Workshops Day One, Part Two


For the afternoon “amateur” sessions, to be held over at the Alliance Française, over 35 people had signed up, so Badoux, Émile, and I split them up into three “classes,” with the idea that the students would rotate each day, getting a chance to learn from each one of us.

It turned out that the “amateur” group was actually comprised of about half Burmese comics professionals and half interested amateurs — including two women (one Burmese and the other Australian) and one Buddhist monk.

Now, before we actually arrived in Myanmar, we had received some guidelines from the American and French embassies about the workshops. Remember, at its heart, this was a propaganda mission, to spread Western concepts of democracy and free expression. To quote from the original invitation I received, it was thought that “by utilizing the concept of graphic novels (a popular but rare form of communication in Burma), the target audience will have a chance to better understanding this art form and gain insight into using it as an effective means of telling stories, particularly to the youth. In Burma’s strictly censored and controlled society, people are always seeking ways to circumvent the system, and graphic novels can be another means of doing so.”

That is all well and good, but I couldn’t very well teach a workshop with such an explicit political agenda. From our brief time in the country, Badoux, Émile, and I realized that the Burmese comics culture was starting from such a rudimentary place — especially in terms of the content it addressed — that it would be better to just make comics together. Simple as that. So early ideas of discussing “‘comics and the artistic process,’ ‘the psychology of line styles and color,’ ‘word picture dynamics,’ and ‘visual iconography and its effects” were out the window.

So my approach to the afternoon workshops was to focus on collaboration and creativity. Taking my cues from mini-comics I first discovered back in Chicago — done by Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Terry LaBan, and others — I showed my students how to create eight-page mini-comics from one sheet of paper, and split them up into pairs to work collaboratively. The idea was that each pair come up with a simple concept together — just a launching-pad, really — and then create an eight-page story based on that concept, trading the comic back and forth, each doing a page at a time.

This idea of cooperation and competition — to me, the foundation stones of collaboration — seemed new to them, and there was some initial resistance (probably also partly caused by the language barrier). Eventually, however, the students got the idea — that they shouldn’t try to work the story out in advance or discuss what they planned to do, but just respond viscerally and playfully to what their partner had left them with — and the results were often really wonderful. (Concepts the students came up with included: a broken clock, learning to play football [soccer], going shopping, being trapped on a desert island, Internet dating, and picking fruit from a very high tree.)

I found that the best pairings were often when two people of different skills worked together, finding a happy medium between their talents. And maybe my favorite pair was the male Burmese professional and the female Australian amateur. He spoke no English and she no Burmese, and yet their collaboration — about a child learning to swim — was dynamic, surprising, and best of all, funny!

During the course of making these two-person “jam” comics, I found time to work in discussions of materials (pencils, pens, brushes, and paper), use of the computer (yes, the Burmese use PhotoShop too!), basic storytelling techniques (e.g., creating characters and situations), and sources of ideas and creative inspiration. And I talked about my work, specifically A.D. I figured that just by talking about the book (and its condemnation of the American response to Hurricane Katrina), the message — and the connection to their own tragedy of Cyclone Nargis — would be explicitly clear.

Professor Josh

Hard at work

Passing around the finished minis

Mini exhibit

Workshops Day One, Part One


Jet lag works in mysterious ways. Despite my extreme fatigue from the 30 hours of traveling, I didn’t sleep all that well my first night in Myanmar. I woke up bright and early at about 4:30 am, which gave me plenty of time to prepare for the full day ahead: breakfast with my two cartooning compatriots, then a three-hour session at the American Center with the Burmese professionals, three more hours at the Alliance Francaise with amateurs, and an introduction to an evening film showing back at the A.C.

At breakfast, I tried talking a bit with Émile and Christophe about the workshop, but they seemed unconcerned and confident that it would work out. It turned out that both of them had done gigs like this before — Émile in China, India, and the U.S., and Christophe in India and Algeria. I, on the other hand, had very little hands-on teaching experience. Some years back, I gave private lessons in comics to a rich Upper East Side teenager, and last November I did a mini-comics workshop with Sari at the Miami Book Fair, but that was about the extent of it. So even though I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of “teaching comics” to men many years my senior (e.g., the Burmese professionals), Émile & Christophe were so blasé about the whole thing that I was content to follow their lead.

