David B.: Epileptic

From childhood, French artist Pierre-François Beauchard had a firm hand on his demons, and was capable of channeling them into supportive and constructive channels. His hefty graphic-novel memoir Epileptic (initially released as the multi-volume French series L'Ascension Du Haut Mal, and published under his nom de plume, David B.) shows him as a child obsessed with war and death, and prone to seeing the world in terms of monsters and metaphors. But instead of buckling under the weight of his dark, florid visions, he illustrated them in obsessive detail. And as events around him worsened, he mentally created magical armor and mythic companions, while retaining enough control to set them aside when they were of no further use. But while he seemed to be in control of his fevered imagination, it took decades for him to understand how it had been shaped by the most central monster of his youth: his older brother.

Jean-Christophe Beauchard was 11 when he began having epileptic seizures, which had a profound effect on him emotionally and socially as well as physically. Epileptic tracks the Beauchards' efforts to treat him with surgery and acupuncture, spiritualism and macrobiotics, occultists and gurus, in a parade of self-proclaimed mediums and healers that dominated the entire family's life. As David B. expressed his rage, frustration, and confusion though his art, Jean-Christophe became increasingly erratic and apathetic, given to self-pity, sullen or pathetic tantrums, and empty nostalgia. Epileptic portrays Jean-Christophe's illness as a monster enveloping him, or a ghost haunting him; throughout the book, David B. often presents his actual dreams, but they're generally less nightmarish than his cluttered, protean visions of the real world. The artist's images of his sister and parents remain relatively consistent, but his portraits of himself and his brother range from tiny, precise cartoons to crude lumpen figures influenced by a variety of native and traditional styles, as the emotional tenor changes dramatically from scene to scene.

Epileptic somewhat resembles Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis books in style and execution; David B.'s art is far more varied and more sophisticated, but it shares some of Satrapi's dense black-and-white impressionism, and his detailed reportage on his family history, contemporaneous politics, and his internal struggles with anger and helplessness all seem hauntingly familiar. So does the sense of a storyteller whose own behavior was not above reproach, and whose self-analysis is alternately tinged with guilt, self-justification, and revelatory self-affirmation. But where Satrapi focused on a personal life within a political system, David B. focuses on the life buried inside his family and himself. The focus may seem narrower, but his imagination seems like an infinite well, capable of allowing infinite exploration.

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