No Country is a gripping graphic novel about family and freedom, reformatted from the pages of The Phoenix comic into a brand new, chunky and easy-to-read package. This story has an exceptional ability to inspire empathy in young readers, as they can try to put themselves in the shoes of a young girl whose sense of security crumbles around her as war draws ever closer to her home. No Country is written by Joe Brady and illustrated by Patrice Aggs.
Where does your motivation come from to write / illustrate stories such as this one? It is quite a hard-hitting story!
JOE: I wanted to write a story without heroes. There is heroism in this story, of course, and people who are heroes to one another, but Bea and her family are not the people turning the tide of the conflict. Like most of us, they are not the movers and shakers in their society. They are trapped in the tide of the conflict; they’re drowning in it.
The basic story structure of almost all stories we consume – especially for kids – requires that there be a hero who usually achieves some sort of external whatsit or another. There is an implication in that story structure that to achieve is to succeed, and to succeed is to matter. But people don’t need to achieve or succeed to matter – people just matter. Someone who does great things has precisely the same human worth as someone who runs away. I wanted to make a story that does not expect people to do anything more than survive. It is not easy for these characters – Bea and her family are living in what are close to impossible circumstances in No Country – but there is no expectation of them to fight evil or change the world. Just to make it through. Just to live their lives. To be.
And my hope is that, in doing so, we might look kindlier on people who have done just that and are asking nothing more than a safe place to end their flight and live their lives.
Why did you choose the graphic novel/comic book format? Am I right in thinking this was serialised in the Phoenix first? How did you find the transition from comic to graphic novel?
JOE: The original plan for this was for it to be a series of vignettes of life on the edge of a war zone. I wanted Phoenix readers to spend time with Bea and the other characters, get to know them and care about them. After a few weeks of doing this, we started to see common threats, which when woven together, referenced and bound together, started to form a cohesive narrative. For the book, we added four scenes to bolster the bigger plot elements and added an ending. Beyond that, Patrice did an amazing job reformatting the entire story to fit a smaller page in the book than it was originally in the Phoenix, because 69 magazine sized-pages of The Phoenix comic turned into around 200 pages in the book.
When a story is serialised as a comic how difficult is it to know how much to include for each edition? Of course, unlike the traditional book there are no chapters.
JOE: Finding the moment to end the book was driven largely by the story. One of the most important characters in No Country is the home that Bea and her family are leaving behind (it is the title character, after all), and to a certain extent their home provides the point of view for No Country. The core emotional experience of the human characters is the severing of their relationship with that home. Throughout the entire story, Dad is clear about how he wants this separation to occur, but in the end they lose control. Because of the unexpected suddenness of this departure, there are loose ends and unanswered questions in the lives of the characters, as well as in the narrative of the story. As readers, we feel an incompleteness in a narrative way, but surely people who have experienced being forced to flee their home experience this incompleteness in a much more personal way.
Patrice and I are working on the next volumes of No Country, and while Bea’s home will cast a long shadow over the rest of Bea’s experience, I think it is very unlikely that they will ever go back there or find out everything they might have been curious about having left behind.
Do the words and pictures have to be created at the same time for graphic novels? I am a graphic novel novice!
PATRICE: Sometimes! The words in the speech balloons normally kick-start the idea for a scene, but they might not make an appearance until halfway through. Or they could get discarded or re-written. I might have two or three or half a dozen ideas about what to draw.
There might be panels with no speech in them at all. Or times when the speech gets moved to another part of the novel altogether. In order to create a dynamic page we have to think about a hundred things at once. I do rough drawings, then change them, then change them again. We only go to inks and colour when we're both happy. Making a graphic novel is so organic that I never feel the final page is really the final page until it appears in print!
How much do you have to let the pictures tell the story and is it the pictures that have to come first when composing these stories?
PATRICE: The 'story' in a graphic novel is much larger than either the words or the images alone. Over the whole book both the writer and the illustrator aim to create a world that so convinces the reader that the distinction between which part is doing the storytelling is unnoticed. I love collaborating! Joe and I worked back and forth the whole time and understood how even the size and position of a panel on the page contributed to the storytelling arc. As this book started life as a weekly, we needed a 'cliffhanger' at the end of each episode. That often created its own flow, which made pacing easier to maintain through to the end.
