As comics go, Hostage’s 432 pages are almost entirely devoid of action. They’re largely set in a single room, drawn in a loose and sketchy line, with little more decoration than a dirty mattress, a boarded-up window and a radiator, used to anchor a pair of handcuffs. But acclaimed French cartoonist Guy Delisle builds tension through interior monologue and the slow, maddening accrual of unremarkable moments.
The true-life story of Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André’s capture at the hands of armed kidnappers in war-torn Chechnya is littered with confusion, exhaustion and regret. It’s a gripping tale in spite of minimal actions or scene changes, and a testament to the medium’s storytelling potential at the hands of someone who has mastered the art of pacing.
The book marks a change for Delisle, whose best known works like Shenzhen, Pyongyang and Jerusalem are autobiographical travelogues, but the cartoonist tells André’s story with gripping clarity 15 years after the kidnapping occurred. Here, he speaks with Playboy.com about how he communed with André’s unthinkable ordeal in order to create the book.
How did you first hear about Christophe’s story?
I read about Christophe’s story in the newspaper. A month after, he was working with Doctors Without Borders and I was visiting a friend there. He came to lunch with us. I thought he probably wouldn’t want to talk about a traumatic experience, but he was really open about it and explained all of the details about the escape. I told him that I’d like to do a comic book of his story some day, and he said, “Sure, why not?” But I postponed it for like 15 years.
Why was the project postponed for so long?
I went away right after that. I was sent for my work in North Korea, so I did the book Pyongyang. After that I did a version that I didn’t use, and then 15 years passed. I figured if I didn’t do it now, I’d have to forget about it. So I went to my table and spent two years doing it.
One of the things that’s really striking are the details he was able to remember and the clarity of the timeline. How was he able to remember everything so vividly without the use of a journal?
Fortunately I had a document that was done by the NGO right after he returned to France. They made a copy to keep track of what happened because that was their first person who was kidnapped—but not the last, unfortunately. I did a recording in 2004. We spent a day together. I went back to those after almost 15 years. I put them in chronological order to evolve the stuff that he put in the recordings. Some of the dates were very precise and some were more vague, like “the beginning of September.” It was colder and he needed a shirt. I just put a date on it.
How collaborative was the process? There were the logs and the interview you did, but when time came to sit down and work on the book in earnest, were you working directly with him?
From the beginning, since I had to put words in his mouth, I felt very uncomfortable. We became friends—we have kids the same age—and I said to Christophe, “You’re going to have to read the pages as we go.” I wasn’t going to do the whole book and send it to him. That’s the only way I felt comfortable putting words in his mouth. He did adjust some locations and rooms and some of his own words. And then, for the longest period, he didn’t change anything.
Much of your work is autobiographical, which involves having to relive the stories. Did yourself living through Christophe in writing the book? Was there a sense of claustrophobia?
Yeah, there was a lot of that. I was going step-by-step, working long hours almost every day. I would draw almost every day that happened to him. I was working in a one-room studio and I was going crazy because I had a pair of handcuffs on the table. And I was growing a beard because it was during the winter. And at one point, I felt like I was turning into Christophe, so I had to leave the studio. I joined a studio with a lot of friends. It was just too much.
You had a pair of handcuffs on the desk? Were they a reference or a reminder?
Yeah, I had a pair of handcuffs on my desk because I knew they would be a big subject of the book. And it’s funny, when you have handcuffs on your desk, everybody who comes into your office notices them. They were an artistic reference. It’s a strange object, and once you have it in your hand, you understand how it works and you can easily redraw them.
I was working in a one-room studio … I had a pair of handcuffs on the table.
They play an interesting role in a very minimalistic book. They were an important piece of action as he tightened them while trying to escape.
I asked Christophe if he tried to open them, and he said, “Yeah, I tried once with the keys that I had, but it didn’t work.” He tried to break them, but they tightened. He spent the whole night with the handcuffs tightened on his wrist and he was afraid that he would lose his hand. And I did use the handcuffs in the beginning. I put myself in the studio where we had a radiator. I took my shirt off and handcuffed myself. My friend took a lot of pictures, so I had a reference for the book. It’s much easier to try to imagine how he slept, because when you have one hand attached, there are only two positions you can use.
The artwork is much less polished than most of your work.
The approach was, since it was a more realistic story, the drawing became more realistic. It was more like the sketches I do when I’m on the street. I wanted a sketchy line so it’s shaky and frail and fragile. I thought it would convey the mood. And it kept it simple. I didn’t want to use brushstrokes or any effects. The more you use those, the more it looks like a Hollywood movie. I thought I would do it black and white, but one color for the shadow made it very interesting.
Much of the suspense from the book arises from those moments when it felt like he could have escaped. The most striking came when a captor left the door open and a little girl who lives next door spots him in the room.
He told me that story and I could see it. There’s the story where there’s a gun next to him and he wonders if he can point it at the guy and maybe us it to escape somehow. It’s very quick and he decides that he’s not going to use it. He told me the worst moment is afterwards, when you try to convince yourself that you made the right decision.
Hostage is out now via Drawn & Quarterly. Find out more here.