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Must the graphic-novel wars be fought over and over again? After Art Spiegelman's Maus, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Joe Sacco's Palestine and the notional mainstream acceptance of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and the Hernandez Brothers, is it still necessary to ask whether the graphic novel deserves to be recognised as a legitimate territory within the wider world of art and literature, or whether it is the cultural equivalent of a rogue state, tolerated on a case-by-case basis and constantly subject to guarantees of good behaviour?
The case against makes little logical sense, but it is easy to summarise. Words are good: they're in libraries. Pictures are good: they're in galleries. Words and pictures together are fit only for the juvenile or the semi-literate.
David B's sprawling autobiographical narrative Epileptic is the latest instalment of the case for. "David B" is the pseudonym of Pierre-François Beauchard, the Comics Journal's European Artist of the Year and winner of France's Aph'Art award. Epileptic was originally published in six volumes between 1996 and 2004. This complete edition appears in a crisp, vigorous, idiomatic translation by Kim Thompson.
The story is relatively straightforward; its treatment not so. When Beauchard is a nine-year-old child in Orléans, his brother Jean-Christophe, four years his senior, begins to suffer epileptic seizures of devastating frequency and intensity. Soon Jean-Christophe's ailment becomes the dominant fact of family life.
Neither conventional nor alternative medicine can provide any long-term solutions. The family then turns to mysticism, which yields no better result, though David B derives much satirical substance from misadventures in macrobiotic communes, with psychics and anti-psychiatrists.
Young Pierre-François retreats into fantasies of battles and warlords, drawing ever more detailed pictures and stories of medieval combat. Jean-Christophe develops an obsession with dictatorship: despite a dalliance with Lenin and Stalin, he is mainly fixated on Hitler. He wants to draw a massive illustration of a swastika flag for his bedroom, but ailment and medication render this impossible. He asks his mother and brother to draw it, but both refuse. "I wonder which is worse," Pierre-François muses. "The desire to draw a Nazi flag or the inability to do so." Jean-Christophe eventually embraces his illness: it provides him with the excuse never to have to grapple with the complexities of adult life.
The parents grow more and more distraught as all avenues for helping their increasingly dysfunctional son are closed off. Pierre-François becomes more withdrawn, burying himself in his ever-more-convoluted artwork and storytelling, and in protracted conversation with a posse of imaginary companions.
Pierre-François attends art school in Paris, where his first-year teacher tells him, "You're twisted, Beauchard. You always manage to make the viewer uncomfortable". This pleases the artist immensely. "Disturbing? That's exactly what I'm trying to put across... that's my real subject. Anxiety."
Epileptic is by no means an easy read in any possible sense. No one is going to use this book as an excuse to avoid dealing with "proper" literature. It is long, and its subject matter is as deep, dark and dense as Beauchard's artwork, which is blocky, high-contrast and reminiscent of woodcut illustrations to the grimmest of Grimm folk-tales. The ultimate justification for Epileptic's existence as a graphic novel is that it is nigh-on impossible to imagine it being anywhere near as effective in any other genre. Whether traditionalists like it or not, the graphic novel is the first-choice mode of expression for many profound sensibilities, seeking to tell tales as rich and complex as can be found in any narrative form.
Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published by Faber & Faber
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