I was lounging in a children’s hospital ward, waiting for someone to determine the cause of my epilepsy, when a Hungarian friend of my mother’s arrived with two books by Lobsang Rampa, a self-styled Tibetan lama who was really an Englishman named Cyril Hoskin. That visit came to mind while I absorbed the words and pictures of David B.’s graphic memoir, Epileptic (Pantheon). The book recounts the long search by David B.’s well-educated French parents for a cure for his older brother’s tonic-clonic seizures (then called grand mal epilepsy). They consult psychiatrists and neurologists, and when these fail they seek out psychics, homeopaths, Rosicrucians and a spiritual magnetizer who sells them “catalyzers” to harmonize their bodies. They join macrobiotic communes and read everything they can about the mysterious rhythms of the universe, which have gone so awry in the body of Jean-Christophe. They gradually realize that his disease is also a metaphysical virus that eats into their lives, governs all their actions and fills them with guilt and anger. Epileptic is a personal memoir that snakes through histories of the occult, and of the European wars that lie uneasily in the family’s shared memory. The war against the disease consumes and inflates the brother’s body, which in some page-sized panels becomes a world of its own, through which the family move as if in a maze.
David B.’s drawings recognize no borders between the visible world and the imagined. His elegant black-and-white panels writhe with dragons and spirit bodies, as domestic scenes spill into tableaux of Mongol battles in which an enemy can at last be seen.
By the final pages, in which the narrator gallops on horseback through the defining conversation he has never had with his vanquished brother, we have been given a vivid tour of a district of Hades—in which, as Homer tells us, the shades can speak only after drinking the blood of the living.