Wesley picked us up in “Rolling Thunder,” and we arrived at the American Center fifteen minutes later. The Center is in a different part of town from the U.S. Embassy, but similarly fortified and guarded. Directly across the road from the A.C. entrance was a small hut used by the Myanmar military to keep an eye on things. It was really a sad little structure, slapped together out of plywood and “protected” by a couple of sandbags. Most of the time, the hut was manned by two slovenly guards, dutifully noting our comings and goings on little clipboards. A laundry line was attached to one side of the open-air hovel, and some stray dogs loitered around.

We entered the A.C. to find most of the cartoonists from Monday’s lunch, as well as our translator Aung. I started things off by distributing the pens I had brought as gifts. The men accepted them graciously but in a subdued manner, but I had read that it is considered rude in Burmese culture to over-react to gifts (and to my satisfaction, during the balance of the morning I noticed the artists examining and experimenting with them).

Christophe, Émile, and myself spent much of the morning introducing ourselves and our work, assisted by Aung. Then we heard from the participants, who were mostly men in their fifties and sixties, many of them with careers stretching back to the 1970s and even earlier. [Because of the nature of the Myanmar government, I’m going to refrain from naming any of the workshop participants. Even though the authorities certainly knew who attended the workshops, and even though we never directly addressed politics in our meetings, I don’t feel comfortable “outing” them in public.]

The artists specialized in children’s comics, humor, romance, gag panels, and so forth, with a couple having experience in the adventure comics field. It was fascinating to meet practitioners of my same field halfway around the world, and to see how much we had in common. For the most part, their style and approach to comics struck me as much closer to the West than, say, their more nearby neighbor Japan (undoubtedly a result of Burma being a British colony for so many years.) There was one artist who worked more in a manga style, but he was firmly in the minority. All the men were talented and technically proficient, but again I had that sad feeling that these were people whose creative aspirations had been stunted at an early age; that the Burmese perceptions of the artistic possibility of comics was quite limited.

Mutual introductions took up the whole three hours, so I was relieved of stressing out about running a professional workshop until the next day. We ended the session with me handing out signed copies of A.D. to each participant, a gift of the U.S. embassy.

Then it was off to lunch and to prepare for the afternoon amateur workshops.

International Week of Graphic Novels
International Week of Graphic Novels

Badoux, Josh, Émile

Class is in session

Hitting the Ground Running


I had only just arrived in Yangon and had a full day ahead of me. Having cleared the introductory visit to the Embassy, “Rolling Thunder” whisked me off to my hotel.

Originally, I was scheduled to stay at the modern, upscale Summit Parkview Hotel, but there was a convention of gem merchants in town taking up all the rooms, and they weren’t able to get my European counterparts rooms there. Instead, in the interest of keeping us together, the French Embassy found all three of us rooms at the slightly rundown Rainbow Hotel. No, it didn’t have a pool, a concierge desk, and lots of boutiques and shops, but my room was air-conditioned and large, the bed was big and firm, and they had Skype capabilities, so I could keep in touch with Sari & Phoebe back home. (The next day Winston confided in me that he wasn’t happy with the Rainbow — that it wasn’t up to his standards — but to be truthful, it more fit my character, being the sort of dumpy place I usually stay when I’m on my own. And staying at the Rainbow represented a significant saving on my hotel budget. In fact, it quickly became apparent that I had brought way too much money for this trip; not a bad problem to have.)

The first thing I did at the hotel was meet Emile Bravo and Christophe Badoux, both of whom were slightly older than me, and quite polite and cheerful. It was apparent my French wasn’t nearly to the level of their English, so we made out introductions in my native tongue. I must admit that before the trip I had been a little intimidated by the prospect of working with Emile and Christophe. Given their status as European cartoonists — both working in the “ligne claire” tradition — I feared they might look down on my piddly little American comics career. But I immediately felt at ease with my fellow cartoonists, and realized that they had instantly accepted me into their “club.”

After a quick dumping of bags in my room and change of clothes, it was off to a Thai restaurant for lunch. We were met there by a contingent of Burmese cartoonists, many of whom we’d be working with in the days to come. Also at the lunch were Fabrice, the French Cultural Affairs officer, and his Swiss counterpart, Flavio. Blake, Wesley, and Fanny, the French program arranger, were there as well. (Fanny was 22, blond, and cute as a button.)

