Monday, August 26, 2013

Visions of Epilepsy from David B and Sam Humphries

Looking at two radically different responses to a life marked by epilepsy, Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose and Epileptic by David B.

Epileptic by David B
L'Association/Pantheon, 2005
Epilepsy, a blanket term for a range of varied but related neurological syndromes, often involve seizures that can range from minor to completely incapacitating, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations, often having adverse emotional effects on the sufferers and those around them. Two completely different graphic novels deal with this in their own ways: David B.'s ground-breaking memoir Epileptic deals with the effect his brother's condition has had on his family, and writer Sam Humphries' Sacrifice, a fictional take of one epileptic's journey from a writer who suffers from the condition himself.

Epileptic by David B. (the pen-name of L'Association co-founder Pierre-Francois Beauchard) was serialized in France between 1996 and 2004 as L'Ascension du Haut-Mal (The Rise of the High Evil) and released as one extraordinary volume by Pantheon in the United States in 2005. A memoir of Beauchard's upbringing and his brother Jean-Christophe's debilitating epilepsy and the profound effect that had on Beauchard's life and that of his family, Epileptic sits at the vanguard of the modern graphic memoir movement.

The memoir opens up with Beauchard visiting his family as an adult, and encountering his brother, a physical mess, his face and body racked with scars, out of shape and all but unrecognizable to Beauchard. Things then process chronologically from early childhood, beginning in Beauchard's idyllic youth in Orleans, France. But the innocence of childhood is shaken up by his brothers frequent seizures, and Jean-Christophe is diagnosed as epileptic. Sometimes his crippling seizures, which can last seconds or hours, are triggered by stress or high emotion, and sometimes they just happen randomly. Jean-Christophe's condition casts a pall over the entire family as they come to terms with their capricious, random effects and the lack of understanding from friends, neighbors, and authorities.

The time frame of the events in the book begins in 1964, and the public and medical understanding of epilepsy was scant and even contradictory, at best. Differing diagnoses and treatment schemes all fail to work on Jean Christophe's condition for very long, and soon the family finds itself repeatedly trying the services of obvious quack physicians, far-fetched dietary restrictions, and full-on cults replete with hippie communes and restrictive living practices. Jean-Christophe's condition is all but untreatable, and soon the darkness of his condition draws him down a path of depression and anger. Jean-Christophe withdraws into himself, lashing out at his family and pursuing dark obsessions, shutting himself off from the world. The entire family suffers through Jean-Christophe's disease and increasingly useless treatments, and soon have to suffer Jean-Christophe himself, a shell of a person given over to a darkness that spreads out all around him.

There is a repetitiveness to the family's cycles of quacks, cults, and diets, but whatever narrative deficiencies are made up for in Beauchard's consistently astonishing art. Beauchard's hyper-dense, stylized art frequently breaks down into abstractions of breathtaking artistry, visually representing both the horrible effects Jean-Christophe was suffering as well as the shadow the disease cast over the whole family. As Beauchard grows up, he is shown developing his artistic style and coming into his own as a fiercely unique artist with an original visual style unseen anywhere else in comics. The visual poetry of Beauchard's work in Epileptic is anarchic, bracing, explosive and always astounding.

But there is a certain self-absorbed coldness to the proceedings as Beauchard begins to remove himself from his brother's enormous influence. At one point it is mentioned that his sister, barely a supporting player in this drama, tries to kill herself. This event, which by any measure should be a significant turning point in the family's history, is glossed over without further comment, with ever increasing weight given to how this is all affecting Beauchard himself. This is a memoir of Beauchard's experience, after all, not a biography of Jean-Christophe or anyone else. But it seems Beauchard, in suffering under Jean-Christophe's shadow and the weight of the disease on the family, has gotten to a point past acceptance to one of complete removal. It would be oversimplifying things to suggest that there is a vein of resentment in Beauchard's approach, but perhaps this is all an understandable coping mechanism, a natural reaction to the first part of his life given over to another's suffering, then to the weight that person's increasingly negative personality.

Epileptic is a vivid chronicle of one epileptic's mental and physical deterioration and the effect the disease and the sufferer's experience had on those around him. It is a vibrant artistic response to a persistent, ceaseless trauma and a history of both a family and the medical and social approach to a complex condition at a place and time now passed. In Epileptic, Beauchard has crafted a masterpiece of graphic nonfiction that captures the physical horrors and emotional turmoil of a ravenous disease that will not release its stranglehold, and of a man who gave in to the suffocating darkness, taking those who love him down with him.

Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose
Humphries 2011-2013, Dark Horse 2013
Writer Sam Humphries has epilepsy, but unlike  he has it under some level of control. It was his experience with epilepsy (and an apparent obsession with Aztec history) that fueled his self-published mini-series with artist Dalton Rose, Sacrifice, now out in hardcover from Dark Horse. Hector is a suicidal epileptic slacker obsessed with Joy Division who finds himself having psychedelic visions during his seizures. Things quickly take a trippy turn during a particularly severe seizure when Hector finds himself captured by warriors from the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s. He's taken to Tenochtitlan - a city-state and an Empire founded on repeated human sacrifice - just prior to Cortes's conquest. More than just a brief seizure-induced hallucination, Hector's trips to Tenochtitlan become increasingly elaborate, lasting days, then weeks, then years. He learns the Aztec language Nahuatl and ends up playing an unwitting role in the sociopolitical and religious conflicts engulfing Tenochtitlan.

And its these conflicts that end up bogging down the book for a pretty large portion of the narrative. Humphries seems clearly well-versed in all things Aztec history, and there is a significant portion of the plot given over to the political struggle between the cults of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli. It's a bit too uninteresting and clunky (not to mention all the bloody long Aztec names and words), and the only saving grace is Dalton Rose's wonderful, highly colored art. Rose is able to capture the visually engaging setting of Columbian Mesoamerica as well as the psychedelic experience that Hector (and soon enough, the audience) goes through.

The more time Hector spends in Tenochtitlan, the more he is convinced that he is time traveling to the period, not just engaging in elaborate vision quests (as the Aztecs call his seizures). He resolves to change history, using his knowledge of the coming Spanish armada to take control of Tenochtitlan and attempt to defeat the Spanish and preserve and expand the Aztec Empire. Things don't necessarily turn out how he wants, and soon enough the plot takes a very Grant Morrison turn. The time traveling Hector, unmoored between the Aztec past he is trying to manipulate and the future in the 21st century he no longer wants, is given an ultimate choice that may result in seismic religious and cultural changes that will reverberate through centuries and entire divine pantheons. Ultimately, the slog through ancient Aztec politics is a bit much to endure, but Humphries and Dalton bypass any attempt at open-ended interpretation and deliver a whopper of a conclusion in the unexpected final chapter.

Both Epileptic and Sacrifice use the comic medium to cope with the subjective and often terrible trauma of epilepsy. David B.'s by-proxy experience and the impact on his family fueled his highly artistic memoir of the pain suffered by those who have to deal with the most severe forms of the disease. Humphries fictionalized his own experience, using it as a springboard to explore his passions and tell an odd little historical melodrama that morphs into a psychedelic journey to godhood. These are two completely different works attempting completely different things - David B. succeeds wildly, indeed being one of the best comic memoirs yet produced, where Humphries and Dalton fall a little short. But both have value as unique takes on a condition that effects millions of lives.

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