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Constructing Guy Delisle’s Shenzhen and Deng Xiaoping’s Shenzhen: Graphic Novel and Urban Space

By Michelle E. Bloom1


The trio of French Canadian Guy Delisle’s autobiographical travelogues based on his experiences in Asia contributes to the currently prominent nonfictional genre of reportage in the contemporary bande dessinée.2 Creator of more than ten graphic novels, Delisle joined his medical doctor wife, Nadège, on her stint with Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar, resulting in Chroniques birmanes (2008). In his earlier volumes Shenzhen (2000) and Pyongyang (2003), Delisle recounts his solo trips on assignment to oversee his French company Dupuis Animation’s outsourcing studios in mainland China and North Korea. In the first travelogue, Delisle inhabits both the space of his graphic novel and that of the eponymous southern Chinese Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Indeed, the construction of the graphic novel (Shenzhen) parallels the construction of the SEZ (Shenzhen).

Extending Ann Miller’s view that in both Shenzhen and Pyongyang, Delisle “makes no pretense of objectivity” (99), I argue here that in the former, his criticism of the SEZ and its inhabitants through the medium of the graphic novel reflects his negative, even Orientalist view of Shenzhen. Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1970s work, which defined Orientalism as the “power, domination and hegemony” of “the Occident” over “the Orient,” applies to Delisle’s work decades later, with some caveats (5). Said focused on privileging the “West” over the Middle East; however, the Far East, and more specifically the People’s Republic of China and the eponymous city, plays the inferior role in Shenzhen. That said, the “Orient” also holds a “special place in European Western experience” (Said 1), accounting for the longstanding fascination with “the East.” Although fascination is not inconsistent with a Western sense of superiority, Delisle expresses more condescension than curiosity or interest. Consistent with Said’s emphasis on the status of the “Orient” as a (Western) construct rather than “real” (5), even though Delisle spends three months in the “actual Shenzhen,” he sees it through a Western optic, imaginatively. He also constructs Shenzhen literally, through the images he draws and the words he writes.

Both China and the bande dessinée used to be seen as inferior to the West and literature, respectively. Although Orientalism certainly persists, China has undergone rapid modernization, beginning with Deng’s support of capitalism in the late 1970s and burgeoning in more recent decades. In the People’s Republic of China, no longer considered uniformly “backward,” the ancient, modern, and postmodern co-exist.3 Similarly, whereas the bande dessinée still lacks the recognition and esteem of literature and lags behind cinema as an object of academic study, the very term “graphic novel” reflects the elevation of the medium’s status (Miller 100), encouraged by the advent of European independent small press comics. Ironically, Delisle’s album both embodies this new, elevated form of the bande dessinée (see Beaty), complete with its heterogeneous form, resulting from experiments in style, and also embraces a lingering Orientalist perspective.

Special Economic Zones and the Construction of Shenzhen

Like the pages of a graphic novel, which start out blank and typically end up more or less full of words and images,4 what is now the SEZ of Shenzhen began as largely empty space, with few people or buildings, and transformed quickly into a densely populated urban zone. Before considering Delisle’s representation of Shenzhen and how it parallels the building(s) of this urban space, I will offer an overview of the SEZ’s brief history. In 1978, this “small border town located in Guangdong province with a population of about 20,000,” according to Xie Wei, “boasted nothing more than a few thousand hovel-dwelling farmers, and only 26 small factories with a total industrial output of less than US $10,000” (201). A year later, Shenzhen became the first of the SEZs designated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “Four special economic zones… were set up in 1979-1980 to attract investors to China. Each SEZ strategically targeted a particular group of maritime Chinese as its primary source of investment” (Naughton 27-28). SEZs were designed to open up trade following Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” an insular and repressive period lasting from 1966 to 1976. According to Wei, Deng confined the opening up of the mainland to the SEZs so as to avoid the likely “conflict with existing political, economic and social systems” which, Wei thinks, would probably have arisen if “foreign participation in the industrialization programme were to be applied immediately to the economy as a whole” (203). Barry Naughton notes that “the rules of business [in Special Economic Zones] are still subtly different” than they are outside of them, although they were even more different in their early days, in terms of “lower tax rates, fewer and simplified administrative and customs procedures, and, most crucially, duty-free import of components and supplies” (406). In the late 1990s, when Delisle was in Shenzhen, it had become a modern city with a population of 3.5 million and had “evolved into a roughly US $4,000 per capita GDP.” The SEZ’s dramatic5 population growth resulted from the migration of workers from other parts of China.6

Constructed after the Cultural Revolution and evolving throughout the decades as China modernized, the SEZ embodies not only the East, but also the West or, more aptly, their intermingling. Where Shenzhen reflects Delisle’s Orientalist perspective, Shenzhen reflects the phenomenon of Occidentalism, a reversal of Orientalism. In the introduction to the 1995 collection Occidentalism: Images of the West, James Carrier refers to “anthropologists’ occidentialisms” as “essentializing simplifications of the West” (Carrier 3). Xiaomei Chen, who focuses on Occidentalism within China, calls attention to the complexities of the phenomenon. For instance, she considers how, “by constructing its Western Other,” Occidentalism has “allowed the Orient to participate actively and with indigenous creativity in the process of self-appropriation, even after being appropriated and constructed by Western Others” (5). Chen ultimately points out the blurring of the boundaries between “China” and “the West,” as “the Chinese Orient has produced a new discourse, marked by a particular combination of the Western construction of China with the Chinese construction of the West, with both of these components interacting and interpenetrating each other” (5). Never compelling, Said’s rigid opposition between East and West has become even less so given the increased circulation in the contemporary age of globalization. Clearly, East and West have long intermingled, as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam point out in Unthinking Eurocentrism.7 However, the East/West crossover not only in Hong Kong, a former British colony, but also the mainland, as it has moved into a capitalist economy, embodies Chen’s complicated, multidirectional conception of Occidentalism. Delisle’s representation of the SEZ reflects the Western influences on Chinese products, architecture, and even theme parks, entailing the Occidentalist appropriation of things Western.8

Occupying Space

Non-descript buildings of neither distinctly Eastern nor Western style were erected on the once sparsely populated land which became Deng’s Shenzhen, where migrant workers came to work. Similarly, constructions such as panels and bubbles fill the pages of Delisle’s Shenzhen. As people and buildings densely populate the former fishing village, frames, images, and words crowd the pages of the graphic novel. In several cases, a single panel occupies an entire page. As exemplified by the full page image of a crowd of tens of presumably Chinese people (Figure 1), which also appears as the cover art of the English hardcover edition, the collective trumps the individual by virtue of density as well as similarity of features, accessories, and clothing, ranging from round eyeglasses to dark hair and business suits. Even Delisle, who stands toward the upper left corner of the panel, almost blends in, although he (and his signature nose) do manage to stick out.9

Figure 1: Guy Delisle, Shenzhen (Paris: L’Association, 2000), page 37. Delisle in a crowd in Shenzhen, also the cover art for Drawn & Quarterly’s English translation.

Delisle not only homogenizes the Chinese by crowding them (and himself) into a single page, but also represents the density of Shenzhen in Shenzhen through techniques such as the proliferation of speech bubbles and the reduction of panel size. Two side-by-side frames which blur together through overlapping or shared speech bubbles at the top and bottom contain one rectangular recitative box stating, “Le directeur, après 8 mois est un peu à cran. Il est bien content de se barrer,”10 referring to Delisle’s predecessor and his frustration with the local animators (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Shenzhen, page 10/4-5. The proliferation of speech bubbles reflecting the chaos of the Shenzhen studio, which the outgoing director is pleased to leave.

