by David B./Pierre-Francois Beauchard (Pantheon, 2005)
originally published as L'Ascension du Haut-Mal, translated by Kim Thompson
I remember something a therapist friend once told me about the nature of diseases: that if one member of the family was, for instance, a cancer victim, then the entire family is a cancer victim. Whether one had the disease or not it is shared, osmosis-style, by all who live within the sphere of the one who suffers. This is more or less the thrust of David B.'s graphic autobiography, Epileptic, a hard but beautiful narrative of life with a brother who suffers from severe epileptic seizures.
Originally released in the 1990s as a six-volume series, Epileptic, now translated for the English-speaking market, is a dark, impressionistic work that opens on a note of despair and ends on a note of hope. Running throughout the tense, edgy narrative is the ever-present threat of seizure that comes from nowhere and, like a great storm, leaves everything blown apart in its wake.
Life as David's family knew it revolved around his brother Jean's unstable condition, which developed at the age of 12. As time goes on, the disease, to David, becomes more and more a penance for sins unknown, a trap from which he and his family, his brother especially, will never escape. The family is itself one collective epileptic as they all suffer with the disease, if not from it.
Despair hangs over the narrative like a fog that creeps in and doesn't let up until the very end. Betrayed by the broken promises of the numerous quack healers his desperate parents sought out after traditional medicine failed, David retreats further into his worlds of stories, fascinated by phantoms and gruesome, creepy things other children would find frightening, entering a trance-like state of being when transcribing his dreams and phantasms into stories that later form the basis of his rich, beautiful art.
Once, he and his talented brother would write and draw stories together until the disease began to literally warp Jean's mind, cauterizing his ability to express himself creatively. That loss creates an almost unbridgeable gulf between the two, a distance that breaks Jean's heart most of all, for it is through stories that he once connected to a brother who quickly outstrips him.
Half-human beasts wander in and out of David's tormented dreams of warfare and battle, a metaphor, obvious but true, for his inner state and a mirror of his brother's fascination with fascism, likely due to living with a disease that apparently controls every part of him. There are no heroes and villains. Even though one brother is well and the other is sick, it's not always easy to tell who has the disease, so deeply have David and his family internalized Jean's suffering. With that internalized suffering comes rage and self-loathing at being treated as different or even defective by an uncaring, uneducated public. This, according to a friend of mine who suffered from epilepsy, is the singular, terrible condition epilepsy bestows on those who suffer it: the isolation it almost violently creates. My friend described his condition as a bubble that kept him from ever being truly like other people, a sort of twofold condition in which he suffered not only from seizures but from the fact that the terrifying nature of the disease made people hold him at an arm's length.
The reactions to Jean's public inevitable public seizures, in those who witnessed it, demonstrate an almost breathtaking lack of compassion. David B.'s self-directed rage and sense of impotence are as palpable as they are immediate, almost from the very beginning. Given the social ostracism Jean and his family endure, it is easy to empathize.
Throughout the course of his difficult adolescence, David tries to move away from the shadow of the disease but finds it follows him wherever he goes, leaving him so choked by anguish that he virtually cannot procreate, biologically or artistically. Yet he compulsively expresses himself in written stories and graphic drawings, finding solace in the release of writing and drawing, even if it is nonsense. His need to express his pain overcomes his fear of trusting. Eventually that need allows him to direct his talents toward becoming comprehensible instead of just-getting-by mediocre. His initial inability to fit in with anyone's expectations of him causes him to fall through the cracks, where, in the freedom that isolation brings, he carves out his own identity and finds the sanity that eluded him for so long.
Even though the focus is temporarily on him, the story is not about David. Nor is it solely about his brother. Jean is a creative soul trapped in a cage, slowly wilting. Only if Jean can embrace who he is will he end his slavery to the disease. David learns to define himself through his art, his vision, a lovely flower that grew from a long-festering wound. This is the discovery he brings to Jean at the end: the freedom of creation. It is not conforming to the expectations of others, but individual expression, that releases us, as the story's last, powerful words state: "Lie in the sun / Abdicate / And be your own king." If David B. can find freedom this way, perhaps Jean can as well.
The highly stylized, intricate artwork is mesmerizing. The vivid, highly mythic surrealism is worthy of Diego Rivera's in its perception of realities at work under the surface of our own. Epic in its scope and bruising in its honesty, Epileptic ranks with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Art Spiegelman's Maus as harrowing, honest tales of the soul.
22 March 2008
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