Pyongyang and Palestine: Vignettes in Graphic Novels

Vignettes are a series of a small moments and stories that are used to construct a larger narrative. In the two graphic novels that we have read most recently, we see vignettes used to construct a kind of story that is different from our previous readings.  For example, our earlier reading of Maus, which centers around a personal history. The use of vignette as opposed to a strict linear narrative is a particularly strong one given the subject matter of these two graphic novels. Pyongyang centers around an illustrator’s experience in North Korea, Palestine around a journalist in Jerusalem, Palestine. Both accounts center less around the personal story of their respective narrators and more so on the illustration of the setting. We are not given the story of one single person, though we follow the narrators throughout both graphic novels, but the story of a place and the many, often opposing people and viewpoints within the place.

The settings in these books are each in some way shrouded in mystery for many Americans. In the case of Palestine many Americans receive very limited and often biased information about the conflict and history of Palestine’s occupation. We see this in the beginning of Palestine where Sacco describes reading the story of an old Jewish man who was killed on a cruise boat by a group who claimed to have done this in the name of Palestinian liberation. Sacco describes reading the account of the man killed, and of thinking that this man sounded as though he could have been Sacco’s neighbor. The details included in this news story were what made Sacco empathize with one side and demonize the other.

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This one moment alone makes a strong case for the use of vignettes as a medium to make a case or an argument. Very early on Sacco makes the point that “Americans want human interest stories”. He is essentially positing that it is harder as readers to care about dying Palestinians when we are rarely given names, much less stories, as opposed to this news story about the man on the cruise, whose name and story we are told. We are additionally told how he likes his cornflakes, and several other details that make him into a unique, specific human being in our minds. Vignettes are a way to illustrate moments in great detail, and very early on it is established in Sacco’s narrative that details are what make us care about a story or about an outcome. Delisle uses this kind of intense detail throughout Pyongyang as well. There are detailed scenes of the mundane everyday activities of the narrator, down to him noticing a blemish and picking at his skin as he writes. This kind of minutia serve to build up the character and the mood through tiny moments and actions.

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However, Sacco uses detail to make us care about the history and present tragedy of Palestine. He gives us many very detailed accounts to show not only human interest, but also the multifaceted nature of the conflict. The use of vignettes to showcase something or to illuminate a story that is not already well known is what makes these two books stand apart from Maus. The story of the holocaust is one with which most people in America are familiar, and as such we can trace a single person’s story through the backdrop of a history with which we are already familiar. This one story stands against an already well-known setting and time, whereas in the case of Palestine or Pyongyang even the basic facts of the setting are unknown to many. To illustrate the setting of these pieces we are given many smaller stories that gradually illuminate the place, the time, the mood and the history of a people that are in some ways isolated from our view.

This gradual enlightening, rather than straightforward telling-of-the-facts serves to give us a more naturalistic way to present a situation. Not only in sense we see our view of these places shift gradually with the narrator’s own view, but in the sense that most situations are not built from one person’s perspective. Following one narrative through a situation is a dangerous route to take if you do not go in with incomplete context.

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