Interview: Cartoonist Guy Delisle on Crafting his Masterwork of Captivity and Freedom, Hostage
Also: Politics, Travel and French ParentingMain Art by Guy Delisle Comics Features Guy Delisle
Guy Delisle is a Québécois cartoonist who now lives in the South of France after a globetrotting career through some of the most colorful countries around the world. He’s not a political documentarian cartoonist like Joe Sacco, though. His books focus inward, concentrating on his personal experiences in North Korea (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea), China (Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China), Burma (Burma Chronicles) and Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City). Instead of interviewing people in war-torn geographies, he’s more apt to be found throwing paper airplanes from his hotel room in Pyongyang or hanging out on Jerusalem playgrounds with his two young children. His new book, Hostage, is his first graphic novel that focuses on someone else.
Christophe André worked for Doctors Without Borders in Chechnya, where he was kidnapped and held for ransom for months. Delisle tells his story in small increments of time, parceling out details carefully and making the reader empathize, on a smaller scale, with what André experienced. It’s tense, serious and suspenseful, but not without moments of absurdity. Delisle spoke with Paste on the phone from France, two days after the first round of French elections. We discussed his methods for constructing a narrative, how he figured out what to draw without much visual reference (he might have had his friend handcuff him to a radiator and take pictures), French styles of parenting and what Hostage has in common with his earlier works.
Paste: I have this kind of shorthand for identifying really dangerous places, which is “send Jon Lee Anderson.” I read a lot of the New Yorker and Jon Lee Anderson tends to write these articles that take place in Afghanistan or just other really dangerous places, so I thought, maybe I should change that to “send Guy Delisle.” How have you ended up in so many places that most people would consider unlivable?
Delisle: Well, I’ve been in Burma and Jerusalem and North Korea, and in all of those places there was no danger for me. My new book is about one guy getting kidnapped in Chechnya. But I didn’t go there and I don’t plan to go at all because that’s definitely a very dangerous place.
Paste: Even though you say there was no danger to you in those other places, they still feel really different from most places that Canadians and other North Americans live. Why do you think you’ve ended up in so many places like that around the world?
Delisle: Well, I didn’t choose those places. If I would choose a country, I would go in Japan like everyone. It was also my job because, first, I was working in animation and they would outsource to the cheapest place, which was mostly in China, where I have been, and then at one time, before September 11, a lot of people were going to North Korea because it was very cheap. So that was with my job—the first two books, the Chinese one and the North Korean one. And after that, I have just followed my wife because she would be tied to a long mission with Doctors Without Borders, and, yeah, they don’t send people to Switzerland, so we ended in Burma and then Jerusalem. And it was in the capital, so it was not very dangerous. I never felt any threat being in either Rangoon or Jerusalem.
Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City Cover Art by Guy Delisle
Paste: Right, and they don’t seem unlivable or dangerous in your books. They seem very normal. Do you think you’ve tried to make them seem that way or that they were really just like that?
Delisle: No, they were really like that. Of course, you hear today about Jerusalem and it sounds horrible. I live in France now, and whenever I go outside it, people talk to me about France being a very dangerous place now, but when you live in the South of France, it’s just a very relaxed place, of course. So, I don’t try to describe the place being more safe than it is. It just happened that not much happened in Jerusalem while we were there. I guess this year it would be different.
Paste: So you’re not traveling anymore for that? Is your wife done with Doctors Without Borders?
Delisle: We decided to stop because the kids were getting older and it was getting more complicated. When they were younger it was easier. So it was a good time for us to stop anyhow. We didn’t plan to do that all our lives.
Paste: Do you think that you’re an adaptable person?
Delisle: Yes [laughs]. I would think so. I’m quite flexible, and my job is flexible as well. I followed my wife, bringing my work with me, which I couldn’t really do while the kids were there because I had to take care of them, but it’s such an interesting experience that, yeah, I can adapt. I would say so.
Paste: How do you see your work in relation to other cartoonists who do comics journalism?
