There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
For most of his life, French cartoonist David B. has suffered from epilepsy. He is not, however, the eponymous epileptic of his graphic memoir—that distinction belongs to his elder brother, Jean-Christophe. Epileptic is the story of a victim once removed, shaken not by the convulsions of seizures but by their powerful familial ripples. When, as a child in ’60s Orleans, Jean-Christophe begins to collapse into seizures, his parents embark on an exhaustive quest for a remedy. No prospective cure, be it magnets or macrobiotic communes, is too flaky. Sketching the communes, B. has some fun at the expense of the despotic hippies who populate them. “All these apostles of inner peace are a sight to behold whenever my brother has one of his seizures,” David observes, as the New Agers dart disapproving looks at a spasmodic Jean-Christophe. But for the most part, Epileptic isn’t the funnies. Jean-Christophe’s seizures—and concomitant helplessness, which he makes little effort to overcome—hijack his family. The narrative’s candor is bracing: During one episode, David confides, “I’ll slap him under the pretext of getting his seizure to stop.” In the next panel, “I throw in a few kicks.” But this violence is less heartbreaking than subsequent installments of their relationship: As students, transplanted to Paris, they quickly scurry from an awkward encounter on the street; later, a hug at home dissolves into embarrassment. Visually, B.’s drawings don’t compare to the expressive virtuosity of, say, Joe Sacco (who donated a generous blurb to the jacket). Where skill ends and style begins is, of course, difficult to determine. B.’s most effective rendering is of his brother. With a blank gaze, elongated triangular blob of a nose, and lips ever ajar, Jean-Christophe is a repulsive creature. During seizures, drool hangs from his mouth, elbows thrust outward, and fingers curl ghoulishly; “Hnnnggg…” is the transliteration of his seizurese. B. masterfully transfers to his readers the guilty nausea he endured. The book occasionally feels like a catalog of attempted cures and updates on David’s life, but memoirs are prone to this weakness, adhering as they do to the arbitrary facts of a life’s course. Still, the tale achieves a woeful potency. “[W]here is he gone to?” David wonders during one of Jean-Christophe’s fits. His brother’s disease, like an outstretched arm gripping David by the shoulder, both connects them and keeps them arm’s length apart.