Every family has someone in it who has a chronic or terminal condition, to whatever degree, and the collective life of that family and all its members is defined to some extent in relation to the disease. But who tells the story of the family members who grow up around the condition?
One work that originates in France tackles this story and is an undisputed masterpiece of a graphic novel. It’s known in its native country as L’Ascension du haut mal, a phrase that can’t be translated fully with all its nuance intact.
“Haut mal” (“great evil”) in French is an archaic term for a severe epileptic seizure—now called, a little less ominously, grand mal (along with its less dangerous but no less incapacitating form, petit mal) in medical circles. The English translation of the book is simply called Epileptic. “L’Ascension” (“the rise”) in the original French title hints at the onset of a seizure, but also references the catastrophic effects of such a debilitating disease upon a family.
Written by legendary comics creator David Beauchard, better known as David B., Epileptic more or less chronicles the author’s experiences growing up with his older brother Jean-Christophe, who is afflicted with a severe form of epilepsy with frequent seizures. Like many autobiographical works, the underlying plot is relatively simple. Beauchard, in his early and teenage years, struggles to adapt to his family’s single-minded focus on managing his older brother’s condition. They explore every manner of Western and alternative medicine, at one point even relocating the whole family to a commune. They consult faith healers, spiritualists and even Rosicrucians, but no cure is found. Meanwhile, the author, already having discovered his artistic gifts (which would one day be used to express the story itself in illustrated form), retreats into a world of fantasy and imagination as a means of coping with this unsettled world.
So much for the plot: there’s not much to comment upon or judge, other than that it’s told faithfully and from the author’s recollections. The story doesn’t go too deeply into the medical aspects of epilepsy, providing just enough to lead the reader through Beauchard’s own journey of discovery about the disease. It’s the mode of storytelling that really makes Epileptic an unusual and memorable work. Without resorting to what may have been a predictable device of trying to show the experience of a seizure from Jean-Christophe’s point of view, Beauchard stays in his own experiences and uses phantasmagoria—the artifacts of his own, often tormented imagination—to show that his whole family became epileptic along with Jean-Christophe. The condition of epilepsy itself is depicted as a kind of infinitely-long, many-toothed dragon, reminiscent of the winged serpent of Central American mythology.
What’s especially interesting in this telling of the tale though, from Beauchard’s own perspective, is the transformations required of each family member, and the various ways in which they all chose to cope with the reality of Jean-Christophe and his disease. Beauchard’s selection of the name David (his given name was Pierre-François) represents his identification with the Biblical figure who overthrew a lumbering giant. The contraction of his family name to an initial is a way of compressing the formative years that preceded his independence into a manageable compartment, a way to distance himself so that he could even begin to tell his family’s story in a structured way.
Beauchard describes the evolution of his incredible talent as a process in which he learned to “forge the weapons that will allow me to be more than a sick man’s brother.” In doing so, he gives dignity to his brother as a human being, and delineates his own identity in opposition to (and separate from) the disease.
Some of the more touching moments in the story involve Beauchard’s reactions to various people who encounter Jean-Christophe for the first time, even those ostensibly qualified to deal with such things, like police (who appear when Jean-Christophe causes a public disturbance) and doctors. Despite their training, even these people make assumptions and judge. While Beauchard is candid about the difficulty of having a family member’s condition eclipse all normalcy, he is protective of his brother when outsiders see him.
Epileptic is drawn in a blocky black and white style influenced by tribal drawings, Celtic designs and metalwork, all of which are represented in the hard, black lines that delineate both the human figures and the fantastic elements in each panel. Beauchard’s style has invited comparison to two other famous illustrated works that are given literary credentials, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, both of which I’ve written about in this column in glowing terms. Spiegelman has acknowledged the influence, as has Satrapi. Beauchard was her mentor and teacher, encouraging her to write Persepolis, which has since become a much better known work than her former teacher’s.
On a personal note, I first learned about Epileptic when it was nominated, along with one of my books, for an Eisner Award in 2003. Beauchard and I were both put in the somewhat ambiguously defined category of “Best Graphic Album,” which some joked, comfortingly, was the catch all that could hold weird foreign books and other comics-related experiments that didn’t fit easily into other, more conventional award categories. (And surely there would have been an outcry had such books as ours been recognized in a category everyone expected a superhero or other more mainstream title to win.)
Alas, neither David B. or I won the award that year (that honor went to Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, which I will cover in another column, because it’s wonderful)—and I say with no false modesty that Epileptic should have won regardless—yet I still glow with pride that I was even mentioned in such company. I’ve followed Beauchard’s work closely ever since. You should too.