The plain yellow cover to David B.’s Epileptic 1 (L’Association) only hints at the visual inventiveness found in this remarkable autobiographical graphic work: two boys, one half a head taller than his brother, look out at the reader. To the side of this duo lurks a large lizard head – turn the book over and we see the full lizard’s body curling on the back cover. As we quickly learn, the lizard is a visual symbol of the older brother’s epilepsy.
Epileptic 1 reprints the first three volumes of a six-issue black-and-white comic series about French cartoonist David B.’s family life after the onset of his brother’s illness. First half of this work (gracefully translated by Kim Thompson) concentrates on the cartoonist’s boyhood, the ways both he and his family cope with the uncontrolled disease and the bizarre paths they take. Set in the 70’s, the book documents how the cartoonist’s parents, frightened by an arrogant and callous medical establishment’s inability to successfully treat their son, turn to dubious non-medical approaches like macrobiotics, acupuncture and spiritualism. They drag all three of their children (our narrator, epileptic brother Jean-Christophe and younger sister Florence) to a series of communes where seemingly arbitrary rules and adult power plays are constant. Through it all, we see how Jean-Christophe’s illness has become the defining fact of this family’s life – and how it effects the way both his siblings will grow into adulthood.
A lot of mainstream American comics fans don’t have a lot of patience with autobiographical comicwork. The indy press is flooded with it, and I’ve got to admit that reading too much of this stuff can be deadly. Spend too much time with a bunch of would-be bohos bemoaning their chosen lot in life, and you may start to yearn for a simple-minded superhero knockdown fest.
But David B.’s work doesn’t fall into this trap because a.) it’s clearly about something; and b.) it’s clearly about something distinctive and significant. Outside of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year, I don’t know of another comic book series which so honestly looks at the ravages illness can place on a family unit. That it’s accomplished with so much visual poetry is even more outstanding.
The focus of the 163-page work isn’t just on the immediate family: David B. also takes time to chart the careers of the various new age healers that his parents look to – and of ancestors whose own hard lives have preceded his. (In one of the book’s few missteps, the cartoonist includes a scene where the adult cartoonist is confronted by his mother for including so much background information. “Our ancestors were locked in a constant struggle to escape their misery,” he explains, hamfistedly pointing out what we’ve already realized. “What interests me is the struggle to escape disease and death.”) The artist’s family past has its ultimate representative in the ghost of his grandfather, a long-beaked bird figure who appears to torment both mother and children. In one striking image, the ghost beak is drawn impaling the still-grieving mother.
What elevates Epileptic into great graphic art, in fact, are the visual motifs the artist utilizes to explore his subject. His brother’s epilepsy is alternately represented by a sinuous lizard or a looming mountain; a Japanese self-help guru is given a cat’s head in contrast with his ghostly grandfather’s bird dome; the armor that the young boy dons to protect himself from the specter of death is modeled after Genghis Kahn, an early boyhood hero. Each of these simple conceits gets played out in elaborate brush-and-pen inked panels that could only be realized through comic art. David B.’s cartoonish characters grow or shrink in relationship to their surroundings. At times, the visual surroundings morph into an overwhelming tableau of icons and twisted landscapes: no mere visual show but an approximation of the disorienting nature of the disease.
An extraordinary comic album – can’t wait for Volume Two. Powered by Sidelines