It was a rather awkward lunch, as everyone was getting to know each other and figuring out which language to use. Near the end, however, people began passing around samples of their work, which enlivened everyone. I had a beaten-up copy of A.D. to show, while the Burmese cartoonists passed around samples of their stuff. I recognized a few of the artists’ work from Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles — the very same guys he worked with! — and I was reminded that most Burmese comics were in the humor and gag vein and/or for the children. Competent, to be sure, but rather uninspired. I had a chat with one guy about how he used his one-panel cartoons to poke fun at Myanmar life in metaphorical fashion, but again it was pretty lightweight stuff. (I have to confess, too, that I was still getting a handle on things here. Was our table bugged? Was one of our overly attentive waiters a government spy? Or even one of the cartoonists? I guessed only time would tell…)

From the restaurant we headed over to the Alliance Francaise for a quick press conference for Burmese journalists, only about ten of whom turned up. In an example of the twisted logic of Myanmar, even though our visit was “unofficial” and we were all there on tourist visas — for the purpose of not tipping off the authorities that we were there — the press conference was made public, even for government papers, because most of them are on weekly schedules and anything written about us would appear after we were already gone.

In any event, the press conference, such as it was, was similarly uninspired. Mainly, Emile, Badoux, and I quickly introduced ourselves and our work, and outlined the events of the coming week. No one asked any provocative questions, and we didn’t volunteer any controversial statements.

Following the press conference, Winston took us on a quick tour of Yangon’s colonial buildings downtown and then on a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the country’s most sacred sites — and top tourist destinations We spent about an hour taking a fascinating barefoot tour of the pagoda, much of which is covered by real gold leaf. I’m not one for marveling at treasures, gems, and the like, however — much of it seemed like something from a film set. What I really grooved to was the gentle, Buddhist vibe of the place, with pilgrims of all sort wandering through the pagoda, and whole families taking in the night air.

We ended the evening with dinner at a Chinese place renowned for its Peking Duck, where we all enjoyed Wesley and his British mannerisms, as well as his florid sweating and expressive hand gestures. Tomorrow, our work would truly begin.


me, Badoux, Wesley, and Emile
Me, Badoux, Wesley, and Emile at Shwedagon

Paranoia Sets In


As my plane approached the Yangon (Rangoon) airport I began to get nervous about the level of surveillance and control I would be facing in the coming ten days. Would they search the files on my computer? Would they confiscate the dozen bagels I was bringing in as a gift? And most of all, how would they react when this supposed “tourist” was picked up by an official U.S. Embassy van?

Fortunately, those specific fears were baseless; my entry into the country couldn’t have gone more smoothly. My passport and visa were examined, I picked up my luggage without a cursory look, and — before I could acknowledge that after over 30 hours of travel I had actually made it all the way across the world — I was whisked into the arms of Wesley Hughes, the Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Specialist. From Wesley’s name, I had expected to find a typical foreign services type, a WASP Yale graduate or the like. To the contrary, he was a jolly Burmese gentleman (with a fascinating family history, which I hope to get into in a future post).

The Embassy van, however, was exactly what you’d have predicted: a Chevy SUV (with the ironic nickname “Rolling Thunder”), probably the only such car in the entire country. (Someone told me later that it cost upwards of $100,000 to import a Western car into Burma — all of which money went directly to the military government). The rest of the cars on the road were mostly a sad collection of clunkers patched together from spare parts.

It was a quick drive to the Embassy, and in my bleary state I barely had time to take note of my surroundings — other than that Yangon seemed quite similar in feel to other Southeast Asian metropolises like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta: chaotic, dusty, and polluted (though no motorbikes — which I’ll also get into later). I also saw no gratuitous examples of a military presence. It wasn’t like there were armed soldiers or police on every street corner.

Security was quite extensive at the Embassy, however. The van had to pass through a double-gate and undergo a complete inspection: checking the doors, the hood, and including the use of what was apparently a giant mouth mirror to peer under the van for — what? — bombs? Once inside the Embassy grounds, I surrendered my passport to a crisply appointed Marine guard behind bulletproof glass. Only then was I officially inside.

