Comics of the Decade: David B’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic)

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This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

On the first page of the story we meet the author and his brother. The former is visiting his parents; it is night and he is brushing his teeth. Suddenly a stranger steps into the bathroom. It is his brother. A moment passes before he recognizes him. It has been a long time since he has seen him in this state of undress. The big lug has lost his front teeth and most of his hair. Lack of exercise and strong medication has rendered him obese and his body is badly scarred—one senses the odour of sweat about him. His stare is vacant, his memory almost gone; he only speaks with great effort, in broken sentences. Uneasily, the author leaves his brother and wishes him good night.

ascension_page1_t.gifThis scene encapsulates David B.’s grand autobiography, Epileptic (L’Ascension du haut mal, originally released as six books, 1996-2003). In it, he tells the story of his childhood as well as that of his family, centred around his brother, Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy. “Le haut mal” is a medieval French term for this condition and in the comic this “Mount Evil” becomes the mountain Jean-Christophe and his family seek to ascend. It is a long, arduous process and in reading the story, we realise it is ultimately a Sisyphean one.

Epileptic is a number of things. It narrates Jean-Christophe’s descent and the family’s many attempts to save him, and at the same time looks back in time to present a family chronicle spanning several generations. It is also a personal portrait of the 60s and 70s, and—towards the end—the 80s, and perhaps most importantly, it is the story of its author’s coming-of-age, his inner life and self-constitution in relation and opposition to his brother.

THE FAMILY
The first attack comes while the three siblings, Jean-Christophe, Pierre-François—David B.’s original name—and Florence are out playing in the street. Suddenly, the oldest, who has climbed onto a parked motorcycle bangs his head against the adjacent wall and falls to the ground in convulsions. They are 7, 5, and 3 years old, respectively. A large part of the story follows the parents’ increasingly desperate search to find a cure for their son. It quickly becomes evident that traditional medicine is no help and they therefore try out a long range of alternative remedies, resulting in a complete change of lifestyle for the family. Notably, they follow microbiotic precepts for a number of years; David B. describes very straightforwardly, but not without critical mien, their summer sojourns at macrobiotic camps and the frankly bizarre people they meet there. At a remarkably early stage, he understands the hopelessness of the family’s quest—their alternative lifestyle is a matter of course for the author, who grew up immersed in it and continues to remark its influence in his own life, even if he understands its discontents. The parents are thus never portrayed as deluded or off-course, but rather as loving, well-meaning people at a loss.

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We encounter the mother in the present day a few times during the course of the narrative, while the comic is in the works. She is nervous about her son’s work and seems primarily to wish he would refrain from thus exposing the family’s private grief to the public—David B. has admitted that his work led to a painful period of estrangement from his parents that lasted several years. Despite this, he is never sentimental, but remains paradoxically distanced from the distressingly revealing disclosure in his textual narration. This is a real strength, because it combines with the strongly personal, symbolic nature of the images to emphasise the subjectivity of the story as told. It is his story.

THE BROTHER
And the heart of the story is his development, in which his relationship with his brother plays a crushingly determinant part. Like most boys, the two of them are fascinated by war and great battles, which they draw endlessly. But while the young Pierre-François (i.e. David B.) is captivated by the exotic Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde—and learns a lot about them, and other cultures in general, through avid reading—his brother’s idol is Adolf Hitler. At eight or nine years of age, he draws a swastika and hangs it on his bedroom wall. None of the kids know about Nazism and the Holocaust at this point, but they are aware that it is transgressive. Jean-Christophe’s fascination is obviously related to his rising feeling of helplessness—he idolises the idea of the Führer, of being in command. This becomes especially pathetic later, when once again he tries to draw a swastika and finds himself incapable.

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His decline is accentuated further by his various attempts at countering it. He becomes increasingly defiant of his parents and does not understand why he is the one who has to suffer and not his siblings. In a mixture of curiosity and self-assertion, he starts visiting the local supermarket alone. On his first walk down there, he has a seizure and returns bleeding from his temple. At the height of his adolescence, his parents are asked to remove him from school. After much consideration, they decide to place him in a school for the handicapped. On his arrival there, he sits down, resigned, and asks his family to leave him alone. Both he and his family are cognisant of the hopelessness of the situation.

Pierre-François for a large part constitutes his identity through his relationship with his brother. He gets used to having to take care of him when they are out, but also learns to exploit his weakness. During an argument he discovers that he is able to provoke a seizure in his brother and is frightened by this newfound power. Just like the rest of his family, he cannot help but occasionally feel so burdened by his brother’s condition that he wishes it were all over.

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A particularly powerful sequence has the two brothers working in the garden by themselves, raking leaves. They want to set fire to the leaves, but it does not really catch, so Jean-Christophe decides to pour on some petrol straight out of the can. Pierre-François realises how dangerous this is and tries to warn his brother, but knows how stubborn he can be and quickly gives up. He hesitatingly hurries to get their father, but almost reluctantly so, secretly hoping his brother will kill himself and thereby end the family’s misery. When their father intervenes, Pierre-François is left behind wondering whether it was good to do the right thing.

REALISATION
Pierre-François seeks refuge in his imagination and uses it to emerge from the shadow of his brother. Through his childhood he is accompanied by a number of imaginary friends: after his beloved grandfather’s death, the latter’s soul manifests itself in his company as an ibis-like figure reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian god Thoth. He confides in this apparition who stands by him at important times in his life. This figure is his interpretation of the father that his mother has such a hard time letting go of and even attempts to contact via séances. Pierre-François’ version of this lost presence becomes his way of defining his own position in his family.

