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Review: Hostage by Guy Delisle

It was early in the morning on July 2, 1997, when Christophe André, an administrator serving with Doctors Without Borders in Zazran, Russia, just west of the Chechen border, was kidnapped and held for ransom.

The opening pages of “Hostage” by artist Guy Delisle, out this month from Drawn and Quarterly Press, set the scene for what will be André's fate over three months: He is alone in a room, handcuffed to a radiator, kept in near to total darkness.

Unable to stand and barely able to move, André's story is one largely of the mind — how does a man sustain his will and sense of self when he is chained in place?

Another question might easily be — how does an artist turn such a cerebral tale into a gripping visual page turner?

Delisle manages to do it by playing with perspective and shadow, darkness and light. Since André was kept in darkness, nearly the entire book is drawn in muted grayscale, a technique that increases the emotional impact of small moments, such as a crack of sunlight peeking through a door.

Delisle also is keen to play with perspective. With little visual interest, we, like André, return again and again to examining details in his barren room: a boarded-up window, the attached handcuff, a closed door. But in repetition the minutiae appear at slightly different angles, enhancing the sensation that we are in the room with Andre, turning our heads to get a different take on the ceiling, that crack in the wall, the corner of the door we wish — and don’t wish — would open.

While this heartbreaking story of a solitary man would seem ripe for retelling as a meditative literary novel, it’s surprisingly well suited for the comic medium. Artist Delisle spent 15 years interviewing and partnering with André to get the story and emotion just right, and his attention to detail pays off.

It’s a triumphant achievement that showcases just how powerful non-fiction comics can be.