No Country by Patrice Aggs and Joe Brady (David Fickling Books, 2021)
The world of graphic novels for primary-school-aged children is an exciting one nowadays. There are the comic-book hijinks, larger-than-life characters, pulse-popping tales of InvestiGators, Bunny vs. Monkey and Amulet; but there is an increasing range of stories that introduce children to more serious issues through the uniquely visual style that only graphic novels can provide. For the children I teach, Jerry Craft's New Kid has raised questions around equality while When Stars are Scattered has opened their eyes to the refugee crisis, to name but two very popular examples.
No Country by Patrice Aggs and Joe Brady combines both the thrills of a traditional and the startling wake up call to the contemporary horrors of civil war. I read it in one sitting (unusual for me, as I often need to take time to process what I'm reading) but I literally could not put it down. I've strongly recommended it to my class and everyone who has read it has been equally excited - and also not been able to stop reading!
It's a terrifying read in a lot of ways: a family are torn apart by civil unrest and - as with Boy Everywhere by A.M. Dassu - I could not fail to feel the impact: this could so easily happen to any of us, I thought. As with the best of reading, I've been left with more questions than I had when I began the book, so it's been an absolute joy to have been given the opportunity to interview Patrice and Joe about their writing and No Country in particular.
Hi Patrice and Joe! I really enjoyed No Country and it's really resonated with some of my recent reading, such as AM Dassu's Boy, Everywhere and When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. What was the original inspiration for your story? Where did it all start?
JOE: Refugees from Syria, the nativist reaction to it in the UK and elsewhere, and what I felt was a general empathy deficit around the whole crisis were triggers for the book. But for me, it’s also about something quieter and more personal.
I moved to England in 2008 and, while I was not forced to leave my home, I feel a persistent longing toward that place where I’m from – even though it doesn’t exist in the same way as when I left it. Basically, I’m happy here in England and at the same time I’m homesick all the time. On the surface, No Country is a story about refugees, but to me, deeper down, it’s also about the longing to be home and how that tears you in two. That’s what is vital to me personally about this story.
And what about the title, 'No Country'? Where did that come from?JOE: The title was one of the last things to come together. We went back and forth so much about it, and we came up with so so so many other options. I won’t mention what those titles were, but there were a lot of them. When I’m trying to come up with an idea, I tend make very long lists of (mostly very bad) possibilities, and make other people listen as I read them out loud. When I got to No Country, it just felt right to everyone in the room. To me, the title ‘No Country’ is about believing so strongly in something like a nation that it forms a key component of your identity, only to have that thing vanish and you discover that it’s only ever been an illusion
How did publishing the story originally as a part-work in a weekly comic affect your thinking and writing of the story?
JOE: There’s something very special and vanishingly rare in this format in that it forces kids to wait a week to find out what happens next in a story. This leaves them with space to think about the story and predict what might happen next. On a larger scale, this means that Phoenix stories get to unfold in the imaginations of kids for months, giving them so much space to create and imprint themselves alongside the story.
Originally, No Country was all going to be about the weekly format. It wasn’t intended to have a single narrative at all. No Country was conceived as a series of short stories about life in this particular world. They weren’t explicitly related, I just wanted readers to go through a series of experiences with these characters in hopes that they would start to feel like friends. As we went on with making it, we started noticing through lines and connections, and then found ways to tie them together. And eventually we bound it together into a single book – including adding four brand-new never before seen scenes!
PATRICE: It's like a dress rehearsal. Things get seen more clearly and more rhythmically until the whole show comes together in the book. I love rethinking pages, expanding or contracting scenes until we hit the right spot! Of course a weekly deadline makes everything more urgent, but that's a bonus a lot of the time. I'm sure Joe would agree that it kept both of us from over-thinking, so we could keep our ideas fresh.
The book has an almost breathless pace and grips the reader from the very start. How did you go about achieving this? How important is pace to you as storytellers?
JOE: Thank you! A few people have said that the story is gripping, and I’m really happy to hear it. Pace is very important as a storyteller. I suppose where the pacing comes in No Country is the tension built in the space between what they want as characters and what they have. We worked hard to keep their goals just at the tips of their fingers but never fully in their hands.
Towards the ending we did actively try to make it fast paced. The story elements that, for me, raised the pace were the life or death stakes and the separation from Dad’s protection. We also made a choice to swing between the extremes of relief and terror as much as possible. The happiness at getting food in the supermarket shifts into the shock of being accosted on the street, which folds into the reprieve of returning home… I’ll stop with the spoilers now.
PATRICE: Joe's a great writer! It started as a weekly! That sums it up for me.
Although the narrative is fictional, the scenario feels very real. How did you go about creating an authenticity around the situation the family find themselves in?
JOE: From a writing and preparation perspective, I tried to tackle the idea of what Bea’s life was like in a systematic way. One of the first scenes I wrote was the one in which Dad talks to Bea about what life was like before. That came from lots of researching, talking about and thinking about what in life we take for granted. I made lists of things we take for granted, bits of our infrastructure that aren’t resilient, how we could cope if those things were gone, and how does that feel in a tactile way. We started out by making stories about Bea and the other characters dealing with each of those things one at a time. Most of these stories didn’t make it in the book, but the ones that did make up the heart of the plot of No Country.