The two frames are overwhelmed by no less than nine speech bubbles filled with the director’s verbal exclamations (punctuated accordingly in many cases), ranging from “Tabernak,” referring to “tabernacle” and a strong Québecois curse word, to “C’est d’la criss de merde ce studio!”11 The speech bubbles and the text they contain overwhelm the visual in these panels; more precisely, two images of the director, along with one less prominent view of Delisle himself (in the background). White space is nearly absent in these panels, which are almost as crowded as the splash page filled with the crowd of people.

In his intertextual citation of compatriot Jochen Gerner’s autobiographical graphic travelogue Courts-circuits géographiques (1997), Delisle also represents a lot of text in a small amount of space by reducing the size of the reproductions of three square panels recounting Gerner’s time in Manhattan (Shenzhen 34/4-6) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Shenzhen, page 34/4-7. Guy Delisle’s citation of Jochen Gerner’s Court-circuits géographiques.

Although published only three years before Shenzhen, also by L’Association and even in the same collection (Ciboulette), Courts-circuits géographiques has a strikingly uniform 3 x 4 panel layout throughout the more than 100 (unnumbered) pages. In Gerner’s text, which is densely packed to the point of creating a physically intense reading experience, each square panel measures about 3.5 cm per side and stands above recitative in small font. Delisle’s reproductions of Gerner’s images diminish the size of the three panels representing his compatriot’s visits to New York City stores and galleries by about 50% to approximately 2.25 cm2,12 so that the first two panels line up precisely under the frame showing Delisle’s handwriting (34/2), and each runs about a quarter of its size. By rendering the text and image he cites smaller than his own, Delisle highlights his own work. However, immediately after citing Gerner, in the frameless bottom right corner of the same page, the Canadian pictures himself lying on a bed beneath the thought bubble, “Misère,”13 with word and image alike slightly larger than those of his reproductions of Gerner’s work. The homogeneity of Gerner’s representation of his lively and diverse travels (not only to New York, but also to Brittany in his native France and to Persia, where his aunt and uncle reside), inverts the disconnect between the varied sizes and shapes of Delisle’s panels depicting his self-avowed boredom during his stay in Shenzhen, also due to a sense of alienation. Dissonance between the page layout and the autobiographer’s representation of his travels characterizes both travelogues, although inversely: Gerner’s layout is uniform, but Delisle’s is heterogenous; Gerner’s travels are varied, whereas Delisle’s stay in Shenzhen is monotonous.

By contrast, in Shenzhen, form mirrors content when Delisle represents the Chinese conception of occupying space, a concern which itself fills up the pages of Shenzhen. Delisle’s first principle of riding a bicycle in China, “Un espace libre peut être occupé … “14 (Figure 4), resonates with his assessment of the Chinese conception of forming a line.

Figure 4: Shenzhen, page 72. Bicycle riding etiquette.

In the case of queuing up, the recitative states that: “Le concept de file est assez flou en Chine. Le moindre espace laissé libre risque d’être occupé par un autre”15 (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Shenzhen, page 18/1-5. Queuing up at the bank.

This self-referential verbiage itself takes up the rectangular space clear across the width of the panel and above the image of Delisle in line behind a woman at the counter, her hand in the small, arched opening at the bank teller’s window (Shenzhen 18/1). In the next panel (18/2), a man has inserted himself in the queue in the little space between the female customer and Delisle, as Delisle-as-narrator’s words fill the no longer empty recitative space in the previous panel. In the following panel, the words “Je dis bien le moindre espace”16 enact the idea they signify when they occupy a long, thin (or, “small”) rectangular space beneath the image of Delisle, now at window two (18/3). A male patron other than the one in line between the woman and Delisle appears out of the blue (or from outside any of the panels thus far), entering the frame (and shown waist up, with the rest of his body out-of-frame) from the right and leaning in toward the small, arched opening at window two; Delisle, stunned or stressed, as indicated by the three lines shooting above his head, leans in from the left. Although Delisle receives his money and departs, his anxiety about walking around “avec un porte-feuille un peu plein … ,”17 diminished by the girl next to him pulling from “son sac des liasses de billets,”18 exemplifies the cultural difference permeating Shenzhen. The dissonance between, on the one hand, France, Delisle’s native Canada or, more generally, “the West” and, on the other hand, Shenzhen, China or “the East,” is not surprising. However, the sign indicating “Foreign Exchange” (in English in the original French edition as well as in the English translation) above the teller’s window (Shenzhen 18/2) offers an ironic commentary on the lack of genuine intercultural exchange in Shenzhen, in which there is little “real” cross-cultural interaction. Although Delisle makes no effort to reach out to the Chinese, he constantly expresses frustration that they do not meet him halfway, as in the case of his translator (14/1) or in his complaint about the dearth of Anglophones in Shenzhen (12/2-3).

Like queuing up, riding a bicycle reflects the density of the Chinese population as well as cultural norms regarding personal space, which is a Western concept foreign to China. Delisle-as-narrator’s comment that in order to succeed in riding a bicycle, one must “mettre de côté nos très culturels reflexes de politesses,”19 reflects his awareness of these differing cultural norms, to his credit. However, his verbal as well as visual depiction of Chinese rules of the road as impolite is by no means a neutral observation, consistent with Miller’s abovementioned assessment of his perspective. Instead, it anticipates the even harsher critique constituting the second principle of urban Chinese bicycle riding: “L’Autre n’existe pas … ” (73/1). This second principle offers an interesting, object-effacing spin on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous “l’enfer, c’est les autres.”20 However, the analogy goes only so far, as Delisle qualifies his more pragmatically oriented statement with “Ou du moins pas dans un rayon dépassant un mètre cinquante”21 in the recitative beneath the image of cyclists appropriately filling the square frame. (73/1) Similar to the likelihood of even the smallest space being occupied at the bank and explaining the densely packed frame filled with cyclists (73/1), the abovementioned first principle of bicycle riding states that empty space may be filled. Providing further support of the parallel between urban and comic space, this text itself fills an empty space, sitting as it does alongside the framed (words), “premier principe,” but contained by no visible frame itself, and therefore occupying white space or blank textual space.

Paralleling the population of the pages of Shenzhen, the rapid increase in the number of Shenzhen’s inhabitants—including migrant workers—has resulted in high population density. Andrew Ross’s fieldwork in Shanghai for Fast Boat to China testifies to this well-known fact of life on the mainland, particularly its metropolises, including but not limited to the SEZ. In Shanghai, Ross notes, “density inside the inner ring was three times that of Tokyo, and … there was always a palpable awareness of encroachment” (58). One of the first Chinese workers whom Ross interviewed, a twenty-five year old Shanghainese who worked for a bank maintaining its computers, explained the ramifications of this phenomenon on the mindset and behavior of Shanghai residents:

People here have to fight their way in and out of metro trains… We cannot afford to be polite because we know there is always someone else who will take our place. It not only affects how we walk in the street, but also how we see the future. China is a very crowded world and Shanghai is not a place you can ever relax. Even when I try to relax, I can feel the economy behind me, running up at my back. (58-59)

We could extrapolate the basic phenomenon describing Shanghai to Shenzhen as well, with Delisle’s commentary on cycling resonating with Ross’s interviewee’s account of walking in the streets or entering and exiting public transit.

