David B. has long been suffering from that unforgiving problem of having defined his career with an early masterpiece. His L’Ascension du haut mal, or Epileptic, which was originally published 1996-2003, remains one of the most stirring and complex works ever created in comics, a high watermark of autobiographical cartooning and a singular artistic vision. Needless to say, following up a book like that is hard. And it’s even harder when its focus is the great tragedy in one’s life, the narrative around which your identity is constructed. In comics, it is what one may call the “Maus conundrum.”
In contrast to Art Spiegelman who has created very little of note — indeed very little at all — since his masterpiece, David B. has remained prolific. Most of his work is strong, but none of it quite measures up. Among the most interesting, post-L’Ascension, are its addenda in Babel (2004-2006), which is brilliant in passages, but remain addenda. The dream comics in Les Complots nocturnes (2005) and the recent part imaginary diary, Journal d’Italie (2010), similarly displays flashes of brilliance and suggest fruitful new directions, but everything remains tentative, as if the foundational work’s center of gravity maintains its smothering hold.
Anyway, to get to the matter at hand, I have just read two of his most recent books: Les Faux visages, a fictional paraphrase over the infamous “Postiches” gang of bank robbers of the 1980s, illustrated by the talented Hervé Tanquerelle, and the first part of a historical account of relations between the United States and the Middle East, illustrated to a script by noted Middle East historian and politician Jean-Pierre Filiu, Les Meilleures ennemis (just released in English as The Best of Enemies).
Both are interesting, especially if one has followed the work of David B., but at the same time seem to circle that inescapable centre, providing little sense of escape. The former superficially reads like a crime narrative, following the traditional arc of greatness and fall. It is ably cartooned by Tanquerelle, who lends personality to his characters and weight to their bodies and actions. The account of mounting tension during a formative robbery for the gang is especially impressive. I don’t know much about the historical “Postiches”, but it seems evident that David B. has done away with most of the facts to concentrate — appropriately, I guess — on a story about identity dissolving into self-destructive work.
The real “Postiches” were famous for disguising themselves during their robberies, rather than merely using masks. David B. charactertistically ties this to one of his favourite authors, Marcel Schwob’s novel Le Roi au masque d’or (1892), and makes of it a potent metaphor. He and Tanquerelle, thus, leave their main characters hard, bordering on impossible, to identify through large parts of the story (appearing in the guise of classic French-Belgian cartoon types), underscoring their eventual decline and disappearance into delusion, paranoia, and violent death. Still, the book lacks in characterisation and its somewhat predictable plot loses coherence as it runs. An entertaining and visually enjoyable, but slight book that gains a lot when read in connection with his more directly autobiographical work — much like his collaborations with Christophe Blain on Hiram Lowatt et Placido (1997-2001), his Schwob adaptation Le Capitaine Écarlate (2000), which he did with Emmanuel Guibert, and his overlooked La Lecture des ruines (2001).
Meilleures ennemis seems less driven by personal interest, reading mostly like a commissioned illustration job, with the captioned text relentlessly directing the reading experience. However, David B. has never been a straight illustrator, and as readers of L’Ascension will know, he worked a similar constellation of text and image to great results in that book. Here, however, he is visualising a historical account narrated drily by someone else. His symbolic interpretations of historical events are just as often trite as they are inspired. For every stimulating and imaginative visual idea, such as the use of a walking cannon as a leitmotif through much of the early history, there are oil pipelines with the heads of American presidents and officials coming out of them.
It holds together through David B.’s redoubtable skill as a graphic artist, with even the less interesting passages retaining visual oomph. And the characterisations of prime minister Muhammad Mossadeq and Shah Mohammed Reza of Iran especially are given a few notes of real poetic effect. In the end, however, it is too little really to sustain one’s interest, at least of one has grown to expect more from the artist who remains shackled to his own great story.