We all speak so true, our eloquence so silver, our wit so gold.
Featuring “the creme of the crop” from the Golden Age enigma’s mad body of work, plus an original 16-page comic by Karasik on the topic of Hanks’ mysterious disappearance. I’m hoping for some extra biographical info - the comic book form didn’t hit it big until Hanks was over 60, and his career only lasted a few years before he vanished. He was perhaps a man of demons; according to one of his sons, Hanks was a paranoid, violent person, “the most no-good drunken bum you can find,” who once threw the boy down a flight of stairs and struck him nearly mute for half a decade. This was long before the elder Hanks entered comics, but the often cruelly furious violence of his superhero work screams of both a genre’s untamed essence and an artist’s individual vision.
You might remember Hanks from Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969, or maybe the cover of Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, or even a certain 1983 issue of Raw (Vol. 1, #5). But these were only tastes - soon we’ll have a fuller glimpse of the man’s work. I can’t wait!
The newest release from L’Association co-founder David B., the continuation of his latest longform serial to be presented in English, the supplement and funhouse mirror twin to his masterful Epileptic. Issue #1 was released in the US in 2004 by Drawn & Quarterly, but this second installment arrives courtesy of Fantagraphics and their Ignatz line of deluxe pamphlets - it’s mostly the same dust jacketed, 32-page, 2-color, 8 ½” x 11” format as D&Q used for their issue, though Fanta’s book is two dollars less ($7.95), and printed on sturdier paper with somewhat larger image reproduction. Original translator Helge Dascher has been replaced with Fanta’s own Kim Thompson (who also translated Epileptic), and Paul Baresh steps in for Tom Devlin on the new English lettering.
The changes in localization personnel aren’t all that obvious from the work itself, though the continuing strip on the dust jacket seems to have now been given the broader title of Acta Zoologica, to replace issue #1’s content-specific A rooster’s tale, though I am unsure if this was a translation choice or an alteration made by David B. himself to the French original (the numbering on the strips remains unbroken - this issue giving us parts 3 and 4 - thus triggering my interest). It's something to note regardless, especially given the careful balance attained by these strips - they leave unbroken a thread of thought begun in issue #1, yet present their own self-contained story, one that still manages to capture the essence of Babel thus far. Sitting Bull is performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and is given a trained horse as a gift. Later, Sitting Bull is confronted by Indian police, and a deadly firefight erupts, claiming the aged man's life. His horse hears the gunfire, and believes itself to be participating in another show, and instantly launches into its routine of tricks and acrobatic stunts at the scene of the killing. The Indians are stunned, and believe the horse to be dancing as a means of opening the way to the afterlife for Sitting Bull - the horse is, after all, is a traditional psychopompic beast, an animal that can guide the human soul to and from the land of the dead.
It's all there. War, symbols, myth, miscommunications, mysticism, and the human struggle to make sense of what they see. That's what Babel is all about, but David B. knows that sorting it all out is no easy task. The dust jacket strips of issue #1 followed another psychopomp, the rooster, which was once placed below the bed of those suffering from epilepsy - in the past, such a malady was seen as a repeating, temporary death, the product of demons grasping the soul from beyond the mortal plane. Luckily, the bed was seen as a symbol - the frame representing the human world, the empty space below the underworld - and a rooster was thus placed below the bed to rescue the afflicted's soul from evil, and guide it back to the body and secure health. Throughout Babel, epilepsy is used as its own symbol, for the dark power of the unknown, the hand descended from above to smash our achievements and muddle our tongues, the grasp of doom that humankind can never seem to evade.
That's kind of how Epileptic went too, with its fixation on how his older brother's titular sickness held tight everything and everyone in the surrounding area - but, in spirit, the earlier book was still autobiography, albeit filtered through the dream vision of the tale's teller. Babel, on the other hand, openly resists any sort of classification. Each issue is made up of several chapters, all of them bearing some sort of banner indicating what shall be found inside ("Memories," "Night-time Conversation," "Story of Stories"), though the total effect is one of an intensely iconographic comics lecture by the author (with plenty of excursions into fable and history and dream and dialogue), maybe the only proper means of conveying his ideas: at one point, David B. quotes Jean-Luc Godard on the rise of the interplay between words and pictures in '60s society, "language in and of itself... inadequate to the task of defining the image with precision." This fits right into David B.'s thinking on how far-off peoples became known through potent photos and sensational words, the 'Cold War' hot enough for them. War is also epilepsy, and often a failure of communication - therefore, our author must communicate through the powerful means of comics. Words and pictures, working together.
Babel could only ever be a comic, from its most expansive themes right down to its basic mechanics. David B.'s visuals are chock full of what can only be done in sequential art, his vivid, bluntly-rendered characters often transformed into symbols in order to enhance what the ongoing narration is telling us - the character art is often so direct and simplified that the reader does not notice when the author occasionally resorts to simply describing what we can plainly see. His soldiers resemble ghostly magazine cartoons, his native tribes thickets of spears and sticks, and something extra can always be gleaned. But more often, David B.'s grasp of the form is outstanding, certain character poses carefully mimicked on later pages to establish recurring themes, conversations expertly paced, and grand moments of text/visual literalism judiciously dished out, fighters becoming actually wrapped up in a long caption detailing the many violent fronts of the 'Cold War' of the superpowers.
All that I've just mentioned is to be found in this issue, not just the work as a whole. It's obviously intended to be a single book in the end, the page numbering even picking up at 33 from last issue, but this particular package stands alone well, even as it halts in the middle of a story. War, as I'm sure you've noticed, is a major motif, and we get two to compare. First, there's the strange, mannered combat of the Papuans, a tribe that accepts battle largely as a means for young men to prove their power, combat reduced to nearly a game - it all becomes a symbol for the innocent play of young David B. (birth name: Pierre-François Beauchard) and his older brother Jean-Christophe. But then we move to the French conflict in Algeria, young men sent off to die over questionable goals - "You project your image everywhere" notes David B. as we glimpse a twisted, bombed-out armored wagon, and it's clear that the world's epilepsy is again ready to flare up, another temporary death for humankind, only allowed new breath in waiting for the next attack.
It's not happy material. It's hardly light, though I would not say it's difficult at all to grasp, so intuitive is David B.'s grasp of the form, and so empathetic is his authorial eye. He screams at his brother in mock combat, and he screams at walking streetlights after the sickness strikes. "I'm gonna smash everything! I'm gonna kill everyone!" That's the impulse, yes, and the author is hardly immune. But maybe we can understand through comics. Maybe language can be more potent this way. Maybe we'll have a cure for what can only be diagnosed. Maybe this time. Maybe, says David B.