Reviewed by John Pistelli
In his celebrated graphic memoir Epileptic, French cartoonist David B. gave a personal account his older brother's forty-year struggle with a severe and degenerative case of the titular seizure disorder. Epileptic records how the cartoonist's family, in search of a refuge from the havoc wrought by the illness, sought order in various spiritual disciplines, occult practices and communal lifestyles that were often derived from or reminiscent of totalitarian political ideologies. Our protagonist, young Pierre-Francois Beauchard eventually changes his name after learning that his parents did not call him "David" under pressure from his fascist-sympathizing grandfather, who said it sounded "too Jewish," and he leaves all the spurious doctrines behind to devote himself to his art. His creative breakthrough comes when he begins to record his dreams as comics. In this way, he gives communicable form to his chaotic experiences without bringing them under the iron rule of fascistic ideology -- an insight and an opportunity that his increasingly disturbed brother, a frustrated writer, sadly never gets to enjoy.
Now David B. returns to the Anglophone comics landscape with a dream journal itself. Readers familiar with the war-obsessed young cartoonist of Epileptic will not be surprised to see that the author dreams so frequently of geopolitics and other public calamities. While the prior book showed us how the private intensities of family sorrow get translated into the broader dialogue of art, this later volume depicts the horrifying upheavals that wail from our headlines as they pass through the refracting medium of the psychic interior. In a 1991 dream, for instance, David finds himself in "a desert in Africa," where he organizes a funeral for three mysteriously slaughtered men, one of whom was a friend: the final panel pictures a group of mourning African children with David's caption: "I weep." The next dream finds him "somewhere in Asia," accompanying a Cyclops-eyed reporter to a village besieged by the Khmer Rouge. As the murderous ideologues make a nonsense speech in the public square ("Long live Johnny Cash!"), David thinks, with the characteristic dream-affect of horror mixed with hilarity, "Those Khmer Rouge are really crazy!" Finally, in the collection's grim penultimate dream, a child leads David to a set of basement rooms where men in hats gun down children whom he is powerless to save. The book makes no mention of realities outside David's mind, but the omnipresent political violence represented tempts one to rewrite the subtitle as something like "nineteen dreams from the Cambodian genocide to the siege of Sarajevo."
B. carries off what could be overwhelming subject matter in clear compositions and deceptively simple lines: the book can be read in a half-hour sitting, sped along by uncluttered pages and an unadorned style that recreates the unwilled unfolding of dreams themselves. If some of the artistic inventiveness and density that made Epileptic a visual banquet seems absent here, it's due to the difference between the memoir's essentially realist exploration of how the imagination can transform the everyday and the dream-book's attempt to straighten the twisting logic of the unconscious imagination itself into narrative without realism's aid. But what might have been a cartoonist's whimsical holiday between masterworks becomes an important statement in its own right due to the force of grave themes. Neither the private suffering of an illness nor the public agony of violence and genocide can be explained, cured, or even glamorized by occult means. The public and private working-through of the artistic process itself, however, offers the consolation that fallible individuals can make sense of their bedevilment by the forces that would crush them. They are not the less crushed for that in the end, but the record of art testifies to the nobility of their struggle.
Books mentioned in this post