The story starts in 1964 in Orléans, France, home to the Beauchard couple: educated, upper-middle-class parents of a son, Pierre-François, and a daughter, Florence. Their oldest child is Jean-Christophe, and at the age of 7, he suffers his first "spell" (his mother's term for a seizure). But the seizures are to last Jean-Christophe a lifetime, and if there's a cure, the poor boy's parents never find one. It's not for lack of trying.
They begin by putting Jean-Christophe in the care of a devilish neuroscientist, but the surgery he plans horrifies them. Then they try macrobiotics, then acupuncture, then spiritualism, then magnetism, then exorcism, and between every failed treatment they resort to every form of esoterica, including that old standby, the Ouija board.
But Jean-Christophe continues to suffer, and Florence begins to suffer (from anxiety bordering on psychosis in her teenage years). Pierre-François does more than suffer, however. He taunts his older brother into having seizures, even as he identifies with his brother's escalating malady. He studies history's bloodthirstiest leaders, and he studies both world wars, because, like his brother, Pierre-François is a boy under siege, enraged. So he armors himself from society but not from the family ghosts or the imagined ghosts that haunt or befriend him. He draws up invented stories, and he draws up his own story: imagery in the starkest blacks and whites (shades of illustrator Félix Vallotton?) and imagery that goes from the naturalistic to the wildly surrealistic in the space of a single page.
The text that accompanies these images is every bit as memorable: great at capturing adolescent cruelty and powerlessness, greater at capturing adult helplessness and compassion.
No wonder then that David B., an award-winning illustrator and founding member of L'Association, a group of progressive cartoonists who banded together as publishers, has helped revolutionize European comics. His high-seriousness and literary merit are something to see. The closing page of Epileptic is something to shed a tear over.
But the publication of Epileptic in its entirety is also something to be grateful for. First published in installments in France from 1996 to 2004, those installments were collected and published in hardback in the U.S. in 2005. The paperback edition is available now. The publisher, Pantheon, should be congratulated. American readers should be thankful.
By David B.
Text translated by Kim Thompson
Pantheon, 363 pp., $17.95 (paper)