The importance of Delisle’s first principle lies in the analogy between bicycle riding and reading comics, which both entail moving through space in time. Delisle’s first principle applies to the creation of comics as well, for instance in terms of filling up a page or a frame. According to Thierry Groensteen, a graphic novelist often begins by laying out the panels on a page in gridlike fashion and then proceeds to fill them in (51). The construction of buildings in Shenzhen and environs, which is a refrain in the narrative, parallels the construction of the graphic novel. Indeed, the latter may be described in terms of the former, as Groensteen suggests in Système de la Comique: “Pour décrire sa place [celle de la bande dessinée] dans l’économie générale de la planche, on recourt assez spontanément à une métaphore architecturale. La planche, en effet, ressemble à une maison qui compterait plusieurs étages.”22

Angularity characterizes the construction of Shenzhen and Shenzhen, as it does of the graphic novel and urban architecture more typically, since squares and rectangles occupy spaces more efficiently than curved figures, be they blank (typically rectangular) pages or land. The angularity of buildings concords with the gridlike layout of modern cities. The frames of Shenzhen are quadrilaterals, with some non-outlined panels between (44/2, 52/5) or next to (42/1, 42/9, 43/4) such angular frames, borrowing the vertical lines and even the horizontal lines of the panels above and below them, nevertheless implicitly rectangular. Buildings in metropolises such as Shenzhen tend to be boxy high-rises, although in Shenzhen, not to the exclusion of curves such as those at the narrow ends of some buildings.23 Roofs of otherwise boxy, non-descript skyscrapers such as those seen around People’s Square, Shanghai may be non-angular, since space at the peak of a skyscraper would not be otherwise used so is not being “wasted.” Exemplifying this principle, in Shenzhen, the roof of the tall building at the far left of the panel depicting the panoramic cityscape is concave, in pagodalike fashion (30/1).

Consistently, nonlinear constructions emerge when—or where—space is not at a prime, or when the construction or image is so important that it merits use of valuable space, as in the case of Andreu’s Opera House near Beijing’s Forbidden City. As the appellation “speech bubbles” suggests, they are curvilinear. They more often than not avoid being squeezed into a small space since they tend to be singular or dual rather than multiple within a frame, with the exception, for instance, of two frames on page 10 (Shenzhen 10/4-5). It is perhaps no coincidence that the hotel with an arched entryway where Delisle stays just after passing through the border of Shenzhen is labeled “President VIP Club,” in English no less (39/2). If the arched entryway is stretching the point, the “gigantic” building “genre palais des congrès” (“like convention centers”) of the bandeau image (Figure 6) just beneath the frame featuring the “hôtel chic” is more significantly and structurally curved.

Figure 6: Shenzhen, page 39/4. Construction en route from Shenzhen to Canton.

It is not only a seemingly significant building, as reflected by Delisle’s classification of it in the category of “palais des congrès,” but also, even more compellingly, sits “au beau milieu de nulle part” (39/4)—in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but sparse trees which it towers over. It has plenty of room and thus need not be constructed efficiently: the image occupies an entire panel across the vast width of the page and the building stands in isolation. This “énorme chantier de construction” and the “chantiers … terrains vagues … chantiers …” go on “pendant des heures”24 as Delisle heads north from Shenzhen to Guangzhou (Figure 7). Similarly, a full page, image only, single panel against a dark background highlighting a lighter colored (white-ish) building-in-progress, with cranes shaded an interim color (gray), foregrounds the process of construction (21).

Figure 7: Shenzhen, page 39/5. More construction on a stretch of highway between Shenzhen and Canton.


Paul Virilio’s concept of speed-space helps introduce the role of pace in the city and the graphic novel. Virilio conceives of speed as a “milieu, an environment, a setting and not a calibration of time passed in movement from one place to another” (Conley 81). For Virilio, time and space are compressed and fused together, as “speed is space-time, that is, an environment in which inertia is felt within greater movement on the globe …” (Conley 81). Virilio’s speed-space exemplifies the Saidian notion of Occidental superiority (as well as the privileging of the patriarchal seen in Said’s work), specifically in terms of speed: “Western man has appeared superior and dominant, despite inferior demographics, because he appeared more rapid” (Virilio 70).

The pace of construction of Shenzhen (the city) and of Shenzhen (the graphic novel) is fast, consistent with the speed of modern urban life. Virilio understandably referred to China’s “attempts at ‘modernization'” in Speed and Politics, originally published in 1977, the same year as Said’s Orientalism (70). However, as seen in the capitalist market and high population density of Shenzhen, the other SEZs and, of course, metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, success at modernization post-dated the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Vehicles exemplifying speed include airplanes such as jets, or more precisely, Concordes, (Virilio 70) as well as high-speed trains ranging from French TGVs to Japanese bullet trains to the Shenzhen Express which Delisle takes after a “rallye contre la montre dans le traffic cantonais.”25 The pace of postmodernity is also apparent in contemporary popular cultural phenomena such as fast food (Shenzhen 19/5), which embodies Occidentalism, since the concept and even content is a Western import, and globalization, in that it homogenizes culinary difference. In addition, media embodies speed; for instance, films such as Marc Forster’s Quantum (2008) “clock in at an average shot length of 1.5 seconds” (Liu 447) and technologies including internet and television invite us to “surf” and channel flip, respectively.

Construction in the SEZ is driven by China’s rapid entry into globalization and attempt to “catch up” with “the West.” “Shenzhen est la ville qui connaît le plus fort taux de croissance au monde,”26 according to the text literally occupying the area between borders, the liminal white space sandwiched by the two square panels in the top third of page 64 and the bandeau in the middle third of the page (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Shenzhen, page 64/3-6. A building being erected one floor per day.

Recitative contained in rectangular frames with typical black-on-white text punctuates the middle bandeau at three points with respect to the curtains pulled to either side of the panel: “Des grues à pertes de vues” (on the left); “Des ouvriers qui travaillent jour et nuit” (in the middle); “Certains immeubles en construction progressent d’un étage par jour” (to the right).27 In the lower third of the page, three separate panels are labeled simply “dimanche” [Sunday], “lundi” [Monday], and “mardi” [Tuesday], with the words aligned under the recitative of the middle panel. The illustration shows a nondescript building grow one story per day and image, exaggerating the fast-paced construction in contemporary China and opposing the decades-long process of erecting buildings such as the Sacré Coeur Cathedral of Guangzhou in the nineteenth century (Figure 9).28

Figure 9: Shenzhen, page 131/7. Sacré Coeur Cathedral of Guangzhou.

While the remarkably rapid speed of construction in Shenzhen is at least implicitly negative for Delisle, he also critiques slowness in other realms, reflecting his denigrating view of Chinese pace, regardless of which end of the spectrum it occupies. Speed, associated with modernity,29 is not always a virtue, as it may entail carelessness and correspond inversely with quality. Virilio critiques the dehumanization of the acceleration of electronics beyond speeds humans are capable of, resulting in a distinction between humans’ “average time” and Artificial Intelligence’s “robotic time” (Conley 85). Although not a result of electronics, this dehumanization is consistent with Delisle’s inability to experience the liens (bonding) that Virilio sees as having given way to lieux (places, and specifically those of solitude) (93), resulting in his sense of alienation.

Delisle offers an even harsher critique of Chinese slowness than of their speed, associating it with slothfulness and lack of productivity. Delisle criticizes Chinese animators for their lethargy and stagnation. Despite the high demands of the animation studio he oversees, “La moitié des animateurs dorment,”30 Delisle does not understand why, “parce que normalement on est à la bourre et que ça devrait tourner à fond …”31 This verbal narration occupies more of the space of this unframed panel than the image below it, at a ratio of 2 to 1. A figure pulling a rickshaw is indistinct (due to its diminutive size) and fully shaded in outline. However, the image—which resonates through braiding,32 with the rickshaw puller more clearly visually typed as “Asian” and presumably “Chinese” in the above-mentioned subsequent full panel image (Figure 10)—reveals an Orientalist subtext to the verbal text.

Figure 10: Shenzhen, page 101. Delisle cites Le Lotus Bleu.

