We had a fabulous chat with David B on Tuesday, with fit audience though few including many of the Drighanchoo team. David B is his pen name: he was born Pierre-Francois Beauchard, but in a series of significant steps changed his name.
I was surprised and gratified to know that he has authored more than 30 books: in the English-speaking world, the single work by which he is primarily known is the epic comic book series L’Ascension du haut mal, literally ‘The rise of the high evil’, translated as Epileptic. This originally came out between 1996 and 2003 in six ‘albums’ in the characteristically large European page format, and for the English translation was reduced in size and published as a 700-page behemoth. This repackaging somewhat dampens the impact, because David B often produces a very intricate page which suffers somewhat in the smaller format.
The cover (or rather dust jacket) shows the stark black and white signature style that David B has developed and the tessellated patterns he frequently uses. The yellow patch is actually a window in the dust jacket through which the two characters peer out.
The two characters are David himself, going by his birth-name Pierre-Francois (his change of name allows his child-self to become a character in the story) and Jean Christophe, his brother. The epileptic of the story is his brother; this is meant to be his brother’s story, but it also takes in the blast radius of Jean-Christophe’s effect on David, his sister Florence and his parents. Jean-Christophe suffers from an extreme and debilitating form of the disease. It started when he was seven, and he would have major seizures several times a day. When one imagines what this must have meant in real terms for the family, one is struck with wonder that they were able to cope with his problem at all.
The story opens with the two main characters already young men. Jean-Christophe is enormously fat, his teeth are broken and his body scarred from his many seizures. He is befuddled by strong medication, struggling to do something as normal as brush his teeth. The authorial voice comments that this was the first time David really saw his brother, saw what the illness had done to him. He’s able for the first time to see Jean-Christophe objectively as a person, rather than a ‘brother’ in the way a child sees someone who’s a fixture in his life. This opens the door on the past, when this objectivity was yet to develop.
David B transcends autobiography in this work, for many reasons. One is the nature of the challenge which the disease presents to Jean-Christophe and the other siblings. It is a disease of the brain, but also of the mind, it preys on ancient fears fo death and dissolution, and the fear fo sleep that all children have at some point in their life. David B brilliantly portrays this in a number of striking visual metaphors: the disease is a man-sized monster that follows the children around, or a huge coiled dragon. David himself often appears as a knight in armour: the boy who wants to save and protect his brother and be a hero, as boys will.
But the armour also symbolises the distancing he must achieve from his brother’s illness in order to save his sanity. As a highly imaginative, dream-prone artistic person, the ghost of epilepsy haunts him too; when very young he fears he will catch it. At the same time, there is deep and painful sympathy in the way he portrays his brother’s attempts to build a life for himself, an attempt which finally fails. The section which shows Jean-Christophe walking the streets of Paris, having a seizure and getting beaten by the police who assume he is a junkie, is heart-rending.
The startling energy of the artwork clearly stems from a very young child’s attempts to make the monsters go away, or failing that to give them a space where they will be happy and won’t spill over where they aren’t wanted. David does what artists have always done with intolerable things: he puts it in the art.
The story traces the long drawn out battle waged by the whole family on the disease: the exhausting search for a cure which becomes wilder and wilder as the more rational options crash and burn. New drugs are tried: they either don’t succeed or, stopping the seizures, turn Jean-Christophe into a raving schizophrenic.
David’s parents believe in New Agist wisdom, visit lots of gurus and try all kinds of alternative cures on Jean-Christophe, with little success. They even indulge in planchette, looking in their troubled family history for an answer. Finally David loses patience with all of this. He identifies his mother’s obsession with a cure as a desperate attempt to avoid facing the fact that his brother was sick and would never get better.
The really terrifying part of the story is how it looks pitilessly into the nature of the mind, into the cavernous dungeon of horrors we all carry around within us, and puts faces to those things.
David B’s personal search for meaning leads him to become an artist: the motive power behind it is the looming threat of his brother’s fate. For David the choice becomes ‘draw or die’. However, in the 1980s, there are few venues for him to showcase his work, and to that end he teams up with a group of artists and writers and forms L’Association in 1990. From then on till the epic split in the group in 2005-6, L’Asso published all his work. Other artists include Lewis Trondheim, Joanne Sfar, and the incredible Patrice Killoffer.
L’Association had a clear mandate to shake up the comics (or BD — bande desinee) culture of France. Always ahead of America in the sophistication of themes and artwork, France’s comics scene got ready to launch the next wave. L’Asso really made their mark in 1999 with the epochal anthology Comix 2000. This was literally 2000 pages long with more than 300 creators, arranged like a dictionary, and is now worth its weight in gold.
However, shortly afterwards, one of the original founders, Jean-Christophe Menu, had disagreements with the others, including David B. David left in 2005, followed by Trondheim and others.
The world, alerted by coverage of the controversy in the French media, woke up to the story and showed new interest in David’s work. Pantheon published Epileptic, and the Comics Journal scooped everyone else with an exclusive interview with David B. Actually it was an even better scoop: the first part of the interview was conducted by Matthias Wivel at the Angouleme International Comic Arts Festival in 2002, where David B won a prize for volume 4 (the books had been nominated repeatedly before this). The second part was conducted in 2005 just months after David B left L’Association. In the second half of the interview David declined to comment on the split, ranging instead over his life and work. He spoke in detail about the difficulties of writing autobiography, and his interest in the occult and in dreams.
Dreams provide the material for Babel, one of his most disturbing series, which takes the iconic style he developed for Epileptic to a new level. We saw breathtaking images of this at the JU talk. In addition there was an account of the Biafra war that hit you between the eyes. It’s only to be hoped that more of David’s work becomes available to us in the future.
Many thanks to the French embassy for bringing David B. over to India as part of the Bonjour India series of lecture tours.