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Epileptic: a graphic novel review

Updated on June 14, 2010

This is my second time reading "Epileptic," a graphic biography by famed French comics artist David B., and reading it a second time made me realize how much one can miss on the first pass through this very complex work. David B.'s style of drawing rewards thorough investigation and careful exploration, where some small detail can reveal multitudes about the work.

The book itself is an autobiography about the author's childhood. The focus however is not on B. himself, but on his older brother Jean Christophe, who develops epilepsy early on. Because of this the family revolves around trying to find a cure for the illness, consulting not only traditional doctors but a whole litany of New Age practitioners, from sincere people who attempt non-traditional medicine to complete and utter hacks and charlatans.

On the first read of this a few years ago, I missed a lot of the hostility David B. developed for his brother. Over the years, as David matured and Jean Christophe remained (mentally, at least) a child, pathetically dependant on their parents for support, David grew increasingly more exasperated. Several times in "Epileptic" David even remarks that he wanted to kill his brother, and the two fought constantly.

But the epilepsy did not have entirely negative consequences. Because of his exposure to New Age philosophies both at their height (the mid-70s) and at the most receptive time in his life in his preteen and early teen years, David B. matured into an artist with a very dream-like style (indeed, much of his early work, which he includes in "Epileptic," was rendering his dreams into comic book form). He renders all of the strange imagery of cults obsessed with ancient secrets, contacting the spiritual world, and macrobiotics as equally strange and fascinating, making you both want to shy away in fear and take the plunge to discover more. This is also helped along with often rendering the people who introduce the family into this New Age remedy or that in some strange way. The leader of a macrobiotic movement the family is involved is drawn as a giant cat, whilst other New Age leaders are given the heads of birds or the moon, beaker-like mouths, or dressed to look like clowns. David also vents his frustration at his brother or family at characters he creates out of his own mind, such as his dead grandfather (who is given the head of an ibis) or three characters from Jean Ray's "The Last Canterbury Tales" (a cat, a dead man, and the devil). Finally, David B. uses his art to underline the emotional impact of what's going on around the family, depicting Jean Christophe's epilepsy as a frightening dragon he must fight or the passerby on the street when he as an epileptic episode as wide-eyed  gawkers who David hates most of all.

All in all, this is a fascinating book, worth a read both for the art and for David B.'s depiction of his own life. It really immerses the reader into the world of mid-70s France, as well as demonstrating the burdens as well as rewards (few though they may be) of having to take care of a family members with epilepsy. It is well worth multiple reads.  

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