A bleak and brutal look at a near-future with a country in chaos, democracy fallen, No Country is a perfect bit of dystopian fiction for older children and adults.
But it’s cleverer than even that, with Joe Brady and Patrice Aggs firmly focusing on one family’s struggles as their world crumbles to make the inevitable disaster all the more personal, all the more powerful.
What would you do if your home wasn’t safe any more?
That’s what No Country is all about, a thrilling and terrifying vision of the near future by Patrice Aggs and Joe Brady.
It’s a very different sort of comic strip coming out of the Phoenix Comic, where we’re more used to things of a more lighter bent. But every so often, they go that little more dark, usually it’s something with a fantasy twist, such as Neill Cameron and Kate Brown’s disturbing Tamsin series or the flight of fantasy of Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham’s John Blake, naming but two.
But No Country is something radically different, something dark and dystopian, a bleak tale of one family living through their country falling apart as a civil war rages and democracy has fallen.
No Country immediately establishes itself as a truly powerful work, catering for younger children and adults. Against this all-too-easily imaginable backdrop, Brady and Aggs tell a deeply personal, incredibly moving tale of a family looking to find a new home in a manner both terrifying and thrilling.
This is how it opens…
In the world today, violence, war and persecution have forced millions of people from their homes. Imagine if it was your home. Imagine if it was you.
Both the family and the shock of the near future is introduced within a few expertly done first few pages, with this perfect establishing page a perfect example of how Brady and Aggs are working so well together to show us so much, so simply…
The bins overflowing, services breaking down, the ‘FREE KINGDOM’ graffiti, and a paper telling us that the “Prime Minister says future is bright.” – yep, exactly what you imagine they’d be saying when it all goes wrong. It’s an immediate and powerful way to establish the story, wonderfully drawn by Aggs, whose work throughout No Country does so much of the heavy lifting, showing rather than telling, allowing the story to flow so well.
And then, in just a couple of pages, we get our introductions to both Dad and Beatrice (Bea for short – you can probably see why in the pages below.) He’s missing his wife, she’s missing her mom, the world going mad around them, dad completely lost… discovered in the little things, his wistful look at their wedding photo, his surprise Beatrice isn’t in school – “For real? Dad, term doesn’t start for two weeks.”
In just a few more pages, we’re introduced to older sister Hannah, more aware, more scared, knowing what’s happening a bit more. And little Dom, a toddler who thinks all tablets are ‘Mummy’ now because that’s all he’s seen her on for too long. Because Mom has already escaped the country and is with other refugees someplace else, one of millions. The family have a plan in place, get the right papers, rejoin Mom, escape this nightmare.
But the problem is that the nightmare is coming closer and closer and the plan, no matter how practiced, may not be enough.
The newspapers are talking of “Free Kingdom on the run,” the same Free Kingdom we saw on the graffiti. But the alt-news tells a different story, of the Prime Minister’s regime on the out, Free Kingdom brutality, and a refugee crisis – and it’s hitting dad hard, the plan they had to get out of their own country and, as he puts it, “So we just leave this country to the bullies and the brutes?”
The bullies and the brutes are the Free Kingdom and it’s obvious to us, the readers, that the country is on the brink of falling to them.
We see everything failing, the power cuts, food shortages, supermarket shelves running empty, the swap shops providing some hope, the litter everywhere – all the signs of the breakdown of the country, shown so simply and effectively by Aggs’ artwork, a masterclass in doing this sort of thing right.
Look at this for just one simple example of what I mean…
The swap shop, the banners, and then that powerful last panel, the police station in ruins – not explained but showing the breakdown of this society nonetheless, something Brady and Aggs have filled No Country with. Show don’t tell powerfully done.
Yes, the cleverness of No Country is in not telling us everything. Yes, we get the commentary, the use of the newspapers to give us the background, but a lot of what we glean about the situation comes in the everyday lives of dad and the kids as they go about their lives, the tensions getting worse, both inside and outside the family, with older daughter Hannah getting distracted by her new boyfriend, even as the world around them begins to fall apart, the chaos and breakdown accelerating as the army moves in, with curfews and controls and, inevitably, people being taken away, the ones speaking out, the ones seen as troublemakers. And around the corner, quite literally, in one very scary moment, there’s First Kingdom.
Everything gets faster as the story goes on, things build and build, with the tension near unbearable at times, you can’t help but be completely enthralled in seeing how the story plays out.
The last 30 pages just race by, everything coming to a head. And by then you’ve realised the worst, this isn’t finishing here, this isn’t going to conclude, it’s just going to leave us with a … to be continued. And it does.
And the best compliment I can possibly give to No Country is that I was so annoyed that it was over and done with, almost angry that I’d been cheated out of knowing where this was going, where Dad and the kids would end up, how the nightmares that have befallen the country will play out.
You want an obvious comparison to No Country in adult drama? That would be either Alan Moore and David Lloyd‘s V For Vendetta or that Russell T Davies 2019 TV show Years and Years. All of them have got that same storyline to its backdrop for sure, the country falling apart as democracy falls.
But No Country is different in a few ways. It’s smarter for a start. It has to be, because of the age group it’s designed for. It’s easy to show a world in chaos and the horror of society falling apart when you’re allowed to show whatever you’re like. But to do it by deliberately not showing it, to do it by alluding to the horrors without being so explicit – now that takes an incredible amount of skill.
And there’s an incredible amount of skill here in No Country for sure, writer and artist doing so much and so well.
It’s also a more grounded piece, not allowing the focus to drift in the way that V or Years and Years does, this is firmly rooted in the lives of dad and the kids, geographically never going past their tight little world, the house, the school, the local shops, the local “yoof” meeting point. The only time we see further is through a barrier of some kind – the tablet, the newspapers, the exposition of the adults. Again, it’s a smart way of doing things, it makes it so claustrophobic, so tight, adds to the ever-growing fear of what’s going to happen to the family, a fear that you’ll find grabbing at your chest far more effectively than most horror movies could hope to do.
This is the sort of book that works so well for kids, there’s no question they can’t imagine these things, no question they don’t understand the world, understand their history – these are a generation that’s more involved, more educated, and has more knowledge of the ills of the world than we’ve ever had before.
No Country is one of those perfect books, cleverly made, genuinely frightening in its details, totally thrilling. The only thing wrong with it is that we’re all going to have to wait to see just how things play out.
Just to end, three of those perfectly done small moments that litter No Country‘s pages, the things that elevate this into brilliance.
First, as Dad and Bea go to a local fete…
It’s all there in the panel, the way the country has fallen – the enforced “God save the Prime Minister,” and that suspicious look from the armed soldier, Brady’s words and Aggs’ artwork showing us all the horrors that the family are facing.
Or this, just a little thing showing us how the new regime is working as Hannah, Bea, and Dom finally get to the front of the huge queues for a supermarket with so little…
Just a simple little thing – the soldier with a bag of Skittles. But it’s worth thousands of words talking to us about the inequity between those in power and those without.
And finally, one little scene between Dad and Bea, one that brought a tear to my eye as they sit under the stars and Dad tells her of better times. Imagine a child being surprised at something as innocuous as leftovers… now that is heartbreaking. Truly powerful work in a truly powerful book.
No Country – Illustrations by Patrice Aggs and text by Joe Brady
Published by David Fickling Books and the Phoenix Comic.