Do you have to give yourself very different deadlines when working on this form of story - for a comic how many weeks in advance do you have to have the story/strips ready for?
PATRICE: There's a schedule. I'm given deadlines, and I'm asked if they're 'do-able'. Sometimes the answer is along the lines of 'how long is a piece of string', but I'm not often defeated! I perversely enjoy a tight deadline, as it concentrates the mind. It's easy to over-think a scene if given too much time, as often my first or second idea is the best one. There were times when a finished panel would wind up on the cutting room floor, but would then be revived and used in another part of the book, saving loads of effort. Usually there's enough leeway in a weekly publishing schedule to get ahead by a few episodes. That said, I do remember coming back from a visit to my mum in L.A., with a sketchbook on my lap in the departure lounge, still frantically drawing tanks
Now to the story - this is very much a book for children yet it has some very adult perspectives. How do you balance the story with potential readership?
JOE: I tried to keep the adultness as separate from the story as possible. It is a story for kids and while I don’t think there is an essential difference between writing for kids and writing for adults, the sorts of concerns a kid has about the world are often hugely different from the concerns adults have.
I wanted the adults to be fully formed characters, but I wanted to perspective to be firmly in the eyes of the kids. As the father character tries to protect his children from the serious dangers, he also acts to keep those more grown-up themes from the story. Bea’s concerns really tried to stay on the kid level, in all her innocence, however in the end, the adult world encroaches, of course, especially in a world so defined by grown up dangers. And in the end, in a way, No Country is about a kid coming to begin to understand her father’s fears.
The characters are very strong and tenacious, did you envisage them to be or did they very much take charge of you?
JOE: It is a bit of both. It feels like I know the characters on some level, and a lot of writing is just trusting that instinctual voice inside you to guide the characters. On the other hand, thematically, Hannah and Bea are designed as foils to one another. Bea is innocent and naïve, which appears as weak. Hannah holds more responsibility and is seen as strong, which sometimes appears as cold. We spent a lot of time working out scenarios that would test them. As the story goes on, Hannah talks about the pressure of her responsibility, and acts naively in her own way; and Bea shows incredible courage at different parts of the story, surprising and even saving her sister. So, the characters do have a lot of agency, but as the writer I am the mad scientist throwing scenarios specifically designed to test them and make them grow.
It is a story set in an imagined future which could equally be a story from parts of the world now. How did you make it realistic without being frightening?
PATRICE: What a tricky question. In order for the reader to feel the surroundings are realistic, we need to see things, details, that are familiar and grounded and unchanged. But the whole story is about things which have changed, which aren't familiar, or which have disappeared, like the ice cream vans from Dad's long-ago memory. I was grateful to Joe for building those scenes. Clinging on, even in memory, to an idea of a friendly past life helps calm down the tension at this part of the story. The cheery balloons and bright colours at the town fete do the same job later on. It's a visual connection to a sunnier mood.
How much research is needed for a story such as this one and how much of that goes into the style needed for the story?
PATRICE: I do an awful lot more research than it looks. The streets around where Bea and Hannah live are a mashup of Brighton and Coventry, and hopefully look like neither. It was important that the geography of this likeable small town was fully formed in my mind, in order to make the reader feel at home there. For the same reason, I wanted to use a fairly naturalistic drawing style. The reader needs to feel cosy and unthreatened by the drawings, as so much else in the story is quite overtly threatening. At the same time, the crumbling infrastructure and signs of war needed to peek out from the corners of the page. And it was really difficult to get picture reference for a supermarket with no food on the shelves. Arrggh! This was before the pandemic!!
Should we expect to see more - in this story or in others?
PATRICE: Remembering the safe, fun part of life will be a bigger challenge in the next volume of No Country. It'll be important for the girls (and us, the readers!) to see and feel an attachment to everything good that's missing, but as it is missing, the storytelling will need to work hard to breathe hope back into our world.
With thanks to Meggie Dennis, David Fickling book for helping us to put this Blog feature together, to David Fickling Books for publishing No Country and to Joe and Patrice for taking time from their busy schedules to answer Louise Ellis-Barrett’s questions!