Wesley then left me in the hands of his superior Blake (the guy I’d had the less-than-secure phone call with some days before), who was more the type I expected: tall, handsome, and friendly in an all-American way. I gave Blake the bagels, then it was off to meet Larry Dinger, the Chargé D’affaires. Dinger is ambassador in all but name, the U.S. having withdrawn our ambassador some years earlier in protest of the Myanmar government’s undemocratic ways. In fact, Dinger has previously been U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Fiji Islands, the Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Nauru, the Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Federated States of Micronesia! (So I suppose this posting was taking Dinger outside of his comfort zone of the South Pacific…) The meeting was perfunctory, though he had a copy of A.D., and I felt quite honored to be given the time, reminded that I really was in the country in an “official” capacity. Then it was off to my security briefing.

One thing I noticed right away was that whenever Blake left the cultural affairs department to visit the political or security division, he had to leave his cell phone in an outside locker. He explained that some people had the technology to remotely turn on your mobile phone and use it as a listening device. He didn’t think anyone in Burma had that kind of capability, but the policy was “better safe than sorry.”

Joe the security officer was a hairy fellow and, if you ask me, a bit of tool. He told me that as an American the “number one rule” was “city buses are forbidden,” meaning I wasn’t allowed to take one. Joe explained that every six months or so “some group” set off a bomb on a bus, usually leaving “zero or one casualties. But let’s not have that casualty be you. Just take a taxi.” OK, sir.

Joe also reminded me that the Internet was heavily monitored, and told me to expect that my hotel room would be bugged. “I’d tell you more if you had security clearance, but I can let you know that they’re not exactly the KGB here. Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” He kept hinting that he could tell me more if I had security clearance, but, since I didn’t…

Joe seemed to be starring in his own spy movie.

And even though my bagels had made it through customs, my paranoia was starting to come back.

P.S. Again, some names have been changed to protect them from whomever might be reading this for the "wrong" reasons.

Narita-Changi (Gesundheit!)


My stopover in Tokyo (well, Narita Airport is actually about 40 miles outside the city) was only about an hour or so, just time to check out the JAL lounge There were lots of people in surgical masks walking around the airport; I guess they’re all worried about Swine Flu. I can never figure out if the people wearing the masks are afraid of getting sick, or are already sick and are trying to prevent themselves from spreading it.

The JAL lounge was very swank, with an upstairs restaurant called “The Dining, the Bar” and lots of free snacks, booze, and drinks. While I was sitting there checking my email, I felt a weird shaking sensation, and immediately thought it was an earthquake tremor. A few of the people around me felt it too, including one eight-year-old boy who looked delighted, but most people ignored it, since it did no apparent damage. After Twittering it, I was immediately informed it was indeed a quake — I guess, like in California, minor earthquakes are a normal part of everyday life.

After the 12-hour flight to Tokyo, I thought the rest of my stops would be “puddle-jumps,” but the journey from Japan to Singapore was seven more hours! Once again I must thank my State Dept. masters for flying me business class. The “pods” on this flight weren’t quite as full-service as the JFK-Narita leg, but I still had my pick of free entertainment options and the ability to fully extend my seat to a lying position. I took advantage of that pose for about half the flight, and I think I got almost four hours of sleep.

I arrived in Singapore just after midnight, and the last leg of my trip, Singapore to Yangon, didn’t leave until almost 8 a.m. After nearly 22 hours of sitting on airplanes, I desperately needing to stretch my legs, and took the long route from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2. Changi Airport must be one of the most modern, luxurious airports on the planet, as it’s just stuffed with free Internet stations, designer shops, and boutiques. “High-def” sports bars proliferate, as well as coffee shops and restaurants. They also have a lot of “parent’s room,” special lounges with play areas for the family. And even in the wee hours, many of the cafes and shops were open and fully staffed.

In any case, I was kicked out of the Singapore Airlines lounge at 1:30 am and didn’t relish spending the next six hours sprawled on a bench. I found a “transit hotel” with a “budget room” available: $S40 (about $30 US) for six hours in a tiny, windowless room with shared toilet and bath. It was worth it for the shower alone, not to mention some privacy and a place to stretch out, but my system was so confused I only slept in fitful bursts of an hour or two until my 6:30 wakeup.

Then it was off to Yangon.

Changi moving sidewalk

Business Class


My flight to Myanmar was going to take two days, a total of 23 hours flying time, with various stopovers — in Japan and Singapore — extending the traveling time to more than 30 hours. I had never done that much flying in one stretch, and was a little concerned about how I’d get through it — especially since I was expected to hit the ground running in Yangon.

