Metaphorically Speaking

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Where other cartoonists visualize the merely incredible, David B. visualizes the invisible. Two new works, "Babel" (32 pages; $10), a comic book released by Drawn and Quarterly, and "Epileptic," his extraordinary graphic novel just arriving from Pantheon Books, find visual metaphors for such elusive concepts as dreams, the forces of history, and illness. Both the comic and the novel find these metaphors through a powerful, moving account of his brother Jean-Christophe's debilitating epilepsy.

"I didn't want at all to do something realistic,” says David B. “I was not interested in making a reconstruction of the events. I prefer to tell my feelings." Born Pierre-Francois Beauchard near Orleans, France in 1959, and now living in Paris, Beauchard began working on "Epileptic" in 1996 and didn't finish until 2003. "I thought about it for twenty years. I didn't know how to draw it or tell it," he says. Eventually Beauchard began writing and publishing "Epileptic" as individual chapters. "I went chapter by chapter. I imagined an end when I started but it changed while I did the work. At the beginning I was thinking about a very dark end but I changed doing this work and came to a more optimistic end, I think," says Beauchard. The first half of these chapbooks were collected and released in the U.S. three years ago to much acclaim (see the TIME.comix review). Now the first and second half have been combined into one gorgeous hardcover (361 pages; $25).

"Epileptic" mostly takes place during the late 60s and into the 70s, a time before MRIs and a greater awareness of brain disease. Faced with a medical establishment that could do little but shrug its shoulders, the Beauchard family explores every remote cure, from macrobiotics to mediums to exorcism. "I wanted to tell the story of our family and how the illness of my brother changed our family. Our life was different. We were a normal family in the 60s in France and this illness changed our lives," says David B. His near total recall of events that took place when he was still a child results in a perfect memoir of a time when the old world of one generation mashed up with the new world of the next. All the while Pierre-Francois immerses himself in historical books and comics. Gradually "Epileptic" becomes as much a portrait of an artist as a portrait of a family in crisis.

Something of a coda to "Epileptic," "Babel" concentrates more on the dream life of the artist. As his brother first displays signs of illness the young Pierre-Francios dreams of his ancestors and of a character called The King of the World. Suddenly he feels permanently changed. As he becomes disillusioned with "doctors who can't heal" and "parents who know nothing," he seeks solace in the world of dreams, leading to a lifelong obsession. Excerpting various entries from his dream journal, Beauchard turns "Babel" into an explication of the birth of his interest in art as a way to give form to his nocturnal imaginings.

Jean-Christofe's demon twists him into knots

"[Creating 'Epileptic'] was a therapeutic experience, but not only that. It was an artistic experience too," says Beauchard. Finding visual metaphors for intangible concepts became the driving force behind the book's creation. This dedication keeps it from becoming a maudlin disease-of-the-week experience. "I really wanted to work out the drawings. How can I draw and epileptic attack, for example. Is it possible to draw that with a pencil and a piece of paper?" His solution to that particular challenge is to depict his brother in coils of a fantastical snake, twisting him in knots. Beauchard's cartoon world is inhabited as much by monsters, phantoms and animated objects as by "real" characters. He manages to combine into most every page both objective reconstructions of events as well as the subjective imaginings of the characters into one seamless, readable whole.

Beauchard has a decidedly different look than most every American comic creator, and most French ones too. "I have two kinds of styles influences: an influence from French comics and an influence from art," he says. "I was very impressed during the 1970s with French comics that were very high contrast black and white drawings by artists like Tardi or Hugo Pratt, who came from Italy. And I was very influenced in art by the expressionist work of George Grosz. I was not very fond of superhero books. For me comics are not so different from literature or movies or theater or the other cultural things I took in during the period of the book."

Getting "Epileptic" published, even in comic-friendly France, was tough. To do it Beauchard co-founded a collective of six cartoonists called L'Association in 1990. "As we weren't able to get published by other publishers we decided to create our own publishing house," Beauchard says. "It was immediately a success and this success grew and grew. And now we are not a 'big' publishing house, but among the little publishing houses we are one of the bigger ones." Making editorial decisions collectively, L'Association has published other authors besides the original six, including Marjane Satrapi, author of the two "Persepolis" volumes (see TIME.comix review.) For his next project Beauchard plans on doing a biography of the French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos.

But what of Jean-Christophe? By the end of "Epileptic" he seems lost in a world of dependency and anger. "’Epileptic’ changed my relationship with my parents and with my vision of my work. But with my brother, he's so ill that honestly I can't tell that it's changed anything," David B. says. But even if the power of art cannot transcend illness, "Epileptic" has the potential to change the way American audiences feel about French comics and graphic literature in general. It should not be missed by anyone with an interest in seeing the invisible forces that affect all our lives.