How would you survive three months chained in one room with armed captors?
Christophe André was forced to find out the answer in 1997 when his first assignment with Doctors Without Borders led to his being captured in the Caucasus region between the border of Europe and Asia - and found his existence reduced to a box. Yet, even as he struggled with fear, loneliness, starvation and worse, he found a way to keep his mind active and alive - and survived to tell his tale.
Now, nearly 20 years later, his story has been adapted into the new graphic novel Hostage by Guy Delisle (Pyongyang, Jerusalem), which premieres in a translated North American edition from Drawn & Quarterly this week. Newsarama called Delisle in France to see how brought this story to life, the hostage-drama clichés he wanted to avoid, and much more.
Newsarama: Guy, how did you first encounter Christophe’s story?
Guy Delisle: I read it in the newspaper first. Then, one day, I was visiting a friend at Doctors Without Borders, where Christophe was working, and I was able to have lunch with him, and get the details of his story, and the parts that were the most fantastic.
Nrama: What made you want to do a graphic novel of Christophe’s story?
Delisle: The most surprising part was that I would ask him questions about his experience, and he would tell me everything, which surprised me, because I thought he would find it a very traumatic experience he would not want to talk about. But he said that his escape was the best therapy, because he no longer felt like a prisoner, and that he came out of the experience a stronger person than he was before.
To me, that was the most interesting part - that, and the fact he escaped, and the crazy way he escaped - that all said to me, “This would make a great comic book.”
Nrama: What was the hardest part of plotting out a comic that, for the most part, takes place in just one room?
Delisle: The minimalistic aspect was quite a challenge, but I knew where I was going right from the start. I knew that if you try to put too many effects in a story, like action and stuff, you tend to miss the fact that it’s a real-life story.
So I kept the drawing very simple; it’s very much in the background, while the story is on the foreground, and it’s much more present than if you had something visually spectacular.
Nrama: What did you take away personally from this story? You have something very internal -
Delisle; Yeah, that was on my mind from the very beginning. I wanted to keep it very internal and intimate, and go through the whole experience with Christophe from A to Z, and not go like, “Meanwhile, in Paris, they’re trying to get Christophe out of there, but they have no news, so they start to go crazy, and then BOOM, we’re back with Christophe -" I didn’t want to cut around like that, so that was a challenge. I didn’t want to explain the political situation, because that would take too long, and this could happen to anyone who was kidnapped - this story just happened to take place in Chechnya.
And I wanted to show how you would cope in a situation like that. It’s a simple story of an ordinary guy in a crazy situation. When I read about someone who’s kidnapped, I wonder, “What would I do?” And I got an answer from working on this book.
I would send Christophe 10 pages at a time while I was working on this, and he would comment on it, and I would change a few things, and I would go on. It was the only way to do that work, to have him read and comment on it as I was doing it.
Nrama: What was it like, having him involved in that process?
Delisle: It was the only way - I didn’t want him to have any surprises when the book was finished! I made sure he was able to comment on the details - “The room wasn’t like that, it was more like this,” and so on - and it helped immensely.
Nrama: How is he doing today?
Delisle: He is doing great. He’s still with Doctors Without Borders, so that is about 20 years with that organization. He’s in the office in Paris, so he does not go out in the field as much these days, but he works very hard, and has three kids, and a house in Normandy.
Nrama: What references did you have for the room where he was held? I’m assuming you didn’t get a chance to visit it personally…
Delisle: No! [Laughs] And there were not even any pictures available. I had him sketch out the room for me from memory, and then I went around on the net to get a sense of what a Chechnya village would look like in 1997. And then the room was so simple to draw - there was no big information to find.
Nrama: What do you hope people get from this story?
Delisle: Well, I guess it’s just like me - the curiosity I had over Christophe’s story. It’s a documentary on a situation of someone who has no control over his life, no freedom. It’s a bit of a documentary to me to show how you cope in your head, and to show the few faces and the time that goes by, of course - to give you a sense of the experience you go through.
And to show the evolution - to stop saying “Good night” and “Thank you” to his captors, and the first time he tried to escape, and how he told people not to give his captors the money they asked for. It was a way to show what someone would do in a situation like that - I just hope I would be brave enough to be like Christophe, and say “Don’t give them a million dollars!” [Laughs]
Nrama: Some people were surprised that you did a work like this that did not have the humor of your previous works. What were some of the challenges of doing a book like this, and dealing with any preconceptions people might have had about your work?
Delisle: I wanted to do this book for 15 years - but I had the traveling books, and the other projects, and it took me this long to get to tell Christophe’s story. I’ve done children’s books, books about the behavior of a dad with his kids, and they’re fun to do as well.
There’s humor in my books, yes, but this was an interesting book for me to do, and I knew it would be interesting to readers. I don’t think too much about what people might think of me - I just go with what’s interesting to me, and the editors let me do it, and I spent about two years working on this book.
Nrama: There’s a very specific use of a limited color palette - literally many shades of gray! - in the book. I was curious about how you developed this look and chose to employ it throughout Hostage.
Delisle: Yeah, the drawing is a bit more realistic because the story needed that - I did not force myself, because that was necessary. I tried different techniques, but I used a very simple one with a single, very sketchy line, to create a sense of fragility - that was the situation Christophe was in. I wanted simple drawing, simple text, and simple color, to explain a story that was quite, well, simple. But it was 400 pages, and a bit more realistic than I do usually, so I needed something that could carry 400 pages while maintaining that sense of simplicity.
Nrama: What are some other comics or creators you’ve enjoyed recently?
Delisle: I read comics, but they’re not recent, or they’re not in English because they’re recent French books.
One thing I’ve enjoyed recently is the Japanese manga about the guy who talks about his life in war, and lost an arm in that war, and he did three books on that - the life of Mizuki. I read that this summer with my children as well. It’s quite interesting because it goes through his life during the war, and then after, into the time he became a manga-ka. So it’s interesting because he began doing comics later in life, and became quite good at it.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Delisle: I’m working on a bit of animation, and on a new children’s book, based on observations working on the children - it’s the fourth one.
And I’ll be touring North America to promote Hostage - come by and see me if you can!