But one perk Mike Bandler told me about right at the beginning was that for any trip longer than 14 total hours, the government automatically set travelers up in business class. Yes, your tax dollars at work! (Still, it’s a better use of them then, say, invading Middle Eastern countries…)

In any case, I didn’t really know what business class meant. Growing up, we had no money to spare. My mom and I didn’t even take vacations, let alone fly anything other than coach. For us, it was always the cheapest way above all — comfort wasn’t an option. My only knowledge of an “upgrade” was that episode of Seinfeld when Jerry flew first class and Elaine flew coach. So I was curious and excited to see what business class was all about.

My first clue was when I checked in and the Japan Airlines gate attendant told me I could wait in the “rounge.” It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I realized she mean the JAL lounge. I headed over there and was greeted by the airport equivalent of a private club! Free Internet, free magazines, free drinks (including the hard stuff), and large, comfy seats. A peaceful, entitled quiet governed the room. Nobody was so uncouth as to talk on their cellphones. Civilized. I was truly getting a taste of how the “other side” lived. (Even so, in the tradition of my grandmother stuffing buffet dinner rolls into her purse, I snagged a couple of free Cokes and some snacks for the long flight ahead.)

The business section of the plane contained about 75 seats, 75% filled with Japanese business travelers, 90% of them men traveling solo. (That’s why it’s called business class!) The seats were like self-contained, automated pods, wide and cushy, with “lumbar support” and the ability to extend almost flat, like a bed. (In a sinister way, they reminded me of the embryonic pods containing the real human bodies from The Matrix.) Each pod had its own TVs and entertainment system, complete with free movies (American and Japanese releases), video games, music, a live view out of the nose of the plane, and more. And each pod came with a complimentary set of slippers; the first thing my fellow travelers did was take off their shoes and don them.

The best thing about the experience, of course, was the service. They really know how to do service in the East. The stewardesses (how they referred to themselves) were so polite, always bowing and smiling, going out of their way to help me. It was like having my own personal geisha! There was something so enticing and soothing about her soft, high-pitched tones; I couldn’t help but develop a little crush on her. I loved how they donned aprons over their uniforms before beginning the food service.

The food was excellent, though I wish I had tried more of the Japanese options. One thing I liked — both in name and flavor — was the “JAL Original Drink, Skytime Yuzu.” It was like a flat celery soda. I also really enjoyed the “Tokyo Curry Lab x. Japanese Airlines,” a savory vegetable curry over rice.

The flight took us practically over the North Pole, as we passed over Inuvik (in Canada’s far Northwest Territories) and Kamchatka (between Alaska and Siberia). In between all the meals and free movies I even got a few hours of sleep before we landed at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

As the flight came to a close, the stewardesses went around the cabin thanking each customer for flying with them, along with more smiling and bowing. The guy in the seat next to me was a salaryman just coming back from Sao Paolo, Brazil, by way of New York. As I marveled over the experience, he told me that Japan Airlines was in bankruptcy and was being run by the Japanese government. You never would have known.

my pod

Pre-Flight Checklist: Cash and Bagels


After all my fears, my Myanmar tourist visa came through with no complications. I had shown up at their East 77th Street consulate prepared for a face-to-face grilling about my plans, but it was all very by-the-book: all I had to provide was my passport, two photos, my itinerary, where I would be staying in-country, and a short statement about what I planned to do in Myanmar. (That last part I fudged a bit, mentioning a couple of landmarks like the Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, both of which I did intend on visiting anyway…) And because I was running short on time before my planned departure, the official there even pushed through the application, so I got the approval faster than the usual five-business-day waiting time!

Up until the moment I had the visa in my hands I hadn’t truly believed that this whole adventure was really going to happen. And now I only had two days before I was leaving.

Fortunately, I didn’t need any shots, so it was really a matter of just packing whatever I’d need for the trip. I remembered from Guy Delisle’s book that art supplies were often in short supply, so one thing I did was drop by an office supply store to buy a bunch of pens. They weren’t for me but for the Burmese cartoonists I would be working with. I use Sharpie Fine Points, Sharpie Extra Fine Points, and Uni-ball Deluxe Fine Point pens for backgrounds, filling in blacks, and fine linework, so I bought a bunch of each variety to give them as gifts. And I made sure to bring enough blue pencils and extra pens for myself as well.