The rickshaw puller satisfies the recitative’s prescriptive “devrait” (should). Delisle’s fantasy perversely idealizes the exploitation and overwork of the Asian manual laborer and the figure’s action corresponds with the English translation, “running full tilt.” The three dashes triangulated behind the rickshaw puller’s head represent the imagined sweat of hard labor, by contrast with Delisle’s perception of the Chinese animators’ slothfulness. Delisle attributes Chinese slacking off to cultural norms: “Autre pays, autres mœurs. En Chine c’est possible de dormir sur le bureau sans trop de problèmes,”33 as he pictures himself doing. However, his critique of the Chinese, whose country he labels as literally “Other” (“Autre”), fails to take into account the negative effects of their job insecurity in the age of outsourcing. According to Ross, the upshot of the high rate of job turnover on the mainland is that employees have no sense of fidelity to the companies they work for and no accountability, as they know they are highly dispensable (4, 16). Rather than simply “cultural” in the sense of work ethics, as Delisle suggests, the slacker mentality of the Chinese employees reflects the type of global market in which they work. Further, as Virilio points out, “those at the top of the new ‘social pyramid’ go fast and reap all the benefits, while those at the base move at slower speeds. They … have no real agency or velocity of their own” (Conley 85). Virilio’s assessment characterizes Delisle’s lazy Chinese workers perfectly.

Not only supporting his characterization of Chinese cultural difference from Western norms, but also privileging the latter and more precisely endorsing the Western critique of slothfulness, exemplified ironically by his own violation of the work ethic, Delisle includes a sequence flashing back to “Montréal 1988.” His younger self, long-haired but no less aquiline-nosed, tells his co-animator at the desk adjacent to him that “je vais me faire un somme, je suis mort de fatigue,”34 provoking the response in English, “Sure man … take a nap … You’ll feel much better” (Shenzhen 27/6). Similarity to the 1997 Shenzhen studio situation ends there, as the presumably Canadian or at least white, Western Boss does not respond kindly to Delisle’s nap. So, as the (fast) pace of construction entails the convergence of time and space, the allegedly lackadaisical attitudes and slothful behavior of the Chinese laborers embody the confluence of pace (slow) and place (the People’s Republic and the workplace).

Fast-paced construction contrasts not only with the rhythm of the Chinese animators’ work, but also the pace of other activities, in which the Chinese also progress slowly, in Delisle’s uncharitable estimation. For instance, he critiques the hotel doorman’s progress in English implicitly as slow (rather than lauding him for reaching out by trying to speak one of Delisle’s languages) (64/2). Admittedly, the doorman’s output is flawed, which likens it to speedy construction in Shenzhen, much of which is illegal and thus lacks quality control.35 Although Delisle remarks in recitative that the doorman is making progress in English, the speech bubble in which the doorman asks, “How old is you?” (64/2) renders the commentary ironic. Delisle’s own chronicling of his stay in Shenzhen proceeds at a modest pace, because he esteems that the SEZ offers him nothing better to do with his time: “mais comme les activités se comptent sur les doigts d’une main, je remplis une page par soir.”36 He lacks inspiration, much less the urgency of China’s construction, and proceeds in measured fashion. Of course, Delisle depicts the lightning speed of southern China’s entry into globalization negatively. Indeed, he blames the capitalist, characterless city of Shenzhen for his lack of inspiration and the resulting plodding pace of his daily accounts.

By contrast, Shenzhen testifies to the success of his endeavor, suggesting that diligence and concerted efforts are more fruitful than speed, particularly when that comes at the cost of carefulness. The time lapse between Delisle’s field research and recording of daily experiences while in the SEZ, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the appearance of Shenzhen about three years later, is rapid in publishing terms. Shenzhen is also a relatively quick read for a work of its length. The absence of chapter divisions, as in the graphic novel more generally, encourages the reader to move continuously through the text. The inclusion of bandeau and single page panels also speeds up the reading process. The breaks fragmenting the text fall between panels, making one less inclined to stop reading even temporarily than if he segmented the narrative.

Shenzhen embodies the paradox of the simultaneous fast and slow motion of China in the age of globalization as in the graphic novel. The accelerated pace of construction of the urban space of Shenzhen and the fast-paced consumption encouraged by the layout of Shenzhen (as of the fast food and counterfeit objects in Shenzhen) contrast Delisle’s perceptions and graphic representations of temporal deceleration or even arrest. As a result of alienation and boredom, he experiences the passage of time as slow. Although China is moving forward at breakneck speed, Delisle feels the weightiness of time due to his inability to connect with people. During his lunch out with his translator, for instance, he esteems that she does not meet him halfway in his attempts to dialogue since, in his account, she fails to ask him a single question (14/1). Of course, the real explanation may be that despite her job, she lacks comfort with English and even sufficient understanding to engage in a verbal exchange with him. Regardless of the motivation for her behavior, the upshot is that Delisle’s attention turns to the duration of his stay in Shenzhen, and not in positive terms: “Bon, attends … on est le 27 … je suis arrivé le 24 … je me barre en fin février, … ça veut dirçe qu’il me reste…,”37 with the words progressively smaller, and the final word, the one following “reste,” so small it is illegible.38 The verbal blurs into the visual as words fade into ellipses, and the sequence ends with an image of Delisle, head down on the table and three lines shooting up from his head, reflecting his frustration and weariness. However, not even considering his own subject position and contribution to the dynamic, Delisle thinks within an Orientalist framework. The only concession to a traditional square panel here is the absence of contours on the outside edges of the frame on the upper and right areas of the speech bubble, due to the conflict between a bubble’s curvilinearity and the angularity of a frame typically containing it.

Building and Drawing Outside the Box: Shenzhen versus Canton and Hong Kong

Although I have established Delisle’s portrayal of the Chinese people he encounters in Shenzhen as slow to learn, think, and act and inadequate in performing their duties, his sentiment is directed more toward the SEZ in particular than to China more generally. Such specificity does not exonerate him from the charge of Orientalism, but it suggests that the particulars of Shenzhen amplify such sentiments. For instance, Delisle expresses enthusiasm for Canton, also known as Guangzhou. In his hierarchical rendition of China based on the Western literary paradigm of Dante’s trajectory from Hell to Heaven in the Divine Comedy (Figure 11), Delisle situates Canton, one of the “Big Cities” (38) (alongside Beijing and Shanghai), beneath Shenzhen, meaning closer to Hell than to Heaven.

Figure 11: Shenzhen, page 38/1-2. Dante’s stages of the “descent to Hell” (left) as a model for the hierarchization of a China which includes the United States (right).

This hierarchization is a bit puzzling, since he clearly favors Canton over the SEZ: “Si seulement le studio avait été situé à Canton, mon séjour aurait été complètement différent. C’est une ville, je crois à laquelle je me serais attaché.”39 Delisle considers Canton’s animation studio “largement meilleur que celui de Shenzhen.”40 In addition, by contrast with the dearth of cultural and social activity in Shenzhen, “Y’a plein de choses à voir à Canton: des vieux marchés, des pagodas, des musées … “41 Delisle is so overjoyed that in Guangzhou “y’a surtout, ô joie… des cafés ou l’on sert du vrai café!”42 that he depicts himself in mid-air, heels over head, his legs covering the first three letters of “espresso” above the image of a coffee cup to which it refers. Depressed to return to Shenzhen after his “super week-end à Canton,” where he enjoyed meeting people, exchanging views and seeing “des nouveaux aspects de cette culture,”43 Delisle acknowledges the dissonance between his assessment of the SEZ and its position closer to Paradise in the Dantean hierarchy. For many in China, he acknowledges, Shenzhen is a “dream city,” (46/2) whereas he himself is more than skeptical: “l’environnement devrait s’améliorer en s’approchant du Paradis… J’espère simplement que dans les Limbes, on boit autre chose que du café soluble.”44

The recent creation of Shenzhen and its resulting uniformity explain Delisle’s preference for Canton, whose architecture, like Shenzhen‘s panels and pages, is varied and combines the old and the new. As opposed to the SEZ, which goes back only a few decades and is populated by nondescript buildings which are functional (at best) rather than aesthetically appealing, Canton has both a substantial history and resulting charm. Accordingly, Delisle draws outside of the box, literally, in his portrayal of Shenzhen’s mainland neighbor. Indeed, he breaks outside of the frames and varies their size and shape in his depiction of Shenzhen no less than Canton. However, he also depicts the city’s charming architectural sites, which depart from Shenzhen’s boxy buildings, such as fellow animator Cheun’s downtown residence.45 So, the nonuniformity and charm of Delisle’s Canton are consistent with the variety of shapes and sizes of his frames and layouts in Shenzhen. By contrast, Shenzhen’s uniformity and lack of deep history render it monotonous for Delisle, whose own representation of the SEZ, while exemplifying latter-day Orientalism, nevertheless exemplifies the richness of contemporary graphic novels informed by the earlier works of the genre.

