The Sunday Salon: Comparing Comic Travelogues

by Kim on June 20, 2010 · 16 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:

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