to read his memoir about North Korea — I’ve heard good things about it (probably from your blog!)

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bermudaonion (Kathy) June 20, 2010 at 9:39 am

I love graphic memoirs and both of these look good to me! Thanks for the review.

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:15 pm

bermudaonion: Sure, I hope you get to read them!

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Amanda June 20, 2010 at 10:01 am

I feel much the way Jenny says about Carnet – that Thompson came off as whiny and complaining. I actually thought he took himself TOO seriously, and at the same time, I thought there was less writing and more drawing in French Milk. Funny how different we see things, huh?

I’ll add a link to your review in mine. :)

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Amanda: It is! I didn’t love French Milk, myself, but I think I went in expecting more story. I didn’t do that with Carnet, and ended up liking it more, maybe. They’re so different it’s hard to compare.

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Lenore June 20, 2010 at 10:14 am

I bought The Burma Chronicles for my husband for Valentine’s Day and he really enjoyed it. It’s actually lying on my bedstand in my pile of to-read-soon books!

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Lenore: I hope you like it! It’s a very quick read — I finished it in just a few hours.

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Aarti June 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

I really enjoyed Burma Chronicles. I think Delisse was able to make a complicated political situation really quite humorous and enjoyable to read about. Not to make it seem less than it is, of course, but I liked his style. I have yet to read Carnet de Voyage and now… not sure I will!

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Aarti: I think I picked that one up before of your review, actually. I was really impressed with hoe well he explained Burma and what was going on — it’s a good primer for wanting to learn more.

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Esme June 20, 2010 at 11:03 am

The Burma Chronicles sound great-let’s plan of reading The Angel of Grozny together-when do you want to read it-I have one more review I need to do-and read the book and then I have no other commitments-I am slowing down what I am accepting currently as I have so many books and want to get through my own pile first. Let me know your schedule-I may be starting trial around July 4th which may slow me down.

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Wendy June 20, 2010 at 11:12 am

Thanks for this post…I am especially interested in the Burma Chronicles after having read both The Lizard Cage (Karen Connolly) and Everything is Broken (Emma Larkin) about Burma.

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Wendy: One of the reasons I picked it up was because of reading Everything is Broken and wanting to know more. I liked that this gave a more day-to-day sense of the country and showed how true a lot of the things Larkin wrote about are even during “regular” times. I haven’t heard of The Lizard Cage before, but I might look for it since I’m feeling obsessed with Burma lately.

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Trisha June 20, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I love the way you did this review. And thanks for the GN suggestions!

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Kim June 22, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Trisha: Thanks! It’s sort of fun to mix things up once in awhile :) Plus doing these reviews helps me think a little bit like an English major again, which I miss.

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