His imaginary life is fuelled by the many books he reads. His early interest in war leads to him reading about the Second World War at his paternal grandfather’s place, where he learns for the first time of the Holocaust. This collapses his romantic notions of war, and he becomes interested in Judaism and Jewish culture, and ends up assuming his Jewish middle name David, discarding the goy Pierre-François. Inspired by an American Indian practice of changing one’s name at important turning points in life, he becomes the mature David, who fends for himself. He knows that epilepsy is not hereditary, but in his darker moments still considers it inevitable that he and his sister will eventually be stricken. He hides from everyone the recurrent, extreme headaches that he suffers, which he regards as symptoms of epileptic onset, partly in denial, partly because he thinks that one problematic family member is enough and that he will manage on his own. This newfound independence makes him believe himself strong enough to resist this threat and he fantasises about how he might be able to extract the malady from his brother and exorcise it by the power of his mind.

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Gradually his old interest in war and warriors is replaced by a fascination for the supernatural, the occult, and the unconscious. The ibis-like grandfather is replaced by a trinity consisting of a skeleton, a cat-man and a bearded gentleman whom he has extracted from one of his favourite books, Jean Ray’s Last Canterbury Tales. The imaginary Mongolian-Japanese armour with which he used to protect himself is replaced by the darkness around him, with which he finds himself so comfortable and which he seeks out in his night-time wanderings in the family’s large, densely overgrown garden.

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WRATH AND RESIGNATION
The last two volumes are a kind of extended epilogue. The family has surrendered to irresolution and has decided to handle the increasingly difficult Jean-Christophe one day at a time. The onset of resignation only makes matters worse for him: he descends into passivity, spending days on end lying on his bed listening to hard rock—Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath—“the music of a sick person”, as David experiences it. This passiveness occasionally erupts in fits of rage that mount in force. In a particularly terrifying sequence, the darkly marked figure of Jean-Christophe grows in size as he assaults his little father. He steals all the knives in the kitchen and sneaks murderously into David’s room at night. His younger siblings’ wish that he will die is now openly articulated: “Then we’d be rid of him.” A frightening situation that never resolves, but only wanes into irresolution as Jean-Christophe weakens.

The last volume leaps ahead to a time when David has moved away from home and is trying to lead a normal life in Paris, far away from his childhood home and the monsters in its garden. Everywhere he goes, however, he is haunted by his brother and his malady—this poisons his friendships and relationships and frightens his drawing instructor, the distinguished cartoonist George Pichard, who gives up trying to get his pupil to exorcise his demons and attempt to structure his comics. Jean-Christophe moves to a council flat with social care and walks the streets of Paris for a while, occasionally crossing parts with his brother without greater acknowledgement than a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ passing between them. He ends up having to move back in with his parents where he declines further and gradually assumes the obese, toothless and scarred figure by which we encounter him on the story’s first page. Central to the portrayal of David’s life as an adult is his and his girlfriend’s struggle to conceive—another Sisyphean endeavour they end up having to abandon because his spermatozoa for reasons inexplicable to the doctors are malformed (they either have two tails or two heads). For David this is a sign that he is not free of the family curse and will always be twinned with his brother’s presence.

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After the gruelling fifth volume, the last book works liked a hushed coda told through family snapshots like the ones described above and a number of poignant dreams transcribed into comics, which elegantly moves the story to its close, when David finds a kind of answer in the twisted and forever changing face that has followed him all his life.

THE FACE
David B.’s description of his childhood, his dawning understanding of the world around him and his family’s history, is a rarity in comics. With the exception of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991), it is perhaps the most complex and wide-ranging work of autobiography in the medium. Epileptic shares with this earlier masterwork its slight narrative detachment to the material, its clear demarcation of the author’s agency and its lack of sentimentalism. As mentioned, David B.’s deeply personal cartooning activates his narration to create a work of great oneiric and emotional power. The text of the captions is neutral in tone (what David B. himself, employing a common French literary term, call “écriture blanche”—‘white writing’), while the images frame and expand the narration symbolically and emotionally. They are so codified that they would be almost impossible to follow on their own—the text anchors their subconscious statements in a common reality.

David B.’s cartoon language is whimsically occult, yet compellingly clearly articulated. His drawing style finds its roots in that of Jacques Tardi, but he is markedly less physical in his approach. Concrete people and events intersperse hypothetical and allegorical ones, creating a unique portrait of the author’s consciousness. His innovativeness is apparent in how he visualises abstract ideas—perhaps most notably in his depiction of his brother’s epilepsy, first as a dragon which writhes its way in and out of his body or joins the family at the dinner table, later on as black furrows twisting Jean-Christophe’s face and body.

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Epileptic is a tour-de-force of comics storytelling funded in the iconic forms of traditional cartooning, which it uses to construct a rich polysemy unparalleled in the history of the medium. Working on several levels, from the prosaically physical to the symbolic and the spiritual, it is perhaps the most expansive attempt yet to represent human experience in comics. Its appeal for empathy is immediate and compelling, while its meaning remains elusive. The mapping of his brother’s face through comics that David B. undertakes, and articulates most clearly in the last volume, is another attempt to encapsulate this essential ambition of the work—the deep complexity of a human face as elusive metaphor for a life.

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Originally published in Rackham #2 in 2000, revised and expanded in 2004 for the Rackham website. Other installments in this series: Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory.

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