May 2005

Gordon McAlpin

nonfiction

Epileptic by David B.

David B.'s stunning comic Epileptic tells the story of David's youth through his late thirties, largely through the lens of his relationship with his epileptic brother Jean-Christophe. L'Ascension du Haut Mal (literally: "The Rise of the High Evil"), as it was titled in the author's native France, is nominally about Jean-Christophe and the Beauchard family as they vainly struggle to find a cure for his condition, through a series of charlatans and quacks, none of whom prove to be more than a temporary salve. But the focus of this memoir is really David — born Pierre-François Beauchard — himself: how he defines himself in terms of his brother's illness and his struggle between either escaping from that identity or embracing it and attempting to understand it.

Even when Jean-Christophe is largely absent, such as in the later years, his specter hangs over David, shaping the whole of David's existence. We first see Jean-Christophe on page one as an adult: fat, oafish, his body riddled with scars from so many falls. He talks more like a child than an adult. When we jump back to the brothers' childhood in the following pages, we struggle to connect that shadow of a human being with the vibrant, imaginative boy we see between the early seizures. That first glimpse of Jean-Christophe haunts us as we watch the disease slowly overtake him, as he retreats from any meaningful relationship with the world around him, armoring himself in Mein Kampf, '70s metal and his mother.

Early on, Jean-Christophe's disease is depicted as a shadow-like ghost and later as a stylized, demon-like lizard. Still later, the lizard disappears almost entirely when the disease fully consumes Jean-Christophe, his monstrous form now rendered in bold, harsh lines. Late in the book, we catch a pair of glimpses at David's own shadow/demon, "(his) past and its agonies." At first, it is simply another lizard-like demon, like the one representing Jean-Christophe's epilepsy, but the second time it is simply Jean-Christophe himself.

As Jean-Christophe grows increasingly insular, David B. develops his artistic aptitude, fueled by his interest in the fantasy novels and esoterism that so strongly influence his work. The disparity between the two brothers is sublimely illustrated when L, a friend of the family's, takes the Beauchards to the school for the handicapped where she works. At first, David sits in the corner drawing, but the children take an interest in him and solicit him for drawings. Soon, David plays with the children, walking around on a track of winding lines. Twice, Jean-Christophe attempts to join in, but the children are merely perplexed by him. Each time he tries to join into one activity, such as walking on the lines, they have already moved on to a new one. Eventually, he goes to sit in a corner, sulking, and makes one of many empty pronouncements: "I want to be an educator for handicapped children."

His mother dismisses this at once, replying, "You can't even take care of yourself. You didn't interact with the children at all. At least David did some drawings for them." This comment is descriptive of how the brothers relate to the outside world, as well, but more importantly, David's drawings are his mechanism for deciphering his own life. David describes his art as his way of "trying desperately to save myself by doing something." Elsewhere, he talks about his art in poetic terms: "I perform the magic to acquire strength and valor. I forget the weapons that will allow me to be more than a sick man's brother." It's somewhat ironic, though: writing and drawing comics is a time-consuming and solitary practice. So even as comics are David's lifeline to the outside world, they are a protection from the it, as well.

As moving and profound as Epileptic is, to reduce the book to merely a sequence of events is to do it an enormous disservice, for these are small moments made epic through David B.'s visual genius. One of the most innovative -- and important -- works of comics illustration in the history of the medium, Epileptic resembles David Mazzuchelli's City of Glass (adapted from Paul Auster's novel with co-scripter Paul Karasik) in how it transcends literalist storytelling techniques, employing nonrepresentational imagery to convey larger truths than any filmic reconstruction could manage. One simple, three-panel sequence contains the narration: "He's my grandfather on my father's side. I like him but he's strict. All he talks about is eating. He's partly responsible for my distaste for me."

The panels depict a miniscule David next to an oversized, seemingly dazed version of his grandfather, representative of his grandfather's overbearing attitude. The two are behind a mound of steaks. After pressing David to eat some food, which David politely refuses, his grandfather's jaw pops back in a hinge-like fashion while David begins to look a bit squeamish. This tiny moment in the story couldn't have been conveyed as elegantly with solely representational imagery, or through prose.

Originally published as four 7.5" x 10.2" volumes, Pantheon's hardcover edition of Epileptic has been reduced to a more wieldy 6.8" x 8.9". The significant size difference unfortunately results in some of David B.'s more delicate lines falling out in some places, although only on a small number of pages. But this minor drawback is a small price to pay for the only English edition containing the whole, wonderful, singular masterpiece.

Epileptic by David B.
Pantheon Books
ISBN 0375423184
361 pages