In the gripping new graphic novel Hostage (D+Q), award-winning French cartoonist Guy Delisle retells the story of the kidnapping and abduction of Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André, who was held hostage in Chechnya in 1997. Over 400-plus black and blue pages, Delisle uses the unique quirks of the comics medium to tell a harrowing tale of hope and survival. The artist is coming to Harvard Book Store on Monday, May 15, and I had an opportunity to ask him about this amazing new project and the incredible amount of work that went into it …
How did Christophe’s story first come your way?
I read his story first in the newspaper, then I had the chance to meet him because I was visiting a friend at the NGO where he was working. I was very curious to ask him questions but I thought he doesn’t want to talk about that. Being kidnapped is certainly a traumatic experience …
I started to ask him a few questions and he was really open about it. At the end I thought it was so incredible that it would be nice to do a book about that, and he agreed.
It’s amazing he was able to remember every detail and count the days. He was trying to keep his mind so active but also his mind off of his family and his loved ones.
For him every morning it was important that he was keeping track of time, he didn’t know where he was and there was no reason why he was there. The only certain thing was the time, so he was keeping track.
As far as memory goes, I recorded him in 2003 and I worked on the final version of the book in 2015, so I was glad to have the previous recording because his memory was fresh. I also had a document from the NGO right after this happened. I worked with the recordings and that document.
Christophe never did give up hope, he kept himself from going too crazy and he helped himself somehow without any assistance from anybody. Luckily his captors weren’t violent with him, but he seemed very lucky in a lot of ways.
Yes, that is right, a lot of luck to be able to escape, and at that time this was the first wave of a lot of kidnapping in Chechnya. In Chechnya it was just for money, it’s not like today when we think about kidnapping that can end very violently.
These guys were just paid to give him food and keep him there. As far as going crazy, that was a question I had myself. How do you keep yourself from going crazy? That’s something I wanted to expand in the book.
He stops saying, “Thank you” and “goodnight” to these people, so at that moment he starts to be more in resistance toward these guys. That kept him awake. He tried to stay awake to take advantage of any mistake they might make. It was important not to end up in despair or depression, because then he would be completely out and not take advantage of those mistakes.
He was filtering his thoughts, which was really surprising. “This morning, I’m not going to think about the family.” “Today, I’ll go through the alphabet, naming the generals of the [Napoleonic] Empire.” He would spend a few hours doing that to try to keep his mind busy.
The way you’ve written and illustrated the book, it’s a long book, and must have taken you a long time. Have you been working on this since 2003? Have there been different iterations of the book?
I had the idea in 2003 and I kept postponing it. I was still working in animation and they sent me over to Pyongyang in North Korea. The resultant book was Pyongyang about North Korea. I did a version of Hostage that was 12 or 13 pages and went back to Pyongyang for work again in animation. When I came back I didn’t like Hostage any more. I started reworking on it years later and this is the third version.
What were the biggest challenges for you writing the book or drawing the book? Did you have any roadblocks trying to tell his story on your own?
The challenge was that there was not much to draw. He was in a room and that goes on like that, just wearing pants. To keep up the energy after 300 pages, of just one guy sitting there, after 300 pages I was quite fed up with that.
The whole story was like that, I chose to have an immersive kind of story. I didn’t want to cut the story, I wanted the readers to be in Christophe’s mind. I didn’t want to say “Meanwhile, in Paris…” and then cut back to Christophe. I wanted to stay with him all the time. Then you don’t have any of these easy narrative tricks that you can use to say, “Two weeks later.” I wanted to really have the time passing by to describe to the reader what time can look like when you have nothing to do for days and days and weeks and months.
It was a very good use of comics as a medium in that way, it was so repetitive, but there was new information each day, it was a good use of the form, especially in a long form comic.
Well, thanks, being a reader of comics, when you go to these manga style books, there is something different in the reading, you can have a long story with many details. I had a long reflection over the years about how to do that book. My first version was very action oriented, especially with the kidnapping of course. I didn’t like it afterward. It looked more like a Hollywood action movie than a real life story. So I changed it too something very subdued. No effects. They come in the room, take him, and he’s out.
That’s what happened, it was all very fast. There is no special effects to add on that.
I don’t want to spoil it for readers but there is a scene with a gun in the room, and there was tension there, but it did not need to be violent or bombastic. It just existed as a moment. That is one of my favorite scenes in the book.
Thanks, because I really like that one as well, because he has a chance but as you were saying, the hardest part for Christophe was to convince the captor that he made the right choice, but he also was thinking maybe this is the last chance he has to escape from here and he didn’t take it.
It was a very tense moment. I knew you can do a book with this but from the very beginning I knew the comic would be a very good medium to convey a story like that. Slow paced but with a little tension. You can go faster if you want or you can turn the page faster. This makes it very different from a movie because you can we compare comic books with movies a lot of time but there is a big difference and this is one. You impose the rhythm of the reader.
We’ll let you go, but I’d say you are a master of the medium. Are you working on anything now?
I am doing a few short stories a month for A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting series but with the transitions for Hostage I have been traveling around. I haven’t had much time for myself to work on books. I am going to finish the American part of the tour, after that I’ll be back to my table for working for a long time.
Check out Delisle at Harvard Book Store on Monday, May 15 in conversation with Hillary L. Chute.