The only architectural sites that Delisle depicts that are located in Shenzhen and depart in shape from boxy nondescriptness are copies of Western monuments, exemplifying a form of Chen’s Occidentalism. The “Windows of the World” theme park, also the city’s only tourist attraction, in Delisle’s estimation (61/1), features miniatures of icons such as the Eiffel Tower (61/3) and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (61/4). Although the World Park does include non-Western sites such as the Pyramids of Egypt (61/6), it excludes China’s own wonders and offers a condensed world tour to Chinese visitors (61/2). Further, the Eiffel Tower’s size, reaching a full third of the Paris monument’s stature, as opposed to the 1/19 scale of the other replicas, reflects the primacy of France, which represents Europe, in turn standing in for the West (61.3). Delisle’s co-worker Cheun, who has been to the World Park five times, affirms that he has no interest in visiting the neighboring “Splendid China,” a theme park dedicated to the “merveilles de la Chine” (“the country’s own marvels” 63/1). The World Park’s focus on Western monuments exemplifies Occidentalism in the sense of the Chinese appropriation and even imitation of things Western. As Chen puts it with respect to “Western thought” (mental structures) rather than “things” (physical structures):

It would not be accurate to say that Chinese political and intellectual culture is nothing more than an outpost of mindlessly replicated Western thought. However Western these Chinese ideas may be in their origins, it is undeniable that their mere utterance in a non-Western context inevitably creates a modification in their form and content. (4)

Similarly, substituting “monuments” for “thoughts,” the touristy context of World Park changes the meaning of the originals, underscoring their status as copies for (Chinese) visitors to enjoy the Other without leaving the People’s Republic.

Like the World Park’s monuments and buildings, the Sacré Coeur Cathedral of Guangzhou is a copy (Figure 9). The Basilica occupies the center of a wordless bandeau panel and is highlighted by its dark shading relative to the buildings beneath and surrounding it and by the light color of the sky (131/7). However, Delisle identifies it après-coup, in the next frame, which also requires a page-turn to reach: “Je découvre la Cathédrale du Sacré-Coeur perdue au milieu d’un labyrinthe de ruelles ….”46 The maze of small streets leading to the Cathedral resonates with the structure’s complexities, with flying buttresses extending the building’s width, pinnacles at different heights, reliefs on its exterior, and the steeple with a spire topped by a disproportionately large cross towering above the rest of the building (and city). One of the architectural sites of Guangzhou which is more aesthetically interesting and even pleasing than the angular high-rises of Shenzhen, this flamboyant Neo-Gothic edifice in Guangzhou was built over a quarter of a century. The pure granite Basilica of Canton reproduced the neo-Gothic Sainte-Clothilde Church in Paris.47 Unlike the World Park, which reduces the size of its copies, Delisle enlarges the image of the Guangzhou Sacré Coeur Cathedral in its sole appearance (in the bandeau panel), depicting it as larger-than-life in relation to the buildings surrounding it. The Cathedral is, indeed, the largest Catholic church in Guangdong Province,48 but as is often the case in the medium of the graphic novel and in Delisle’s work, size is manipulated, be it by reduction or, as in this case, amplification. Delisle’s manipulation of size reflects his distorted, Orientalist vision of the Western-style religious edifice as dominant over the local buildings around it.

Scale is distorted, for instance, in the maps annotated by icons representing monuments, which serve as the lingua franca when Delisle has dinner with the studio’s non-English speaking animation director and his brother who, like most people working in Shenzhen, are migrant workers from elsewhere in China. In Delisle’s annotations of the images, he writes, “Canada plus gros que Chine,”49 with arrows pointing to the schematic maps of both countries, but then adds the corrective, “No China bigger” (in English) below the erroneous statement. Ultimately, though, the maps are not drawn to scale, any more than the picture of the Sacré Coeur Cathedral is proportional to the secular buildings surrounding it. The maps and icons representing monuments are not even intended to be proportional across type. For example, on Delisle and his co-worker’s map, the Eiffel Tower icon spans almost the distance from the south to the north of France. Delisle represents metropolitan France as about as large as Canada and the United States, even though the “Hexagon,” as France is nicknamed, is actually only two thirds the size of Texas. France’s inflated size reflects its inflated importance, as seen in a presumably Chinese couple’s excitement about being photographed with Delisle, whom they think is French, on their visit to “Windows of the World” (61/8-62/1). This “positive Occidentalism” mirrors the fascination with the East that Delisle himself fails to represent, instead focusing on Shenzhen’s.

Like the magnification of the Cathedral and of France, the “European-style” building which houses the Guangzhou youth hostel where Delisle stays on his side trip from Shenzhen is imposing (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Shenzhen, page 129/3. The Guangzhou Youth Hostel on Shamian Island.

Rather than tower over other buildings within the bandeau panel, as does the Sacré Coeur, the hostel occupies most, leaving room for a few trees along the bottom edge and a bit of blank white space representing the sky above it. This building also exemplifies the charming side of Guangzhou’s architecture, lacking in Shenzhen. Located in the “ancienne Concession Européenne” or “former European enclave” (129/4) in Guangzhou, the enormous Western-style building, with its domes and loggia, smacks of the architecture of British-colonized India more than French architecture,50 consistent with the dominance of the British over the French on Shamian Island.51 Of course, either one of these European influences accounts for the building’s charm, not because it is Western, but due to its echoing back to styles of earlier eras and ones which are less strictly linear, more aesthetically varied, and thus more interesting than uniform boxes.

Similar to such architecture, Shenzhen is multifaceted, its panels differing in size and shape and the layout consequently varying from page to page. Delisle’s normative frame is square or rectangular, as the typical modern urban building is a rectangular prism, or a three-dimensional rectangle. However, unlike Gerner, Delisle varies the shapes and sizes of his frames, making it difficult for scholars (such as this one) to identify some of Shenzhen‘s panels by their placement on a page in order to reference them, since he often challenges the very concept of what constitutes a single frame. We may consider an image whose only borders are borrowed from (and shared with) other panels to constitute a frame (129/2, 130/7). However, the notion of what qualifies as a panel is less evident when, as in the top left corner of page 72 (Figure 13), four small rectangular frames take up the space of one of the more typical rectangular panels, so that they could be contained within and constitute one panel.

Figure 13: Shenzhen, page 72. Photos of Delisle’s co-worker.

