Writer / Artist: David B
Epileptic was originally published as L'Ascension du Haut Mal by the French artist David B around 10 years ago. It was collected and translated into English fairly recently and I can’t believe it took so long.
It's an incredibly dark but moving memoir of David B.'s becoming a comics artist as a result of his need to escape into the violent fantasy worlds in his imagination in order to cope with the madness that surrounds him and his family in the real world.
His older brother is an unstable epileptic and the comic takes a painful look at the struggle his family go through in their desperation to find a cure. As his condition worsens they turn from doctors, to psychiatrists, to alternative medicine, esotericism and religion and every step they take extinguishes one more glimmer of hope.
To be honest I had never encountered a comic like this before. It seems to get pigeon-holed in the “indy auto biography” section, and while it is both from an independent publisher, and autobiographical, that isn’t really the right place for it at all. The main difference seems to me to be that while most books use a particular style of art as a deliberate choice to express a story, this book is by contrast a story to explain a style of art, the creation of an artist’s identity and how he reinvented his world as a way to “forge the weapons that will allow me to be more than a sick man’s brother.”
David B’s use of the comic medium as a tool for emotional manipulation is masterful. You find yourself not just “reading about” his life, but living it . This makes for a scary book, not least because it is intensely personal, uncomfortably so at times and you want to squirm away and not look at it anymore. This only makes you feel guilty, though, as one of the problems it discusses is precisely this kind of reaction from other people to the problems faced by the author and his family, and the directions in which that drives them.
In fact, overall making you feel guilty is what the book excels at – and what brings you into closer identification with the author. Sometimes you feel guilty for your anger, or your compassion, or your fascination – the book provokes an unease that whatever feeling you are having is “inappropriate” in some way. Much of the story is about what this means to a family, and in particular to David, and how he comes to terms with this and claims his life for himself.
The art is frightening and expressionistic, and very very powerful. It has a immediacy and psychological depth that is disconcerting, especially as it seems quite “childish” at first, and by the time you have noticed the darkness has gathered in from the edges it is too late to escape. I think this point came for me in a haunting panel a couple of chapters in, shot from way up high, where the family are tiny white figures against a black background, ringed by a procession of cavorting doctors that looks like they have paraded right out of a mediaeval “Danse Macabre”.
His brother’s condition is expressed as a long, sinuous dragon-like monster that winds everything in its coils, it is suffocating and oppressive and really gives the impression of there being no escape. The sheer “blackness” of some sections is slightly overwhelming, but I think that is the point.
The chaos of hope and despair in the life of the family bleeds into David’s mind as he retreats more and more into the world of his art – a place where he believes he is in control. Symbolism and reality merge into heart-breaking sequences of stylized, powerless rage – sometimes expresses as a desire to protect, sometimes to destroy and kill. The boundaries between the real and the imaginary start to blur at some points, and you get a very real sense of this being an actual danger lurking ominously at the edges of the story itself. David retreats into himself and comes to think of his drawing as a suit of armour that can seal him off and protect him from the pain he sees around him.
It is a rare comic where the author has manages to convey so much emotion and meaning through just the images, especially as they are so deceptively simple. As time goes the realisation of what he is losing, and what he never really had is stunning. It is a coming of age tale, but unlike other such stories there will probably be little to relate to, and no feelings of nostalgic recognition.
That is not to say the book is a “downer” - in fact there is something satisfyingly defiant and stubborn and life affirming about it in some ways. As David B can put fear and frustration directly onto a page he can do the same with triumph and glee – he was still a child, after all. But the fact remains that the message at the heart of the story seems to be that if you are have to have your own life you almost have to steal it for yourself, and in doing that it is impossible to avoid betrayal of one kind or another. It plays with and contrasts many different kinds of selfishness and possession and power dynamics expertly. Although this story is focussed through the lens of a particular family with a particular problem it will almost certainly throw a new light on your own past experiences and relationships.
I am very pleased to have discovered this book and highly recommend it.
However, you should not look to the book for greater understanding of the condition epilepsy – either medically or in terms of treatment/management etc.