Speaking about one's self.

*I was directed to this fine website with promises of laffs; I was not let down. It’s the official homepage of “The Perry Bible Fellowship” by Nick Gurewitch, a weekly strip that’s appearing in several fine papers around our nation. Just click on the charming fellow wearing the birthday hat to reach the archives. This is just the sort of absurd depression humor that I adore, some of it so cruel and merciless that I chortle aloud. The style changes from strip to strip, from detailed and colorful to simple and cute. Best taken in small doses, yes, but definitely worth a look.

Babel Vol. 1

There are many familiar criticisms floating around our comics world in regards to autobiographical comics; ‘naval gazing’ is a typical term, ‘egotistical’ is another. All of us can recall more than one instance of some blinkered reader huffing that non-corporate comics are all a bunch of deadening screeds scribbled out by lazy twenty-somethings bitching about how their life is unfulfilling (yet strangely whimsical). As a blanket definition of the entirety of independent comics that’s nonsense, of course. But there’s a greater problem, I think. It’s not that, when applied to selected works, these criticisms are invalid on their face. Lord knows I’ve read a few dull, self-absorbed examples of the style. But by only characterizing the ‘autobiographical comic’ as a straightforward narrative offering a ground-level view of instances from a person’s life, there’s a certain denial of the potential that the autobiographical comic has. What is a dream comic but autobiography? Not the flickers of autobiography that saturate most fiction, but a story about the self, told by the self? The dream-life is as much a life as the waking-life. Rick Veitch just released “Crypto Zoo” last Wednesday, the third collection of his best work, his dream comics, “Rare Bit Fiends”. These are surely autobiographical strips. And yet, there is still the possibility of different forms. A dream survey and how it relates to the waking life, as individual perception and the forces of history shape the development of the childhood self into the Adult.

That’s how I can best begin to describe French cartoonist David B.’s latest US release “Babel Vol. 1”, a 32-page magazine-sized floppy from Drawn and Quarterly, a dust-jacket hugging its soft covers. Honestly I may be totally off, since I’m unsure as to how much of the story has been fictionalized; perhaps David B. (the B. stands for Beauchard) is only plucking scenes from his own life and utilizing traditional autobiographical comics techniques (the narrator directly addressing the reader, for example) to give a fictionalized narrative a greater sense of authenticity. But at the absolute least, reading the comic made me sensitive again to how much the autobiographical form can accomplish. Oh, and the book is really expensive. Ten bucks. It’s worth ten bucks, and I hope the rest of this little review will convince you to give the book a flip-through, at the very least.

I’ve not even read David B.’s most prominent book, at least to US readers, the two-volume “Epileptic”, half of which was released by Fantagraphics in 2002. The second half was never released in the US as a stand-alone volume; Pantheon will be releasing a new collection of the entire story in early 2005. I do know a little about “Epileptic”, and the plot of “Babel” seems to touch upon many of the same concerns. The story concerns a child, Pierre Francois, who lives with his siblings in the late 1960’s (as the author did). His older brother suddenly begins to experience epileptic seizures (as the author’s brother did), which greatly affects the household. But in the meantime, before and after this shattering event, Pierre Francois experiences wonderful and terrible dreams of immense primitive beasts, prehistoric fish that answer to the call of the King of the World, a muscular man-god whose face is an ever-changing mass of symbols, topped by a cat’s ears. And in his dreams, Pierre Francois can remember his family reading about the King, and he can see his ancestors living a parallel life on the ceiling, also discussing the King. It becomes clear to Pierre Francois that the King represents Power, and that there is no more Power in his house because his brother’s malady has baffled doctors and defied drugs and totally undermined the security offered by his parents. And even as these events play out, the world itself experiences seizures, as France (among other western nations) become involved in the War in Biafra in 1968.

There’s been a lot said online about how much “Persepolis” author Marjane Satrapi’s art style resembles David B.’s. I’ll concede that there’s some surface similarities in figure drawing, and a mutual tendency between the two toward the use of symbols to provide quick visual metaphor. But Satrapi uses these techniques in the service of a very straightforward narrative, often loaded down with text captions and thick clouds of dialogue, always made secondary to a realist view of her experiences. David B., at least in this work, puts far more stock in his use of icons, and allows his story to blend dream and realism at will, Pierre Francois’s adult narrator persona sometimes looming over his childhood self, accompanied by recurring images from his childhood fantasies. Images recur: an adult running through a doorway with a child in his arms, the grinning faces of pre-history fish. David B.’s skill at crafting simple, haunting visions of ancient beasties, seemingly pulled off of a scroll, or a cave wall, is formidable. But he’s truly gifted at providing single-piece visuals that tell a story all their own. Doctors poke around in front of a giant vision of the sick brother’s blank face, their own curious faces providing the brother’s features. The War in Biafra is depicted mainly in full-page splashes, loaded with iconic images of bombs and jungle leaves and soldiers; when pulled away from the reader’s face, the layout of many of these pages form skulls or grimacing faces, made up of the accoutrements and harvests of combat. It’s exciting art, filled with intellectual vigor and an energy that seems tapped from ancient sources, like the Power of Pierre Francois’ dreams.

The Tower of Babel was the place where all language was mixed as humankind failed to match their achievements to the power of God, as the story goes. “Babel” is also about language and power. The language of dreams and memory, of the relation between personal strife and global strife, and what those things tell us, and of the educational value of the icon. The power of the unknown, both in fear and hope, the unknown disease usurping the household and the search for the unknown source of strength. David B. is impressive in his command of the language of comics, and he wields a power of his own, the power to examine the known and the unknown aspects of his interior and exterior lives, and tell us something about our own dreams, our own security.

Even if he isn’t totally talking about himself.

Isn’t that something?