So, do they constitute four frames or one? Or both four frames and one? Unless we consider them a single panel, it is not evident how we should number the smaller units in sequential order. Subsequent to a contourless, more vertically oriented panel (a vertical panel between two each of the smaller panels on either side, so that their contours might be seen to constitute the vertical outlines of the words and image in between), another set of four rectangles on the right mirrors those in the upper left corner. To complicate matters, a rectangular frame half the size of the implicit panel comprising four small frames lies to the right. In this last panel, Delisle’s nose is buried in an album of photos of one of the Chinese animators, who is bribing him with charming photos of herself in order to seduce him into diminishing the demands for her corrections of her work. This last panel repeats the vertical rectangular contourless panel on the other side of the second quartet of panels. In the twice-repeated pattern in this row, each quartet of smaller rectangles forming a larger one comprises images of this female co-worker. Like the diminutive images from Gerner’s work (figure 3), these pictures of the co-worker are citations (from the album of photographs of herself that she brought Delisle), thus accounting for their small size (or, their smaller size points to their status as citations).

Delisle plays with the notion of the frame not only by drawing images defined by borrowed and implicit contours, but also by writing and drawing outside the box. Despite his bodybuilding efforts (Shenzhen 118/6), his own stomach protrudes above the bathwater as he lies in the tub. Similarly, in addition to the contourless panels and recitative lined up above, beneath or in between frames (94, 144), words and images extend beyond some of Delisle’s frames. It is not a coincidence that one key example occurs in the Hong Kong side trip, since his Shenzhen stint takes place just months after the return of the Special Administrative Region back to the People’s Republic in June 1997. The “Handover” entails the extension of boundaries (of what used to be called “Greater China”), like Delisle-as-animator’s breaking out of the borders of the frames he draws. For instance, when he imagines that the tram he is riding crashes as it climbs toward Hong Kong’s famous “Peak” at an almost 45° angle (104/4), Delisle depicts the bold, enlarged, capital letters forming “CRASH” breaking out of the left bottom corner of that frame at an almost 45° angle, mirroring the tram’s incline (105/4). The letters do not spill into neighboring panels, but they do exit and redefine the contours of their own frame and occupy space between panels that would typically have been blank.

The Handover also entails the blurring of boundaries between spaces. Shenzen’s location in southern China, close to Hong Kong, is no coincidence: “The largest SEZ, Shenzhen, was set up adjacent to Hong Kong to attract spillover investment from what was then still a British colony” (Naughton 27). Further, the chronological proximity of Delisle’s stint in Shenzhen, starting just six months after the Handover, accounts in part for his attention to border crossing in the account. True to his Orientalism or at least his negativity, Delisle focuses on the onerousness of traveling between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, although he engages in crossing boundaries easily and often on an aesthetic level, as an animator, in his graphic novel. Despite Delisle’s experience and complaints of crossing national borders, his view of Shenzhen as a suburb of Hong Kong (12/2) is consistent with Naughton’s assessment that “the gradual dismantling of the barriers that separated Hong Kong from the rest of the Pearl River Delta has meant that multiple urban areas are progressively growing together, transforming the entire eastern delta into a single integrated economic region” (28).

Hong Kong’s decolonization increased the flow of people and commerce across the borders. Among many other consequences, it became easier for Hong Kongers to go shopping in Shenzhen in order to take advantage of the far lower prices. However, as a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong to this day retains a distinct identity from the mainland, with travel back and forth requiring a passport, as Delisle notes, “Même si depuis la réunification Hong Kong fait maintenant partie de l’Empire du Milieu, il faut passer les contrôles de passeport de chaque côté de la frontière.”52 Although he remarks on the complexities of getting to Hong Kong from Shenzhen as discouragement for weekly future visits after his initial weekend there (111/2), businessmen and shoppers make frequent trips back and forth. The nickname “Shenkong” also reflects the Chinese conception of Shenzhen and Hong Kong as an entity. Following Delisle’s anxiety-provoked waking nightmare about the tram crash, he acknowledges that although he sees himself as a “positive person,” maybe he’s “wrong, after all” (105/7). This negativity, which he projects onto others and specifically the Chinese in Shenzhen, helps explain though not justify his Orientalism, since he is constantly critical of (Chinese) others, averse to giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This projection of negativity onto the Other also accounts for Delisle’s appreciation of Hong Kong, since its Westernness makes it far less alienating for him than Shenzhen. Lying at the top of the hierarchical diagram of China, just beneath the U.S.A. (Figure 11), Hong Kong “c’est un peu comme New York sous les tropiques,”53 writes Delisle, with the tall buildings and grayness of that panel reflecting that comparison. Indeed, in relation to U.S. cities, the Kowloon Island side of Hong Kong resonates with New York City, while Victoria Island bears more resemblance to hilly, charming, “European” San Francisco. In Hong Kong, Delisle finds familiarity in “le rythme des villes de l’ouest: cafés, librairies, cinémas, boutiques en tout genre, jardin botanique, etc … .”54 However, the “rhythm” he refers to is more related to culture than specifically to pace. That said, the constant rebuilding of Hong Kong reflects what Leo Ou-fan Lee calls the “accelerated pace of urban renewal” (3). Nevertheless, Hong Kong of course has a history, for instance in its pre-Handover past as a British colonial subject.

The bande dessinée and the Past

Whereas Shenzhen is so new that it has little if any architectural and cultural richness, Shenzhen combines the new with the old fruitfully. Delisle creates a complex work not only by breaking out of the box aesthetically, but also by referring intertextually to the rich history of the graphic novel in its earlier incarnations, as well as to texts in other media. Although the exploration of such intertextuality falls beyond the scope of this article, and would indeed merit an essay unto itself, I will consider one example: Delisle’s referencing of Hergé’s 1930s Tintin installment, Le Lotus bleu. In a full-page panel in Shenzhen, Delisle is walking behind a bearded elderly man with a cane, between a rickshaw puller and a white dog, who goes beyond evoking Milou (101) (Figure 10). Indeed, Delisle’s splash page does not merely allude to Hergé’s work, but more strongly cites it. Delisle reproduces the first of five hors-texte [title pages] published in color within the black and white 1936 Lotus bleu album and reproduced in the 1993 Casterman edition (Figure 14).55

Figure 14: Hergé, Les aventures de Tintin: Le Lotus bleu (Belgium: Casterman, 1993), color image hors-texte, between pages 16 and 17. Tintin on a street in 1930s Shanghai.

Delisle’s lines remain faithful to Hergé’s, although ironically, the contemporary animator cites one of his predecessor’s few original color panels from that version in black and white, rendering it consistent with the rest of Shenzhen. Further, Delisle substitutes his own persona for the figure of Tintin, whom he approximates down to the pants; short-sleeved, collared shirt and tie; as well as the mid-stride walking position, right foot forward, left foot back, arms extended in the opposite directions from the legs. Only physical attributes such as Delisle’s more aquiline nose and Tintin’s upright tufts of hair, contrasting Delisle’s frontally protruding ones, distinguish the two characters and scenes, underscoring their citational relationship. In a case of braiding, this page of Shenzhen foreshadows Delisle’s identification with his comic precursor two pages later, albeit even more strongly in the English translation than in the French original. “C’est comme dans Tintin” is translated as “I feel like Tintin,” the English entailing a more explicit identification with the character and not just the book or series (Shenzhen 103/6). The text is enclosed in a rectangular frame in which the grinning Delisle recalls the journalist on his adventures around the world.

The panels and page layout of Le Lotus bleu are not surprisingly more uniform and less innovative than those of Shenzhen, partly because the former was originally a bande dessinée, or comic strip, published serially, thus obliged to conform to requirements of its newsprint venue, Le Petit Vingtième.56 In addition, the Tintin series harks back to the first half of the twentieth century, another era in the history of the comics medium,57 whereas Delisle’s work falls under the category of European small press comics, epitomized by graphic novels published by none other than L’Association. Indeed, in (Un)Popular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, in the title and beyond, Bart Beaty pinpoints the decade marking the shift to the less mainstream graphic novel (9-10). Thus, the half-century between Le Lotus bleu and Shenzhen and the more recent work’s arrival at a particular moment in the history of comics explain its less uniform layout. It is nevertheless disappointing that Delisle represents Shenzhen as dirty (51/2-3) and its occupants as lazy and ignorant. Delisle’s depictions are strikingly negative compared to Hergé’s depictions of the Chinese (albeit not the Japanese), a subject which falls beyond the scope of the current essay.

