Andrew P. Art: Epileptic by David B.

David B.’s Epileptic is one of the most impressive and visually stunning graphic novels that I’ve read so far. It is steeped in a commentary on war, ideology, and spirituality as much as it is grounded in dynamic family relationships. What impresses me the most is how highly stylized David B.’s work is, yet I’m drawn into the stark reality of Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy. The text of Pierre-Francois’s narrative often draws attention to how we are affected by ideology. I particularly appreciated the focus on Eastern vs. Western ways of approaching disease and health. Throughout the various communes that Pierre-Francois’s family visits, each places an importance on altering diets and practicing mindfulness. The Western doctors that the family visits, however, all focus on experimentation, pushing the limits of science and medicine. It’s not too often that a work manages to bridge the divide between ideologies. Such attempts may come off in the text as clichéd window-shopping for meaning. Even though this is exactly what Pierre-Francois’s family is doing, David B. manages to capture the psychology of this constant deferment of solutions in a sobering manner.

Although this is roughly an autobiographical work, I still think that this story’s most shocking element is that its perspective is not from Jean-Christophe. The oddity lies in the fact that we are learning about a disease from a second-hand source. This oddity is also what makes the work all the more gripping. Some may consider this work an appropriation of Jean-Christophe’s disease, a convenient plot device that might thicken the soup. This is not to suggest that a graphic novel written by his brother (who would have first-hand experience) would be any worse or better. Instead, David B. is telling a story from his perspective, which allows us to learn about Jean-Christophe’s disease alongside Pierre-Francois. The psychology of an individual experiencing a disease is quite different from a family member who bears witness to a loved one going through that same disease. The panels depicting Pierre-Francois and his mother having dreams about curing Jean-Christophe is one of the most touching things that I’ve ever read. As readers, we are not called to sympathize with and praise Jean-Christophe’s family members over Jean-Christophe for enduring such hardships that are a result of his condition. However, we are called to empathize with the situation. We all have valid stories worth telling. In this graphic novel, we are given the privilege and opportunity to learn with a family – David B.’s self-criticism shines through with his adult perspective.

The visual motifs that David B. inserts within his artwork contributes to the seemingly impossible clean-yet-grotesque aesthetic established in this graphic novel. The depiction of the dead grandfather as a man with an ibis head is so beautiful and subtle yet manages to transfer so much anxiety into this work. The ibis, as an agent of death in Egyptian mythology, serves as a constant reminder of our mortality. This ibis head is what looms over the two brothers on the cover of the graphic novel. It is also what appears to Pierre-Francois throughout his adolescence. What haunts us is often the unknown. Our own sense of mortality is the ultimate known yet-unknown. This is the paradox the Epileptic is wrapped up in. One of my favorite panels sums up the importance of this world. One page 304, the panel is dark, Pierre-Francois is headed back to his parents’ house and must climb a wall to reach his destination, he says, “I’m passing over into the Other World.” This graphic novel is a passing over into the Other World. We are entering into the lives of a family who is completely in the liminal gray space of the world. In between Eastern and Western, disease and cure, war and peace, wholeness and fracture. Epileptic is able to objectively illustrate these binaries by thriving in their muddled boundaries.

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Andrew P. Art: Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green

Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary transcends our cultural limitations we place on religion and sexuality. Green’s comics narrative is so grounded in an exposure of taboo, that it almost slips into the realm of confessionalist poetry among Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg, and Berryman. The introduction to Binky Brown provides a scaffold for the play of the holy and the dirty that will unfold before us. We see the artist, Green, bound up to an Inquisition-esque torture device, confiding in us that this narrative is not just for entertainment, but also for the sanity of Green himself. As the record player spouts a rendition of “Ave Maria,” we are made aware just how private of an experience we have the privilege of witnessing in this work. Binky Brown is a chance for us to sit in the confessional booth and learn something in the gray space that emerges when the tension between the sacred and the sexual is exposed.

The graphic novel’s sense of openness with regards to nudity and sexual exploration is its most jarring feature. The relationship between American ethics/values and Catholicism is stripped down, consumed, and altered by Green. Panels depicting Binky and his father urinating, nude women, and Binky’s concept of his parents engaging in intercourse may strike us – an American audience – as so wrong because we simply do not see these things depicted all too often in our visual media. Binky’s first orgasm, caused by a toy pig, is so absurd yet so real that I’m immediately drawn toward the honesty. These are things that are rarely explored, developed, or even talked about. However, I can remember seeing, imagining, and thinking about these things from an early age. Even at the beginning of the graphic novel we are thrown right to the core of our greatest moral conundrum: censoring these kinds of images does not simply make them disappear. I’m reminded of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, and in particular his theory of repression leading to expression. Binky’s repeated attempts to repress his sexual preoccupations results in visions of everyday objects becoming phallic. The more he tries to escape the images, the more they populate his world. One of Green’s most innovative techniques comes out of Binky’s repression here. The beams of light that shoot out of the phallic images create anxiety inducing scenes. Coming from every direction, there is little hope of evading their sinister effects. This visual technique opens up what our society rarely talks about: the fear of the unknown that accompanies our first experiences with sexuality. Green’s depiction of the soul as a blackening lung is an image that I actually thought in terms of while going through Catholic school. It is in these images that Green is saying things that no one else was saying at the time. I’ve found that most successful literature makes me pause and realize, wow! I’ve thought that too! Green, like Plath and Ginsberg, is certainly saying those things.

I was deeply moved by the (for lack of a better word) climax of the graphic novel, and its ability to psychoanalytically marry childhood trauma with our very adult desire to be free from that which shaped us. Binky ultimately destroys the statues of the Virgin Mary with the beams of light that traumatized him before. Even though he is freed from the plague of Catholic guilt, he ironically uses the beams (an extension of the guilt) to rid himself of the guilt. This is the problem that many of us face. Our childhoods really do shape us in ways that we are not always aware. Green uses the sacrilegious, the grotesque, and the unholy to show us that we cannot possibly escape the constraints of a childhood trauma without being honest with ourselves first.

We are all a sum of our experiences. Any attempt to hide those experiences from ourselves will result in a tumor that we willingly feed our own sanities to.