Writer and illustrator Don Brown’s award-winning graphic nonfiction, novels, and biographies confront harrowing events including September 11, the Syrian War, the 1918 Influenza, and Hurricane Katrina. His latest book, 83 Days in Mariupol: A War Diary, chronicles the urgent conflict in one of the most threatened cities in the war in Ukraine. PW spoke with Brown about what attracts him to his subjects, how he conducted research into a rapidly unfolding story, and the way he framed harsh realities for his audience.

How do you decide which topics to tackle and when? This book’s subject is incredibly timely, but was that the main draw, or are there other factors that you weigh when considering new material?

The subject has to interest me. When the war in Ukraine happened, what struck me was the incongruity of what essentially is a 19th-century, 20th-century land grab, empire-building by the Soviet Union, and that was just astonishing to me. We have not seen that in several generations. It is also very dangerous and concerning. So, I wanted to tackle the subject. I have a great relationship with my editor at Clarion, Kate O’Sullivan, and she thought it was a great idea, too. The problem was the deadline because I was in the middle of working on a book about the Holocaust that is coming out this fall. We had to push that book back one season, because I thought it was important [for this one] to be as timely as possible. I had to work like mad and the story was still unfolding. When I started the book, Mariupol had not fallen yet, but everyone understood that it would fall. That [fall] would be inevitable in terms of geography as Mariupol sits so close to what was Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory and due to Russian military might. As I worked on the book I also kept an eye turned to the events. Then Mariupol folded and I finished the book not much after that.

We live in fast-moving times and succeeding events overshadow and diminish the previous events and I don’t think that should be. Some things in history are just forgotten, and we move on from them. I think on their merits, they should be remembered. The most notable example and the one that most pointed to our own times is that the 1918 Influenza was pretty much forgotten within a month, almost immediately. And the toll in terms of death was so much more than the First World War. But for some reason, it just fell beneath the surface and disappeared completely. People started talking about it only when Covid came back. Historians argue about what is remembered and what is forgotten, and who is remembered and forgotten. I like to resurrect those people and those events because they deserve to be remembered.

Did you feel added urgency in writing about the war in Ukraine given the ongoing current events?

It was an unfolding tragedy and so I could see it happening and the scope of it was heartbreaking. I tried to capture that. Across Ukraine, other things were happening at that point—the Ukrainians had beaten back the Russians from Kyiv and they were uncovering episodes of war crimes, including murder and rape. That permeated into the book and I tried to mention also what was going on outside of just Mariupol. It was not happening in isolation. The urgency and seriousness affected me deeply.

The other thing that attracted me to Mariupol was that these [conflicts] have echoes of Thermopylae and the Alamo and Corregidor, which were all defeats, on a local level, but in the larger scheme of things they ended up as rallying cries that led to ultimate victory. Now, whether the Ukrainians receive ultimate victory or not is yet to be determined. I’m not sure if Mariupol will ever be returned back to Ukraine just because of the geography, and whether Ukraine can roll back the Russians to pre-war borders. Everybody would like to see that, but sometimes the realities of war get in the way.

It was an unfolding tragedy and so I could see it happening and the scope of it was heartbreaking. I tried to capture that.

How did you conduct your research into Mariupol and the Ukraine?

I focused mainly on newspaper and magazine articles. At one point I thought about traveling to Poland to witness the refugee crisis, but that was at the height of Covid. Essentially, I curated a lot of newspaper articles and I would try to pluck out the most germane eyewitness accounts to get at what someone is thinking in the first person. I can do my best as a writer to paint a picture, but it is so much better if someone on the ground and in the moment says it.

What do you feel is important to convey when documenting these serious subjects? And how do you seek to make these events both true and approachable for a younger audience?

I always keep my audience in mind. I could reach for the most outrageous things to grab the reader, but I did not want to be gratuitous. In this book, for example, in the artwork surrounding rape, I did not want to be gratuitous but I did not want to diminish the horror of it either. And that was difficult.

I am a big fan of less is more in terms of writing. Especially with graphic nonfiction, I think it is important to let the art do as much to carry the story as possible. And the text should accentuate and enlarge what you see. The example that comes to mind is the book I did about Hurricane Katrina. I talk about people who were trapped in their house as the water started to flood and they went up from the first floor to the second floor and that water filled up and finally forced them into the attic. They would have drowned in the attic if they had not punched a hole into the roof and scrambled onto the roof. I could write that, but it is just so much easier to convey it with images. I can set the stage with the text, and then have the payoff with the imagery.

83 Days in Mariupol: A War Diary by Don Brown. Clarion, $22.99 May 16 ISBN 978-0-06-331156-5