It's rare for me to jump head-first into a book, simply because they require -- usually -- a hefty investment of time. There have been instances when I just get sucked into reading something, like Chuck Palahniuk's "Survivor" or David Lee Roth's "Crazy from the Heat," but the prevailing sentiment is usually one where the cost-benefit analysis just screams out, "Run away fast!"
But I recently, through the use of the Barnes & Noble employee book loan program, picked up the book "Epileptic" by French cartoonist David B. Like so many others, I'm attracted to an interesting, visually appealing cover, and, as you can see, "Epileptic" certainly has that.
I first noticed it, basically by accident, during one of my look-off-into-space boredom sessions back in B&N's music department. After scanning the store aimlessly, my eyes fixed on the Biography section, located almost directly in front of the music department. And there, leaping off the shelves of dried-blood maroons, earthy browns, and innocuous Roy G. Biv's, was this black-and-white beacon with a little yellow window where two cartoonish people were peaking out.
Immediately, I was drawn to the book like a fly to one of those blue shock lights. But I braced for a let down. In most cases, the adage "you can't judge a book by its cover" is correct -- really neat covers are usually a mask for crap. So imagine my surprise when I began to leaf through "Epileptic" and found a book truly deserving of its neat-o cover.
Between its canary-yellow hardcovers, I discovered a 360-plus page black and white graphic novel -- in the Biography section! -- about the relationship between David and his older brother, Jean-Christophe, his parents, and the world around him. It's heartbreaking, beautiful, and haunting, made all the moreso by David's wildly wondrous drawings, his candor, and his point of view.
Jean-Christophe is epileptic, putting a strain on his parents as well as the relationship with his younger brother, Pierre-Francois (who would later change his name to David). Trapped in himself, a prisoner to his disease, his parents pursue every imaginable course of treatment -- medical, holistic, New Age, spiritual, and everything else in between -- to unlock the mystery of Jean-Christophe's epilepsy. And while they do this, the brothers retreat into themselves as a way to cope.
Jean-Christophe is fascinated by Hitler and Stalin and the admiration these leaders garnered during their days in power. At one point, David says his brother is feeding his megalomania by indulging in this hero worship.
So what is David doing, then, when he seeks refuge in the bloody, violent histories of ancient and medieval societies, warfare, and conquests? By reading about Gengis Khan and Atilla the Hun, David begins drawing his interpretation of the battles and people he reads about, setting him on the path to becoming one of France's most important comic artists and writers.
And while David's hobby allows him to interpret his brother's disease as an evil monster lurking in Jean-Christophe's shadow, his brother only retreats more and more into himself, becoming lethargic and, ultimately, border-line psychotic. Of course, the medicine he's taking doesn't help those matters much.
The story David unfurls in the pages of "Epileptic," which is a collection of a series of "Epileptic" books that were originally published in France, is as gut-wrenching as it is heart-warming. This is certainly because David excels as a visual storyteller, but also because it is very easy to put yourself in his position, as a brother unsure of how to have a relationship with his brother because of this extraordinary circumstance. This is especially true if you have a brother yourself.
Reading David's and Jean-Christophe's story, I could imagine how hard it must be to have such a strained relationship with my brother who, while not epileptic, displays or has displayed some of the tendencies Jean-Christophe is portrayed as having. And I could see a part of David in myself. It's a far leap for the relationship I have with my brother to get as bad as it does between David and Jean-Christophe, but just thinking about it -- in whatever context -- is too difficult to bear.
Very few books have been able to accomplish such a feat for me. After reading a really good book, I usually feel satisfied. But after reading "Epileptic," I felt something different. It pulled me in and wouldn't let me go, much like the obsessions of the characters in the book. Few authors have the simple honesty and nuanced pychosis as David B., which lends itself to a masterpiece of modern creativity -- even if it does exist in a "lesser" artform like a graphic novel.