Delisle: Well, I don’t see myself as a journalist because I go in a country where I don’t know anything about it, and I just spend a year trying to understand what’s going on. That’s what I like about autobiography. The reader knows where the information comes from because I describe myself. They know that I’m not a specialist of the Middle East. I’m not an adventurer. I’m just an ordinary guy. And from that point, he knows what kinds of situations I’m going to experience and observations I’m going to make. So for me, that’s cool. That’s a good way to tell a story. I really have the feeling that I do long postcards when I do these books and not journalism, because I talk about problems with my car and the children and the history of Jerusalem, but all that together, to me, looks more like a postcard.
Paste: It’s very personal in the outlook. You’re gathering some information, but you’re not setting out to tell the whole story of a place.
Delisle: No, it’s not a documentary for sure. People just walk around with me, and I show them the few things that I have noticed and that I think are interesting or weird or funny to show, and I put all that together in the book, after I have taken notes. Because I go around and I take notes and when I come back home I read these notes and I choose, Oh yeah, this was fun; this was interesting, and I just put that all together.
Paste: When you say you take notes, do you just write down words or do you take notes with drawings?
Delisle: It’s a bit of both, but on the last trip, I would spend one day on Friday to go around and do sketches because Jerusalem is a very nice place to draw. So I had all these sketches, and they would be like photos in my head that I would remember, just looking at the sketches. But every evening I go at my table and I take a few notes so I remember more easily the year.
Paste: Your new book, Hostage, is not autobiographical but still nonfiction. How did you decide to write about Christophe Andre’s experience?
Delisle: I had read Christophe’s story in the newspaper, and then I had the opportunity to see him one day because he was with some friends at Doctors Without Borders, and they said, “He’s going to come and eat with us.” And I knew his story so I started to ask him a few questions, but thinking how most people from an experience like that wouldn’t like to talk about it. It was a traumatic experience, so I was thinking, He’s not going to say much, but actually he was quite open about it. He told us the whole story in detail, and it was so fascinating that I thought, Wow, we should do a story with that. Or not a story, a comic book. And he said, “Sure, why not?” It took me a long time, but right away, from the beginning, I realized that most of the people who are kidnapped don’t really want to talk about it, but this guy was different because he escaped. Like he said, “Escape is the best therapy,” so he didn’t feel like a victim or anything. He actually felt stronger than before the kidnapping. So for him it was no problem talking about it.
Hostage Interior Art by Guy Delisle
Paste: And did you do a bunch of interviews with him?
Delisle: Yes, and I took a lot of notes and recorded him. We spent one day together, but we kept in touch for the 15 years that it took me to do the book. We became quite friendly because we have lots of points in common. So I guess that’s the reason why the book is here, because otherwise maybe we’d have just lost track. So from the recording I took a lot of notes, put them in order, and started to work on the book. I would send him the pages because it was the first time I’ve put words into someone else’s mouth, and it was very difficult for me at the beginning. I thought, Christophe has to read that. Otherwise I’m going to be blocked all the time. So I would do 10 or 15 pages and send them to him, and he would give me feedback, and then I would just go on. When he received the book at the end, I didn’t want him to have any bad surprises, that he would know what was in the book and agree with the whole thing.
Paste: How did you find photo references or just decide what to draw?
Delisle: Well, most of the book is in a room with nothing, so that’s pretty easy to draw. For the rest, I took pictures of myself attached to a radiator in my studio. I have a pair of handcuffs as well that I bought, knowing that it would be something I would draw for 400 pages. A friend took a bunch of pictures of me half-naked on the bed or on the floor, which looked really weird at the time, but it was very helpful because my drawing was a bit more realistic than what I do usually. It was a good reference. And then after that, when he escapes, and we’re in Chechnya, I looked around villages that are in Ingushetia and in Georgia because when you look on the internet for Chechnya you only find rooms [not exteriors].
Paste: Did Andre describe his captors to you and you used your imagination from there?
