Wednesday, May 29, 2013

David B Explosion

Other than his epic, classic Epileptic, there's been precious little of French master David B's output available in English. Dribs and drabs appeared in anthologies like Mome (later collected in The Armed Garden And Other Stories), short collections like Nocturnal Conspiracies, and single issues like Babel. The last year has seen three major releases in English by a cartoonist who's on my short list of Greatest Cartoonists Alive. They all share his emphasis on spotting blacks to create an atmosphere of oppressiveness and mystery, as well as mixing fantasy and reality in such a way that it's difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Above all else, David B is about propelling his stories ever forward, leading the eye briskly across a page filled with often ghoulish and frightening details.

Britain's SelfMadeHero published his Best Of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations (Part One: 1783-1953), written by historian Jean-Pierre Filiu. Though not written by David B, his imprint is all over it. Indeed, Filiu also writes this text as something meant to be playfully told, which plays out in the first chapter when he inserts speeches from George W Bush and Dick Chaney into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In a crisp and clear manner, Filiu hits the main highlights of the nature of the relationship of the US and the Middle East, plainly calling out barbaric behavior on both sides without demonizing either. His analysis of the early 19th century conflict between the US and the pirate city of Tripoli was astute and fascinating, and he couldn't have called upon a more appropriate artist than David B to illustrate it. Indeed, anyone who's read Epileptic knows that as a child he was obsessed with drawing battles with huge armies, frequently Arabs or Moors. The weight of the French-Algerian conflict pressed his imagination powerfully as a child, as did the history of conflict tied to beliefs in general. The juxtaposition of holy wars and obscene loss of life, that conflict of life and death, is at the heart of much of his work.

It was also interesting to read about this US-Tripoli conflict in part because it's little-taught in most American textbooks. I would imagine one reason why is that the US never scored a decisive victory; it was the actions of others that ended Mediterranean piracy. The chapters "Oil" and "Coup d'etat" get at the heart of US gunboat diplomacy and expansionism. In this age of Islamophobia, it's fascinating to read about how the US was once firmly on the side of the Palestinians retaining their land, in part because of the blatant (and self-avowed) anti-Semitism of key US policy makers. Without as much fighting to depict, David B cleverly depicts otherwise dry pages regarding negotiations and backstabbing with images of characters stretching out and acting as part of oil pipes. The "Coup" chapter carefully details the first time the US openly overthrew another world power, as they conspired to bring down the Iranian government and install the Shah. In a lesson that is never learned, one must always be careful of the allies one makes under duress in order to achieve a short-term political goal. While Filiu is a witty and incisive historian, there's no question that it's David B's brilliance that makes this such a lively read, and the model for all future history books that are published in comics form.

Also published through SelfMadeHero (and in the US, Abrams Comic Arts), Black Paths is David B's masterful blend of fact and fiction. Set in the aftermath of World War I in a small northern Italian city, the factual aspects of the book are every bit as crazy as the characters and stories that he makes up. The city of Fiume is taken by Italian war hero Gabriele D'Annunzio, a poet-soldier whose followers set out to establish a utopia as they seceded from Italy and opposed planned annexation by Croatia. This real-life figure is brought to life spectacularly by David B, who depicts him as a tiny, bald figure with eccentric tastes who is strongly influenced by the Dada movement. While his story is an important part of Black Paths, providing its most colorful and funniest scenes, David B also inserts a heist storyline and a love story into the action of a city that has descended into a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is "nasty, brutish and short". Fistfights constantly break out in the city, while Italian criminals are using it to ship stolen goods into and out of. The heist is the least interesting aspect of the story, but David B wisely shoves it to the back of his interests as soon as all the principal players are introduced.

Instead, he's more interested in examining the psychology of World War I through the eyes of Lauriano, a soldier who is also a writer and thinker. His share of the heist cut is getting access to the beautiful singer Mina, a strongly self-possessed woman who nonetheless is looking for a way out of the sheer, violent chaos of Fiume. She mostly functions as a kind of lens on Lauriano's nature as she tries to understand his pain and his overall plan. Indeed, it boils down to Lauriano undergoing a kind of trauma where he sees a dead soldier friend who urges him to arrange a burial despite the fact that his body is unavailable. In a dizzying climax that sees David B go way over the top in terms of mistaken identities, audacious plans (a tank becomes involved), spiritual gestures that are really gags (a statue of St Francis that's a running joke as a McGuffin suddenly becomes the key to resolving the final conflict), everyone winds up with a happy ending. Of course, David B doesn't stop there, as a speech from Mina earlier in the book both fleshes her out as her own person and reduces Lauriano back to his component parts: books. This is a thinking man's genre comic, jam-packed with action and excitement yet still steeped in history, unexpected character development and truly unexpected twists.

There's an easter egg for David B readers in Black Paths in that Lauriano writes for a publication called Incidents In The Night. That is a reference to an earlier work by the same name, which is one of David B's densest, craziest and most entertaining comics. Recently translated by novelist Brian Evenson and his daughter Sarah, I'd rank this only behind Epileptic as the author's most personal and audacious creations. It feels strongly influenced by classic conspiracy stories like Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, but it also has elements of autobiography and long digressions on history that fit into David B's usual storytelling tendencies. Many of David B's early comics were inspired by dreams and had a certain dream logic in how they depicted the facts and images of the things he encountered. Incidents In The Night starts out that way, as he dreams about finding a publication by that name in a bookstore. When he wakes up, he visits several esoteric bookstores in an effort to see if it actually exists.
This book has the trappings of a detective novel before it mutates into a book about conspiracies and mysticism. Instead of smoky bars or creepy temples, the action takes place in bizarre bookstores, including one with mountains of books that effectively require an archeological dig to find anything. The magazine turns out to have been begun by a Bonapartist named Emile Travers, who has managed to escape the Angel of Death (a prominent character) by leaping from book to book. Along the way, David B gains the power to take on the form of paper or shadow as he his forced by Travers to find a way to protect him from the angel of death. Along the way, David B has a long discussion with a bookstore proprietor about the history of genocide, and the terrible, forgotten Greek god Enn, the god of extermination and oblivion. The book's plot becomes increasingly complex as Travers' initial plans become deadlier and more morbid, as he slaughters an office of journalists he hired to reboot the magazine as a sacrifice to Enn. David B picks up allies in a journalist who seems destined to double as a romantic interest and a tough policeman who specializes in esoteric crimes, but the book (conceived to be the first of several) ends on a surprising cliffhanger.

Every theme, idea and interest of David B is distilled in this single book. Destruction, genocide, cults of personality, mysticism, conspiracies and the tiniest clues in unlocking them, the protocols of secret societies and forbidden religions are all here. The book also directly and metaphorically touches on something very important: David B wants immortality as a writer. He wants to cheat the Angel of Death to become, like Lauriano, a man composed of the books he wrote. While Travers initially seems to be an example in how to do this, what he really wants is Nothing: oblivion, the void, the extermination of all that his memorable. No wonder he hides out in an imaginary book called "The Desert", which consists solely of the letter "n": an invocation of and prayer to dread Enn, an almost Cthulu-like presence who literally looms over the book with the giant N on top of Travers' image. David B's art wasn't quite as polished here as it is now, as there's a little less detail and a little more white space. Still, his character design, story flow and stark nature of the imagery are all flawless and striking. Here's hoping that American publisher Uncivilized Books is able to translate future volumes of this story.

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