From Burma Chronicles I also remembered that the Internet was heavily censored there, and power outages were common, but I determined to bring my laptop. I knew I would want to get some work done on the thirty-hour trips I was looking at getting there and coming back, and if I had any spare moments I would want to keep notes on my experiences. I also was supposed to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on my work during my visit, so that was another reason to tote the portable computer. And I figured the best chance I would have “phoning” back home would be to talk with Sari via Skype.

I also packed the requisite Tums, Tylenol, bug spray, and sunscreen.

The final thing I had to plan for was money. Even though I was going under the auspices of the U.S.A., I still had to pay for my expenses when I was actually in Burma. So that meant hotels, meals, etc. And this is where things were… different. For one thing, traveler’s checks are useless there — not accepted anywhere. Credit cards were essentially useless as well — only the occasional high-end hotel accepted them. And there are no such things as ATMs in Burma. So, even though the country is ridiculously cheap compared to the West, that still meant I was going to have to bring a fair amount of money. Once I had done the math, I realized I might need to bring something on the order of $2,000. In cash.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly used to carrying around money like that. I wrote to trusty Blake to see what he advised. “It’s all cash here. $2,000 will be plenty, and it’s always good to be on the safe side. I know it’s strange to carry so much cash around, but we all do it. You’ll need clean, crisp bills — you might ask your bank for their newest bills. Bring most of it in $100s.”

Yoiks! Going to my bank that afternoon was quite an experience. I rarely see a fifty dollar bill in my normal life. So withdrawing 15 $100s and a bunch of $50s was definitely a new one. I was actually struck, however, by how blasé my bank was about the whole thing. They didn’t even blink when I specifically requested new, pristine bills.

The last thing I packed before I left the house Saturday morning was a dozen fresh bagels. Blake’s boss, a native New Yorker, had mentioned them in an offhand way during my initial phone call, and I thought it would be nice thing to bring, a unique taste of home in a country far, far away.


“This is not a secure line.”


Blake Dreiser, the Assistant Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. State Dept. in Myanmar, was calling me late on a Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning, Myanmar time). His first words were to warn me that anything we were talking about might be monitored. “Let’s keep details vague,” he said.

Having accepted the State Dept. offer to visit Myanmar on an official mission, I was busy getting ready for the big trip. I was researching the country, preparing for the long flight(s), buying appropriate clothes, and thinking about how I might structure the workshops while I was there. But we had hit a snag.

My visa was the issue. The State Dept. had initially tried to get me a business visa under their auspices, but the application had lingered on a desk at the Myanmar embassy in Washington, D.C. (The U.S. and Myanmar having strained relations, Myanmar figured there was no great incentive for them to approve official American visa requests.) Panicking a bit, the State Dept. had retrieved the application and my passport, and asked me to apply for the visa, as a “tourist,” here in New York, at the Burmese consulate.

I was worried about what exactly this meant. I knew that Myanmar was an Orwellian country with extreme censorship, no political parties (let alone free elections), and a secret police that spied on its populace. Wouldn’t the Burmese consulate know that I had already applied and essentially been rejected? And couldn’t I get in trouble if I showed up in Myanmar with a tourist visa under false pretenses, and then immediately took part in an official week-long program sponsored by the U.S. State Dept.? I had a lot of questions for Blake.

Despite the apparent risks, I threw myself into the game. After all, I had read my share of John LeCarré and Tom Clancy novels. I was ready to discuss the situation obliquely, maybe even refer to my situation as that of “a friend.” And from what I guessed, whoever was monitoring the call probably knew that it was coming from the U.S. embassy but not the extension Blake was calling from. And the same thing with my identity. Blake had called me “Josh,” but not my full name. And even if they knew the number he was calling, it would be a bit of work to figure out who exactly I was.

Blake quickly dismissed my concerns about the visa situation. He took a fatalistic tone, saying he didn’t think the Burmese embassy in D.C. and their consulate in New York were coordinated enough to catch the fact that I was re-applying. And he figured that once I made it into the country, the secret police wouldn’t put many resources into tracking me. Easy for him to say! But all the same, he did a good job of easing my fears.