Delisle: Oh, I asked him so many questions because when you have to draw afterwards, it’s not just like, This guy comes in the room, it’s, Okay, what did he look like? What age is he? What was he wearing? What’s the food you were having? What’s the plate look like? So he was going crazy. Once in a while, he would say, “I don’t know what the bowl looked like. I don’t remember.” Fortunately, I did the recording only a few years afterwards, so his memory was still fresh, and we had a document from the NGO that they did right after to keep track of that, so I used both, of course. It was good because 15 years afterwards you can lose easily details.
Paste: It seems like he has a pretty good memory. That’s one of the things that comes through in the book.
Delisle: This feeling comes from the way the story is told because there are actually events that we knew were on some days, from pictures he had taken and phone calls and when he left and when he escaped, so all these are on precise dates. And then there are a bunch of details that he told me, like when they gave him a shirt, so we know that this is at the beginning of September because it was getting cold. So he didn’t know the date exactly. But for the story I put a date, like the 4th of September they came and they gave him a shirt. So that’s why it looks like a very precise memory.
Paste: What do you think this book has in common with your other work?
Delisle: Well, I talked about freedom. Being in North Korea and China and even in Burma, you get to meet people, and they have a use of freedom that is different than what we have in Europe or in North America, so you get to think about what it is to have freedom, and Christophe was in a situation where there was no freedom at all. He had no control over his life, so there was a bit of that. And how to cope in a situation where you have no control, just nothing to do, to read, to write. You just wait and wait. So, I guess my main subject is how, in a situation like that, a person doesn’t go crazy. How do you cope with such an extraordinary situation? Being with Christophe, it was great, because he could give me all the details of his experience. When you read about or hear about someone who was kidnapped, you always think, What would I do? For me, this book was a bit of an answer to, Would I do this or would I do that? But for everybody those answers would be different, of course.
Paste: What do you think you would have done?
Delisle: I don’t know. Christophe was saying, “You are quite a different person under such a lot of stress.” And he’s a very quiet guy, and when he thinks of what he did, it’s beyond his imagination almost, but he did it. And, like he says, you’re not the same. You’re a different person. So you don’t know what you would do in a very stressful situation like that.
Paste: Another thing that I see in common with your other work is that you tend not to be very dramatic, even when you’re narrating things that could be, and this book is somewhat similar, with its focus on these small details, day by day. Maybe that’s just a philosophy?
Delisle: It’s a bit of me, but Christophe is the same too. He’s a very relaxed guy, very thoughtful, every decision he has to wait. So there is that, probably. He was not beaten. He was not threatened for his life. They were just ordinary people, feeding him, because they had no choice, I guess. In Chechnya, things work through family and clan, so the people who abducted him were obviously soldiers, I guess, because they knew what they were doing, crossing the borders, and they just dropped him there, with these two guys, like you’re going to take care of this kidnapped guy. So, at first, you see, they were giving him cigarettes and vodka and watching TV together, which is so surreal. They were not torturers. So he was not in a situation where he would be afraid for his life or persecuted. It was tense, not relaxed, but he was not scared.
Hostage Interior Art by Guy Delisle
Paste: How did you develop your visual style?
Delisle: The drawing kind of imposes itself. When you have a story that has no humor—like I do usually—that is very serious and it’s a real-life story, in my head, how I pictured it was more realistic than I do usually. I wanted to have a technique that is fast enough as well because I cannot spend a week on a page. That’s why I have a sketchy line to have kind of a fragile drawing to express a little bit the fragile situation of Christophe, and keep it very simple because he was there on his own. He had nothing. So the drawing is simple. The color is simple. He told me, he was in a gray shadow. There was no real light in the room. It was at 50 percent all the time, so I showed that with variations of grays to express that. That was it.
Paste: What materials do you use when you’re drawing? Analog? Digital?
Delisle: Digital just a little bit. I draw everything on paper, and then I scan that. I did draw on flying papers instead of having one final page, because I was trying to have that kind of sketchy feeling. I would not erase. I would just draw straight and then take the one that satisfied me, and scan all that at the end of the day and do the montage of the page afterwards, on the computer. And then the shadow and the gray on the computer. So half the day would be to draw and to write, of course, in the morning. And then at the end of the day I do the scanning and the montage. And I do usually one page a day, on an ordinary day of working.
