Canada's National Post Reviews Epileptic and Babel!

“His brother's keeper” / National Post / Brad Mackay / April 9, 2005

David B's confessional comic, Epileptic, explores the many impacts of illness


By David B. Pantheon 368 pp., $35

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The autobiographical tradition is a touchstone as important to alternative comics as capes and tights are to their mainstream counterparts. The confessional urge can be seen in comics ranging from Robert Crumb's compulsive tell-alls of the 1960s to such modern classics as Art Spiegelman's Holocaust epic Maus, Chester Brown's I Never Liked You, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. The latest contender in this esteemed tradition comes, somewhat unexpectedly, from French comics.

Although bandes dessinees (standard comics) have long enjoyed respect in France, confessional comics have failed to generate similar acclaim. That changed with the debut of David B.'s Epileptic. When the first instalment was published in 1996 (as L'Ascension du Haut Mal), it became a sensation, winning the prestigious Alph' Art Award and becoming required reading in many classrooms.

An emotional marathon, the plot focuses on a French family and its attempts to cope with a son's complex battle with epilepsy. Thanks to David B.'s masterful storytelling and intricate art, it becomes much more -- a story of the many impacts of an illness, complete with writhing demons, imaginary medieval warfare and pages of raw emotion.

Following a well-received 2002 English translation of the first half of the novel, Pantheon recently introduced the English- speaking world to the complete Epileptic. At 368 pages, Epileptic is a moving pageant that calls for comparison to Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

David B. (born Pierre-Francois Beauchard in 1959) has called forth the demons he first encountered when his older brother, Jean- Christophe, had his first grand-mal seizure in the late 1960s. With his younger sister, Florence, David becomes his older brother's keeper, protecting him from both the private illness and the public ridicule it evokes. Along the way, they observe their parents trying everything from acupuncture to psychics in hopes of finding a cure for Jean-Christophe. The odyssey is both captivating and heartbreaking as they turn from one guru to the next. Their desperation lands them in a macrobiotic commune in the 1970s, where every piece of food they eat is monitored.

The parents' focus on their epileptic son eventually breeds resentment in his siblings. In an early sequence, David daydreams about his brother being run over by a truck. In another, he walks -- rather than runs -- to tell his father that his brother is playing with fire. He recalls slapping his brother "under the pretext of getting his seizure to stop." In the next panel, he adds: "I throw in a few kicks."

It's stark confessional moments like this that lift the narrative above the level of cliche that the story could have become in less capable hands.

The book is also an exploration of the author's psychological and creative development. From an early age, he immerses himself in accounts of military engagements ranging from those of Attila the Hun to the Paris riots of May, 1968. His gory depiction of these events is an outlet for his own frustrations, and also leads to his becoming a cartoonist.

Likely in an effort to keep costs down, Pantheon has significantly shrunk the page size -- to almost half the size of the original French albums -- in both its French and English incarnations. This inevitably drains some of the visual power from the story.

To see David B.'s work in all its unrestrained glory, search out the first issue of Babel, a new series published by Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly Books. The first issue, released last fall, picks up on the same autobiographical threads as Epileptic, but explores them through mythology and the author's dream comics.

The real star of the show here is his art, which on eight-by-12- inch pages has ample space to stretch out, and is augmented by gorgeous drop-in reds. Just 32 pages, Babel is a fantastic platform for a master cartoonist. (D&Q plans to release the second issue of Babel this fall.)

Despite the restrictions inherent in its format, Epileptic is a perfect example of how affecting autobiographical comics can be. David B. has crafted a heartfelt and painfully human comic that deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its Pulitzer Prize- winning predecessor, Maus.

Graphic/Diagram: All Images From David B's Epileptic / Epileptic was first published in French in 1996. In the book, David B. explores his brother's disease and his parents' quest to find a cure, which brings them to acupuncturists, psychics and communes.; Graphic/ Diagram: All Images From David B's Epileptic / Epileptic.


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