The intertextual richness of Delisle’s referencing of Le Lotus bleu exemplifies the more general importance of intertextuality in Shenzhen. This practice, through which Delisle’s text engages with myriad other texts, comic or not, enriches Shenzhen‘s panels by facilitating their reaching outside the frame in a fashion complementing the formal extension and manipulation of the contours of panels. Even more importantly here, Shenzhen exemplifies an architectural model for the graphic novel in the age of globalization. Ultimately, as we have seen, Shenzhen breaks out of the box formally, unlike an architecturally nondescript SEZ. Delisle’s non-uniform graphics are dissonant with both Shenzhen’s architectural homogeneity and the backwardness of his Orientalism. However, drawing outside the box resonates more with Chinese postmodern urban spaces such as Shanghai and even Beijing (think Andreu’s abovementioned National Opera), as well as postmodern urban architectural innovation in cities across the globe. Like the contemporary graphic novel, metropolises tend to start from the paradigm of angular uniform spaces (such as typical skyscrapers) and even populate their spaces with those primarily. Similarly, both constructions at times depart from that base for variety and innovation. Regardless of whether elements of contemporary graphic novels resonate in shape and form with the structures of particular contemporary metropolises, or offer a variation on that theme, urban architecture provides a compelling paradigm for the construction of the contemporary European graphic novel.

Conclusions: Urban bande dessinées

The prevalence of the urban bande dessinée results in part from the conduciveness of the medium, and the typically large-sized page, to represent verticality. Verticality is, in turn, a hallmark of cities, as embodied by the skyscraper, the urban structure par excellence.58 Hardly new, the connection between bande dessinée and architecture harks back to the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, whose drawings of urban plans, accompanied by explanatory and narrative words, anticipate contemporary graphic novels.59 Francophone bandes dessinées represent a diversity of cities in terms of size, type and location, mirroring the variety of spatial layouts and other features of the medium. The front and back covers of Courts-circuits géographiques, Joachim Gerner’s abovementioned multi-metropolis travelogue, feature the two sides of the exemplary urban sign: a New York City subway token, which occupies almost half the space of the cover. Inside, the pages of the album feature densely laid out words and images in frames mirroring the rooms and floors of a typical New York skyscraper.

As reflected by Courts-circuits géographiques, Francophone independent small press comics go beyond the representation of metropolitan French cities. Shenzhen of course extends to metropolises beyond the Francophone world, indeed outside of Europe and even the West, with the linguistic disconnect a crucial factor contributing to Delisle’s alienation. Graphic novels like Shenzhen follow in the footsteps of Hergé and Tintin, traveling around the world, though the reporter visits myriad types of non-urban spaces as well as cities. Some recent works juxtapose dual urban experiences. For instance, graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi drew simple, clean black and white figures in the highly successful Persepolis (2007), in which she featured not one but two urban spaces across the East/West divide: Teheran, her birthplace and childhood home, and Vienna, where she spent some of her teenage years.

Consistent with Persepolis, Golo’s Made in Taiwan (Pigeonnier 2000) depicts the city through the architecture of the graphic novel across East/West boundaries and also makes connections between the Francophone world and a Sinophone country, like Delisle. PersepolisMade in Taiwan, and Shenzhen are all urban graphic novels that draw the city in black and white. However, they differ in terms of whether they portray urban spaces East and West or remain within one hemisphere. Satrapi represents herself in her home country and abroad, whereas bédéiste Golo (Guy Nadaud) and Delisle portray the East Asian cities they visit without featuring European urban spaces. Delisle casts the net large, albeit within one corner of the Sinophone world, since Shenzhen represents not only the SEZ but also its neighbors Canton/Guangzhou and Hong Kong. By contrast, the plurality of Golo’s album, which merits further study, is linguistic: he scripts this introduction to the history of Taiwan and the 1990s urban space of Taipei in French from one cover to the middle of the book; and in Chinese characters from the back cover to the meeting with the French version in the midpoint, with identical images from beginning to end

Golo’s Taipei, like his dual language text, combines East and West, reflecting the fuzziness of these constructs in the former colony of a Westernized East Asian country (Japan) that continues to strongly influence its culture, architecture, food, and fashion. The album represents Taipei as a mixture of old and new, fittingly through a combination of gridlike pages and more free flowing ones. Although Made in Taiwan responded to a request that Golo make a BD about the country, it is very much about the capital city of this small island. However, Taipei’s renowned vertical monument, Taipei 101, which held the record as the tallest building in the world for a handful of years,60 is absent from the pages of this volume, for simple reasons of historical accuracy: its construction began in 2004, several years after Golo’s album appeared. Golo captured Taipei’s modernization-in-progress. As seen by the absence of Taipei 101 and as epitomized by Hong Kong, which, as already mentioned, constantly reinvents itself regularly, the bande dessinée as a genre continually evolves, like the city.

The contemporary Francophone urban bande dessinée‘s attention to Eastern cities no less than Francophone, European and Western metropolises reflects not only the affinity between the architecture of graphic novels and urban spaces, but also the rapid modernization and (post)modernization of East Asia in recent years, accounting for the fluid boundaries between the constructs of East and West in the contemporary age of globalization. The important role of the Sinophone world in the contemporary global context accounts for its appearance in albums such as Made in Taiwan, among others. Architectural features account for the rise of the urban bande dessinée, which merits further study in both the Francophone context and globally. This analysis of Shenzhen suggests that the urban bande dessinée constitutes a rich area for further study. Given the complex and dynamic interplay between the configurations of graphic and urban spaces, the urban bande dessinée also constitutes an important subgenre of the contemporary graphic novel.


[1] Thanks to John Tallmadge for his constructive feedback on an earlier version of this project and to Jane Correia for her exemplary research assistance. My appreciation also goes to the organizing committee of the Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes dessinées and Comics at Manchester Metropolitan University for the opportunity to present an earlier version of this project.

[2] On BD reportage, see Ann Miller 97.

[3] Sheldon Lu says aptly: “One cannot periodize historical processes so neatly in the Chinese case, and there is no clear temporal pattern of the supersession of the ancient world, modernity, and postmodernity as in the West. Contemporary China consists of the superimposition of multiple temporalities; the premodern, the modern and the postmodern coexist in the same space and at the same moment” (146).

[4] Although some graphic novels respect blank space by leaving it unoccupied, they are the exception.

[5] Wei 201. Mee Kam Ng reports the 2001 population of Shenzhen at 4.69 million, but points out that this figure comprises both registered and temporary residents and that the “unregistered ‘floating’ population” is far greater yet (429).

[6] Parry as cited by Xie Wei (210). See also Naughton 406.

[7] Shohat and Stam note that the role of the non-Western in the West, for instance in the arts, goes back as far back as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (14).

[8] Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for ImageText for encouraging this consideration of Occidentalism.

[9] Delisle’s signature aquiline nose—or his nose in profile accompanied by one eye—even introduces the link to Delisle’s website:

[10] “After 8 months, the director has pretty much had it. He can’t wait to clear out”; Shenzhen 10/4-5. L’Association’s French edition of Shenzhen lacks pagination. However, the Drawn & Quarterly English version, which has identical images and layout, does indicate page numbers. Thus, for all quotations and references to Shenzhen, I will reference the English page number (and the panel number when relevant); the quotation may be found on that page in either the original French (unpaginated) edition or the English translation.