Paste: It’s a long book! So the drawing took a lot of time!
Delisle: Yeah, I spent two years on it. It was like a marathon. I knew when I started because, when I start, I go every day, I do one page, and I need concentration to keep the rhythm of the book. Even though it talks about something that is very slow, you need to have a little suspense all the time. You need the reader to turn the page. That’s what you want to do as a narrator. You need to kind of be in the flow of pages, and then, Okay, it was a bit more slow here, so maybe we should go faster here. So there’s a bit of that in every book. For this one, it was a slow pace, a minimalistic suspense somehow.
Paste: It doesn’t feel slow when you’re reading it! I think I read it in one sitting. Were you working on your “terrible parenting” books at the same time as this?
Delisle: No. I don’t do multitasking. I’m one task. I have friends who can switch from one project in the morning to another in the afternoon, but I can’t, because I keep it in my head, and even in the evening I think about it. It’s what works best for me.
Paste: How do you do the layout for the narrative before you start?
Delisle: I did do a chronological order of the whole experience, from the first day to the last day, and then I just referred to that in the morning. I didn’t have plans. I went back to my notes, and then I would read what happened. For example, let’s say we’re in August, and I would read, “In August, they forgot to attach him,” and then I would plan two or three pages ahead but not more than that. I cannot plan more because otherwise it doesn’t give the feeling of the everyday situation. It doesn’t work. I tried, actually. I did a whole version where I wrote the whole thing, and when it was time to work on the project, I just left it there, and I didn’t even refer to that. For me, it was not possible to write all the details in one shot. I had to it day by day—a bit like Christophe experienced the whole thing. I had to come and work every day not knowing exactly what I would do.
Paste: Is that different from the way you’ve written your other books?
Delisle: No, it’s the same technique. That’s why I knew I could do that book in that way because it’s actually working on small details. They’re not my observations; they’re Christophe’s observations, but I work on stuff like that, so I knew it would work. I adapted the story to my way of working—chop it down to small details, put it in chronological order, and then go and work on it day by day, not knowing what I would do three pages afterwards.
Hostage Interior Art by Guy Delisle
Paste: Do you think you would want to do a project like this again or are you going to go back to autobiographical material?
Delisle: I don’t know what kind of story I would need. There’s different stuff I want to do. I’m working now on something very small—another parenting book. Well, we’ll see if it’s going to be a book, but I’m just doing a few stories because I need to do something very light and funny.
Paste: What are French styles of parenting like?
Delisle: I know that the Americans are very curious about the French way of parenting. We are against the children being king. It’s kind of an old-fashioned way of education. I don’t slap my kids! I think sometimes people think the French still do that, but I don’t know anyone around me who ever slapped his kid. But it’s very strict. For example, if they leave the table, they have to say, “Can I go?” and stuff like that that I’ve seen around me. It’s part of the education, especially when they’re very young, and after that you just loosen up because it’s impossible otherwise. But at least they know how to behave at the table.
Paste: What is the atmosphere like in France right now, with the election?
Delisle: Well, the election is in two tours, so the first tour has arrived, and the worst has been… Well, we know that [Emmanuel] Macron is going to be there. We don’t know what the percentage is, but he will be there. He’s in the center. It’s good news for Europe because he really wants to work on Europe. For me, I was very happy that someone who was for Europe was elected because it’s time that Europe gets stronger and better, and it’s a good time to do it, since the British are leaving us.
Paste: Does any of it make you nervous, like the rise of Marine Le Pen?
Delisle: No, she’s been there for such a long time. We had the father, now we have the daughter, and there’s the great-granddaughter who’s coming along as well. It is 15 percent of the population, but it doesn’t go a lot stronger than that. She went up to 20 because it was voting time, but, yeah, populism is everywhere now. It’s even in the States. So actually, we’re going to have a president who looks a bit like the one in Canada. He’s young. He’s from nowhere. And we’ll see the energy he’s going to put into the country. It’s good news to have Macron.