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Babel
By David B.
Published by Drawn and Quarterly; $9.99 USD

The first volume of David B’s epic graphic novel, Epileptic, which was released in English in 2002 in a combined effort between Fantagraphics and L’Association, was an extraordinarily personal tale chronicling the struggles against epilepsy suffered by David’s brother. Reminiscent of Spiegelman’s Maus, Epileptic uses an incredible array of artistic talent to convey the emotional impact of this frustrating illness. The disease and its symptoms are repeatedly portrayed as monsters or demons, some attacking, others just lurking in the shadows, all serving as visual metaphors for the pain and terror that these seizures cause. Epileptic is an underrated example of the graphic storytelling medium at its best.

So it was with incredible excitement that I discovered David B’s new comic, Babel, in stores last week. B’s first new work since Epileptic had somehow flown below my radar. I didn’t know it was coming out, and given my love for this particular artist, you can imagine my excitement at discovering it sitting on the shelves, nestled between issues of BabeForce and Batman.

In Babel, David B. continues his exploration of his brother’s battle with epilepsy. But where the first volume of Epileptic describes the events of this fascinating illness in a traditional memoir style, Babel uses the artist’s dream journals and assorted childhood memories to portray a deeper exploration. Babel is not so much a story, as a collection of short, seemingly unrelated fragments. The back cover describes it as “Dreams, Mythologies, Memories, Stories,” which, while technically accurate, does not necessarily prepare the reader for what awaits inside.

The book opens with a young David recalling a series of dreams where he is first introduced to “the King of the World,” B’s metaphoric god figure who, to the young artist, represents the quest for answers to why his brother must suffer. B’s artwork in this section, as throughout the book, is as rich with visual metaphors as any work in recent memory. Streetlamps drawn like stick figures sprout arms and legs with which they move frustratingly away from illuminating the truths so desperately sought. Demons with jagged teeth, like those found in a Mexican mandala, lurk in every shadow, representing the ever present threat of seizure. “Prehistoric fish” with “a carnivorous bestiality about them” float across the background of young David’s dreams, reminding him of his connectedness to his ancestors, and indeed the entire history of the world.

The story progresses to an “introspection” as B recalls the events of his brother’s first seizure, and the tortured dreams that followed. Again the artist is haunted by the ever-changing face of “the King of the World” who now appears as the “image of power” – the power that his brother has lost to illness. In one 4 page sequence we are presented with an homage to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland as young David dreams he is chasing Genghis Khan’s army, only to wind up finding his brother, imprisoned in a tiny shed. Yet again we are presented with the idea that these seizures are a prison in which both the artist and his brother are helplessly captive.

Near the end, there is a rather lengthy interlude where the artist attempts to portray the “seizures of the real world” by exploring the civil war in Nigeria, an apparently potent memory of early childhood media exposure. But the retelling is clumsy, perhaps due partially to the translation from French, and comes off as a rather pedestrian high school history report, and in the onslaught of facts and names of obscure political figures who will be unfamiliar to most American readers, the deeper point is lost.

Yet despite the minor distraction of the text, the artwork used to illustrate this particular scene captures the ravages of the conflict in Nigeria brilliantly. B uses full page spreads, with overarching images of political figures serving in place of panel borders. The technique is effective, and reminiscent of Will Eisner’s best work. The red ink shading, a familiar style in D&Q books, also serves the story well in this sequence, bathing the panels with the blood of the two million lives lost in the war.

Babel is a complex, ambitious work -- one that, admittedly, required multiple readings on my part before it all made sense. It is a highly recommended, thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated (if slightly overpriced) companion piece to Epileptic. Ultimately B. concludes that it was his brother’s struggle with epilepsy that led to his decision to make comic books. “I used my pen to go down into his seizure ravaged body and explore,” he writes. Yet despite the artist’s best attempts, the “King of the World,” at the end of the work, remains frustratingly elusive. Thus B’s own answers also remain, as they must, painfully beyond his grasp. Babel is a work that not only cuts to the core of what inspires an artist, but also seeks answers to those unanswerable questions about illness and suffering that we all confront at one time or another. Grade: 4/5

-- Marc Sobel



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