But then Blake began systematically blowing whatever “cover” we had established. “Listen” he said. “If you have any trouble, or need anything, give me a call.” And then he proceeded to give me his office number — down to the direct extension — and his personal cell phone number! To top it off, he dictated me his personal email address, So now whoever was listening in knew exactly who was calling.

But he wasn’t through. As we got ready to sign off, Blake blurted out, “Oh, hey, Josh. I meant to tell you, I really enjoyed your book, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge!” Great. Thanks, Blake. Now they knew me as well.

Blake Dreiser: Worst. Spy. Ever.

P.S. Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

Burma Joshicles


On Thursday, January 28 I got a phone call from the U.S. State Department inviting me to travel to the country of Burma in March to talk about comics. Once I determined that I wasn’t being punk’d, I got really excited about the crazy idea.

The program I had been invited to be part of is run out of the State Department’s Office of International Programs. Called the Speaker/Specialist program, its mandate is to “tell America’s story.” My recruiter, Mike Bandler, mentioned the names of previous participants, notables such as Richard Ford, Tom Wolfe, Geraldine Brooks, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

All I knew about Burma — now known as Myanmar — was a few key facts and what I had learned from cartoonist Guy Delisle’s excellent memoir Burma Chronicles (which I had randomly read a few months earlier on my A.D. book tour). Mostly, I knew that Burma was an authoritarian country ruled by a military junta that had imprisoned the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

As Bandler explained the program to me, my job would be to “work with elements of civil society, academics, students, media professionals, and artists interested in graphic novels, with the theme of using comics to promote basic elements of a democratic society through freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for fellow citizens.” Clearly my experience with A.D. was a perfect illustration of that theme, especially because in the book I directly address the feeble and ineffective government response to Katrina and its victims. The very fact of my book’s existence, and that I could express such anger and frustration about my own government in such a fashion, would be completely unheard of in Burma. (It was only later that I remembered that Burma had recently suffered a major windstorm as well: Cyclone Nargis, which killed almost 150,000 [!] Burmese citizens in May 2008. The Myanmar government did very little to prepare its people for the storm, was very slow in responding to the tragedy, and initially resistant to accepting any outside aid. Sound familiar?)

It turned out that Scott McCloud had been invited first, but being unable to go had given them my name. (Thanks, Scott!) I felt like it was kismet: besides the thematic connection of A.D., I had traveled extensively in that part of the world as a young backpacker, and had written and drawn a memoir of my travels in the book A Few Perfect Hours. It was like all the strands of my comics life had come together in this specific form. Add to that for this junket I would receive an honorarium, a per diem, and of course a paid round-trip to Myanmar, and saying "yes" was a no-brainer.

The details of the trip were as follows: The Embassy post in Burma requested I come for a week-long program from March 15 to 22. The program was in partnership with the Alliance Francaise in Yangon (Burma’s main city and former capital, formerly known as “Rangoon”), and would feature two other comics artists, France’s Emile Bravo and Switzerland’s Christophe Badoux. Besides the five days in Yangon, the post also wanted to send me to Mandalay (the former royal capital, and center of Burmese culture), for an informal lecture at the Embassy’s Jefferson Center.

The program was to include a workshop each morning for three hours with the other two European artists and local Burmese graphic artists at the American Center; general hands-on classes with the Burmese public at the Alliance Francaise for three hours each afternoon; and then introducing a film each night at the American center. Saturday, the final day, was to be an all-day affair, including a “live drawing demonstration.” On Sunday, we would travel to Mandalay for two days before returning to Yangon for the flight back home.

This all sounded very intense and overwhelming to me, especially given that I’m in no way a teacher, and I had never thought of myself as a “typical” representative of my country and its government. In fact, until November of 2008 I had spent the better part of the previous decade feeling very much a foreigner in my own country. But now I was being asked to represent America in a repressive third-world country literally halfway around the world.


Hergé was right!

Comics, Travel, Tribute

The discovery of water on the Moon proves that Tintin-creator Hergé was not only a comics genius but a scientific genius as well. Check out this panel from Explorers on the Moon, published in 1954 — over fifty years before this latest discovery (and fifteen years before the first human being actually set foot on the Moon).

Tintin on the moon

I remember, reading this book in the 1970s and 1980s, scoffing at the silly belief that there was ever water on the “dead” lunar sphere. Who’s laughing now?