But, really, the heavy lifting of this was done by Patrice in the art. Her art is filled with details that populate every nook and cranny of the world. The woman doing washing up on page 18. The nervous look on Dad’s face as Dom (the baby brother) chases a butterfly toward barbed wire on page 56. The soldier munching on sweets as he tells people they aren’t allowed in the supermarket on page 137. One of my favourite panels in the book is on page 18, in which the family are on the sofa talking to Mum. The way Bea, Dad and Hannah are positioned in relation to each other feels so authentic to me, and that authenticity to how the family feels is key to the feel to the rest of the book.
So many of these pages were very different from what I expected as the writer, but that’s one of the most joyful parts of being a comics writer: the artist teaches you things about your story. In the creation of a comic, it’s the artist who is the direct storyteller; the one who guides the readers through the world of the story. As the writer, I created a lot of what eventually became the book, but ultimately, it’s the job of the comics writer to pass the project to the artist, who then makes it feel real.
Who are your big influences and heroes of storytelling?
JOE: I’m dyslexic, so I wasn’t actually a big reader as a kid. I read comics in the newspapers like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side because they were nice and short. I watched lots of films and TV too, but for my young self the magic was in the theatre.
Theatre is the big influence in storytelling for me. There’s so much joy in getting together with a group of people, stepping into the story together and carrying on at all costs; all to an end of inviting an audience into that space. Reading Keith Johnston’s books on Improv was massively influential and Stanislavski’s thoughts on acting really seem to apply to storytelling. Also influential were the countless drama teachers who showed me what it means to inhabit a person within a narrative. From studying theatre in high school, I knew I wanted to work in creating stories when I grew up and that I wanted that work to be collaborative, which writing comics really is.
But, if there was an author that really turned my brain on, it was Kurt Vonnegut.
PATRICE: When I did a school visit as a children's book 'visiting illustrator' years and years ago, the kids asked what was the best story I'd ever drawn pictures for. I told them the best book I'd ever done was by an author they probably hadn't heard of - Phillip Pullman. Well, they've heard of him now.
Comic heroes are almost too many to list, like trying to do a Desert Island Discs version for illustrators. But 'illustrating' is not what comics do - they tell the story in a more integrated way. The best learn their craft in the old 3-panel strip format from American newspapers, in my opinion. That's why my heroes include people like Leonard Starr and Chic Young. (Who they? I hear you ask) I love the storytelling skills of Jillian & Mariko Tamaki, Herge, and, again, Pat Mills. My pictures are always influenced by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar, even though I don't draw like either of them!
How do you feel the story and pictures connect young readers to the crisis?
JOE: I wanted to tell a story to the readers that inverts what is familiar: a story that starts in a collapsed warring state which feels like home, and moves to a functional society that feels strange and foreign. I’d like No Country to be a bridge which helps connect readers emotionally to the crisis. My hope is that it will help them look at stories in the news and see the actual people. The circumstances of the lives of a kid from England and a kid from Syria who was forced to escape violence are vastly different, but the inherent value of those kids is precisely equal. I hope after finishing No Country, readers can sense the fundamental equality all people share, so that when they next come across a story about a refugee elsewhere in their life, they’ll approach that person with a higher level of empathy and will consider the people coming here in a more personal and compassionate way.
PATRICE: Comics are a magnet for kids! As a big kid, I'm immediately drawn to a page of pictures and speech balloons. The connection is instant, and only gets better as I slowly absorb it panel-by-panel. With a big topic like a refugee crisis, it helps to break it down into digestible portions. Young readers really want to know what is going on behind headlines and usually don't know where to start. I wish someone would do a history comic about the Cuban Missile Crisis, something that happened when I was eight, and I never figured out what. All I knew was the grown-ups were scared.
What are the benefits and challenges of presenting the refugee crisis as a graphic novel?
PATRICE: Everything is more urgent and believable for me if I can draw it out, make it visual in a sequential way. There are so many great comics out there that do this! Joe Sacco's Palestine, Ruta Moden's Exit Wounds, Pat Mills' Charley's War - when I wasn't sure what to draw, what to emphasize, it was a great help to reach for these and explore how they did it. It makes me want to tackle a lot more when I revisit those superstars.
JOE: There are no words to describe what these millions of people are living through. The benefit of graphic novels is that you don’t always have to find them. With the lightest touch, we can show the readers the characters’ lives – let them visit a place they’d never be able to see otherwise.
Readers get to sit with the people and places of a graphic novel for as long as they want (unlike, say, a film which is a medium that dictates the time we get with each image or prose that asks the reader to take in every bit of information in linear order). Comics readers’ eyes are allowed to wander off the charted narrative in a way that simply doesn’t work the same in other media. For example, the first image of the book is Bea looking at her dad when he thinks he’s alone. It is the only moment when his mask slips and we can see how sad and lonely he is. Like Bea at the time, we’re too young in this world at this point to fully appreciate what we’re seeing at that moment, so we might miss the nuance, but we might not. And that’s just the central action! Behind that image and around it, there are so many details that film or prose would either have to brush over for pacing or overly focus on – the bees on the page, the discarded posters outside, the overstuffed bins, the discarded bottles on the mantle. Comics readers can slow down and take in the scene, or speed up and find out what happens next – they are in the driver’s seat. It’s one of the things that makes comics such a special medium.
They certainly are! Thank you so much, Joe and Patrice. I've loved reading No Country and I absolutely cannot wait for the next installment!