Created by: David B
Published by: Pantheon
ISBN: 0375714685 (Amazon)
Check out the Study Guide
I’ve known several people over the years who’ve suffered on and off (usually more off than on) from seizures of one sort or another. Fortune favouring me over them, I’ve never witnessed an episode and have only heard tales secondhand. I have however witnessed several faintings. The two are not really at all comparable save for the definitive theft of control from their victims. So while I’ve never witnessed an epileptic event, I am suitably horrified by the possibility.
Every person values control, and self-control above all. Children throw tantrums because they are denied control over a world that shuffles on heedless of their whims. Stereotypical mothers-in-law (and, I would hazard, all the other kind as well), bridle over the fact that another woman has usurped the office of responsibility for their son’s welfare. The lasting terror of rape is often described not as some revulsion for physical contact as such, but disgust or anger or horror at the abject violation of one’s right to control access to one’s physical self. Determinism and destiny are ideas that choke us on their callous disregard for what we want. Control is everything for us.
So it makes sense that David B’s recitation of life with a severely epileptic brother would stand as an unveiled monument to control. Control is the very thing that neither David nor Jean-Cristophe, the epileptic brother, possess. And in each their own way, they are desperate for it. After all, who wouldn’t be?
Jean-Christophe, the elder brother by two years, begins his rather-too-short battle with epilepsy when he is seven years old. He fights for a time, but quickly succumbs. Life without control is too hard on him. He gives in to the monster who’s been pursuing him and becomes a pathetic creature and burden to his family. He is never not human, but in the end it barely seems to matter. He is rage and sloth and mania. He cannot see control existing on any horizon and so he relinquishes entirely his hope in self-control to the end that he might become a burden on those who spawned him, exercising at the least a measure of control over the lives and schedules of his caretakers.
David, our Virgil on this descent into the heights of madness, is little better off than his brother. He is five when catastrophe hits his family with tidal force. The next fifteen years of his life are governed by his brother’s monster and his parents’ wild, grasping attempts to destroy it, or at least placate the beast. David is determined to fight and come out victorious. He will not give up control, even as it is wrested from his grip. He retreats to fantasy worlds, where he might gather strength enough to lay a siege in the real world. He makes his home among dreams and daytime imaginations, steeling himself against real monsters by governing those of his own creation. Fantasies being no match for the terrors of reality, he finally retreats to the last and weakest bastion of the truly defeated: a deep and abiding cynicism.
Epileptic, in many ways, is less the story of Jean-Christophe and more a cathartic journey by which David B can finally rid himself of his dreams, his fantasies, and his cynicism. And more than anything, it may be his way of finally exerting control over his life by coming to terms with the fact that he holds no control over such things and never will. It’s a powerful and compelling journey if one has the patience for it.
David B brings rigid control over the medium to bear as he tells his story. His power over the page is evident and his illustrations do everything to bring Jean-Christophe’s monster to life. Every page is tightly composed and dripping with ink. Some of these pages must have taken days to construct for all their detail and weight. Panels are busy with totems and arcana, filled with the ricochet of aberrant ideologies and failed solutions. Animals and warriors and skeletons and totems and signs and wonders fill the skies of the world David B illustrates. These shadows dance to convey the darkness that all at once swallows his entire family only to digest them piece by piece.
Epileptic is terrifying and needful, boring and important.
Portrayal of the syndrome is devastating, chilling readers with a possibility that is so far from expected that it can’t help but shock. In his own work* expressing the broiling dread that he feels from his own family’s monster, Steven T. Seagle says
You have to be willing to spit in the eye of fate to have a child. And you have to be willing to accept whatever comes your way. But what if the kid doesn’t turn out like you want. There’s so much responsibility in those little eyes looking back at you for so many answers.
There is no way to truly understand epilepsy or its power over the human frame, yet such explorations as David’s graphic memoir are essential. Epileptic incarnates the intangible and gives voice to the unknown. One may not come away having liked Epileptic but one absolutely retreats from the book with empathy, not just for Jean-Christophe but for the family his monster routinely decimates as well.
Epileptic was not necessarily a book I liked. It was, however, a book that is important to read. David B is incredibly talented and the history of his family’s cyclical relationship to his brother’s condition is defiant and essential.
*Seagle’s book It’s a Bird is, among other things, about Huntington’s Disease and the oppression its presence lords over the family of its victims.
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