[11] “Jesus H. Christ! … This studio is a friggin’ hole!” (Shenzhen 10/4-5). For the definition of “Tabernak,” see

[12] Thanks to Marguerite Bloom for assistance with this calculation.

[13] “Oh man” (Shenzhen 34/7).

[14] “An empty space may be filled” (Shenzhen 72). The panel in question lies in the middle of the bottom row. However, it is a challenge to number the panels on this page sequentially. On this challenge with respect to Delisle’s work, see my discussion of this particular page of the text later in this article.

[15] “Standing in line is not a clear concept in China, leave a space and it’s likely to be filled” (my emphasis, Shenzhen 18/1, 18/3).

[16] “Even the smallest space” (Shenzhen 18/3).

[17] “with a wad of cash in his wallet” (Shenzhen 19/4).

[18] “wads of bills out of her bag” (Shenzhen 19/3).

[19] “To manage, you have to first put aside all culturally ingrained politeness” (Shenzhen 72). See footnote 12 regarding frame number.

[20] Sartre Huis Clos 93. [“Hell is—other people!” (No Exit 45).]

[21] “Especially those outside a 5-foot radius” (Shenzhen 72).

[22] Groensteen 1999, 69; “Architectural metaphors are frequently used to describe its [the strip’s] place in the general economy of the page. Indeed, the page resembles a house that has several stories” (Groensteen 2007, 58).

[23] Shenzhen 6/2, 44/5. The Paul Andreu-designed National Opera House in Beijing, a domed structure notoriously nicknamed the “Egg,” provides a significant exception to this “rectangular rule” which applies to apartment and office buildings rather than to cultural sites. In her analysis of Blutch and Jean-Christophe Menu’s “La Présidente,” Ann Miller points out the femininity of the figure of the curved line (108-109).

[24] “huge construction site”; “construction … empty lots … construction”; “for hours” (Shenzhen 39/2).

[25] “race against the clock through Cantonese traffic” (Shenzhen 45/11).

[26] “Shenzhen is the fastest growing city in the world” (Shenzhen 64/2-3).

[27] “Cranes as far as the eye can see…”; “Workers laboring day and night”; “Some buildings go up at the rate of one floor a day” (Shenzhen 64/3).

[28] Shenzhen 131/7. The Sacré Coeur Cathedral of Guangzhou, whose construction started in the early 1860s but was not completed until a quarter century later (“Cathédrale du Sacré Coeur de Canton”), is a copy of the Sainte-Clotilde Basilica in Paris’s 7th arrondissement rather than of its namesake in Montmartre. The well-known Romano-Byzantine Montmartre basilica was not even conceived much less a work-in-progress for more than a decade after the construction of its Chinese namesake began.

[29] On speed and modernity, see Paul Virilio’s “The Overexposed City” in Rethinking Architecture, edited by Neil Leach.

[30] “Half the animators are asleep” (Shenzhen 26/5).

[31] “since we’re usually overloaded and the place should be running full tilt” (Shenzhen 26/5).

[32] On braiding, or tressage in French, see Groensteen 1999, 173-186 and Beaty ix.

[33] “Different folks, different strokes. In China, you can pretty much sleep on your desk” (Shenzhen 28).

[34] “I’m gonna have a little doze. I’m beat” (Shenzhen 27/6).

[35] Ng 436. Between 1992 and 1997, in Shenzhen, 15,000 illegal construction cases were “handled” (as cited in Ng 436); about 35% of private housing was illegal in 1997 (Han as cited by Ng 436).

[36] “since there’s nothing else to do, I write a page every evening” (Shenzhen 34/2).

[37] “Ok, let’s see … today is the 27th … I arrived on the 24th … I’m leaving at the end of February … that means I’ve got only another …” (Shenzhen 14/4).

[38] In the English version, “another” is legible, and from both context and translation we can assume the last word in the French is “encore,” but its small size makes it unreadable (Shenzhen 14/4).

[39] “If only the studio had been in Canton, my stay would have been a whole other story. It’s a city I think I could have grown attached to” (Shenzhen 138/1).

[40] “much nicer than the one in Shenzhen” (Shenzhen 41/5).

[41] “there’s a lot to see in Canton: old markets, pagodas, museums…” (Shenzhen 41/7).

[42] “Oh joy… there are cafés that serve real coffee” (Shenzhen 41/8).

[43] “other sides of this culture” (Shenzhen 46/1).

[44] “Things should improve the closer you get to Paradise, says Dante … I just hope they don’t serve instant coffee in Limbo” (Shenzhen 46/2).

[45] Shenzhen 122/3. See also Figure 7.

[46] “I come across the Sacré Coeur Cathedral, lost in a labyrinth of alleys…” (Shenzhen, 132/1).

[47] Located in the central Parisian Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, Sainte-Clothilde, on which construction began in 1846, was designed by Franz Christian Gau, who died in 1854, three years before its completion. For a history of the Guangzhou copy, designed by French architect Léon Vautrin, see or

[48] The Cathedral ranks as the seventh “must-see” tourist attraction in Guangzhou at, which also refers to its size as “the largest of its kind in Southern China” (“Top 10”).

[49] “Canada bigger than China” (Shenzhen 20/4).

[50] Thanks to Theda Shapiro for sharing her insights into the architecture of the edifice housing the Guangzhou youth hostel.

[51] Shamian is an island in the Pearl River, which fell into the hands of Britain and France in July 1859, during the Second Opium War (October 1856-November 1860), under the Qing Government. Shamian Island is a vestige of the French “presence”—to put it euphemistically. Thanks to Hongjian Wang for pointing this out to me (and taking me to Shamian Island). For more information on the history of Guanghzou, see Junming Zhong, (ed.), Shamian: A Mystic Veil of Almost a Century.

[52] “Even though Hong Kong, since Reunification, is once again part of the Middle Kingdom, you have to go through passport controls on both sides of the border” (Shenzhen 102/1-3).

[53] “is something like a tropical New York” (Shenzhen 103/1).

[54] “the pace of western cities: there are cafes, bookshops, movie theatres, boutiques of all kinds, a botanical garden…” (Shenzhen 103/1).

[55] Le Lotus bleu 1993, between pages 16 and 17. In the original text (1939), it is between pages 19 and 20.

[56] Le Petit Vingtième is the “youth supplement” of the right-wing, Catholic paper Le Vingtième. If this venue is off-putting to some, Hergé’s contributions to the German-supervised Le Soir during World War II are even more “questionable” and made him a “persona non grata” for a long time thereafter (Lambiek, “Hergé”).

[57] Though Hergé continued creating new work well into the second half of the twentieth century, he also stipulated that the enormously popular series cease at his death, rather than allow someone to take over where he left off (Pignal).

[58] Benoît Peeters makes the point in his talk on the occasion of the 2010 “Cité international de la bande dessinée et de l’image” exhibit entitled, “archi & bd, la ville dessinée” (“architecture and comics, the drawn city”), focused on the pairing between cities and graphic novels.

[59] See Loach’s insightful article on the parallels between architecture and bande dessinée. Loach focuses more specifically on the Le Corbusier’s recourse to bande dessinée paradigms in his work, with a focus on his 1925 “Lettre à Madame Meyer,” a potential client. Like bandes desinées, the document combines drawings with captions, in sequential form. Thanks to the anonymous ImageText reader for calling my attention to the role of Le Corbusier’s work as a precursor link to the contemporary urban bande dessinée, even as it was contemporaneous with early BD

[60] Taipei 101, with the eponymous number of floors, was recorded as the tallest building in the world in 2004, (“Taipei 101”) but has since ceded that title.

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