David B reviewed in NY Newsday!

“A brother unbalanced” / New York Newsday / Stephanie Zacharek / January 30, 2005

People who don't like graphic novels or graphic memoirs often treat them as if they represent a failure of nerve, or even a moral failing - as if they're just failed verbal narratives that need the vitality and immediacy of pictures to bolster them.

That logic flows directly from the same source that gave us the old "What's better - movies or books?" question (to which the only reasonable answer is that they're simply different). And it also fails to take into account that in the best graphic novels and memoirs - works like Art Spiegelman's "Maus," Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," Raymond Brigg's "Ethel & Ernest" and now David B.'s "Epileptic" - words and pictures together amount to a very specific breed of nonverbal poetry.
In "Epileptic," for example, a panel illustrating a young couple's efforts to conceive a baby reads, "We make love, but there's no child." Below the words we see a dark-colored cat, shown only from the back, peering quizzically through a half-open door into a darkened room.

In "Epileptic," French cartoonist David B., a founding member of the influential cartoonists group L'Association, tells the story of growing up in Orléans in the early 1960s with his parents, his younger sister, Florence, and an older brother, Jean-Christophe, who, at the age of 11, began having recurrent and severe epileptic seizures that changed the course of his, and his family's, life.

At the time, David B.'s name was Pierre-François - he would change it as a young teenager, in the early 1970s - and he and his two siblings formed an inseparable trio. He and Jean-Christophe, two years apart, were particularly close. They'd roam with the local boys, staging miniature wars in streets and alleyways; at home, they'd spend hours together drawing elaborate battle scenes involving throngs of Mongolian warriors who'd pierce their enemies with showers of arrows and then clamber recklessly over piles of skulls. These pictures filled Pierre-François, in particular, with a sense of delight and release. He freely admits they were an outlet for the rage and frustration that would fill him when he saw his brother racked with seizures - but he also simply liked them, as many young boys do.
The seizures become more serious, and more frequent (Jean-Christophe suffers from as many as three a day). As Jean-Christophe reaches adolescence, he begins to suffer from increasingly intensifed mental and emotional imbalances as well. His whole family becomes entwined in the effort to cure him. After rejecting surgery at the hands of a creepy, arrogant surgeon, they turn to macrobiotics and, later, to increasingly wild and desperate schemes involving spiritualism, alchemy and bizarre magnetic treatments. (The pharmaceuticals prescribed for Jean-Christophe induce psychotic episodes that sometimes make him dangerously violent.)

"Epileptic" deals largely with Pierre-François/David's personal feelings about his brother's illness, most notably his vacillation between feeling desperate that he can't help the brother he loves so much and wishing, quite simply, that Jean-Christophe could just get over his epilepsy - or, most horrifying, just die and free the family from its suffering. This is a bracingly candid memoir, not just for the way it understands how a serious illness can infiltrate the very fiber of family life (whether it weakens it or strengthens it is almost beside the point), but for the way it captures the hostility - mingled, confusingly, with love and empathy - that one person's illness can evoke in the people closest to him.

"Epileptic" is really a memoir of two parallel lives lived simultaneously: the waking life, where we go about our business interacting with other people in seemingly normal ways, and the dream life that pulses beneath our consciousness. For David B., Jean-Christophe's illness takes the shape of a dragon that resembles a work of Mola embroidery, a sinuous polka-dotted beast with a long snout, a row of pointed teeth and a slippery tongue - a creature that doesn't look particularly malevolent, but whose origins are mystifying nonetheless.

This creature shadows Jean-Christophe: In some panels, it appears as his harmless sidekick, like a partner in a dance routine; in another, it might be nothing more than a curious onlooker, resting its elbows on Jean-Christophe's head. In one frame, it emerges out of an open suitcase, an uninvited traveling companion that tags along anyway. Elsewhere, its body pierces Jean-Christophe's torso savagely, in a reversal of St. George's victory over the dragon - there can be no victory over this beast.

David B.'s drawing style encompasses dozens, if not hundreds, of references, including old German woodcuts, the work of R. Crumb, Mayan art, '30s comic books, Tarot cards, various types of folk art and, most notably, Picasso's "Guernica," in which horrific violence is translated into the rough beauty of geometric angles.

His images, varying wildly from panel to panel, include audacious, strutting skeletons; warriors clad in elaborately paneled armor; men with the heads of cats and birds; mystical symbols dotted with stars, fish, snakes and all-seeing eyes; and several nighttime garden scenes (rendered in black ink pierced with feathery strokes of light) infused with peaceful wonder. Some of these images are disturbing, and others are purely fanciful, but most are a passionate and inexplicable commingling of both. "Epileptic" is a work of fantasy tethered to earth by inescapable sorrow. Not even our wildest dreams can save us from the painful process of actually living.

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