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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Last month we looked at the career of Marjane Satrapi. This month we’ll examine the career of one of her largest (or at least more apparent) influences, Pierre-Francois Beauchard, better known by his pen name, David B.
As one of the co-founders of L’Association, David B. became a major force in the small press comics scene in France and, along with fellow cartoonists Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, helped usher in a major sea change in the general Eurocomics scene.
Heavily influenced by Jacques Tardi and Georges Pichard, his comics combine dream imagery, symbolism and an expressive, highly dramatic use of shadow and ink to an almost hypnotic effect, creating comics utterly unlike anything else being produced these days on either side of the Atlantic and making David B one of the most innovative and significant creators working in comics today.
There’s no better place to begin than with Epileptic, David B’s magnum opus. His lengthy and harrowing chronicle of how his older brother became stricken with epilepsy and how that severe and debilitating illness all but destroyed his family is a phenomenal achievement and one of the finest comics of the past 20 years. Certainly it puts shame to just about every other autobio comic out there, navel-gazing or not. Apparently it did poorly for publisher Pantheon as it can’t even be bothered to list the title on its current website. Copies abound on Amazon and elsewhere, however.
Babel, a loose sequel of sorts to Epileptic, where David not only discusses his relationship with his brother and family, but also delves into politics, history, colonialism and the horrors of war. Part of the experimental Ignatz line, only two issues were published and the series sadly remains currently uncompleted, though, according to Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson, David supposedly plans to complete it at a future date and publish it as a single book.
After you’re done reading Babel, continue on to The Armed Garden which collects three of B’s short stories, all of which were serialized in the anthology Mome: The Veiled Prophet, the title story and The Drum Who Fell in Love. The book highlights B’s interest in mythology and cults, and features some really striking tableaus. Completists should purchase the book from the Fantagraphics website, where they can get an additional mini comic, The Trip to the Moon.
Dreams and dream imagery loom large in David B’s comics, so it should be no surprise that he did a whole book about his dreams, Nocturnal Conspiracies (published by NBM, now out of print). While not quite as powerful as Babel or Armed Garden (more than few of the dreams feel slight), the book definitely has its moments, especially where David’s art work is concerned, and is a good next stop on the tour.
David B recently teamed up with historian Jean-Piere Filiu for Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations. Released in the U.S. by British publisher SelfMade Hero the book details the cultural gulf that has existed between the two regions since America first became a country. For those interested in foreign relations (and who isn’t) it makes for fascinating reading, and David’s imaginative art (cannons grow legs, turbans become oceans) goes a long way towards making the history lesson palatable. (Note: SelfMade Hero also plans to release his new graphic novel Black Paths in spring 2013).
David B took a detour into children’s literature with The Littlest Pirate King, an adaptation of Pierre Mac Orlan’s story about a little boy that is adopted by a crew of undead pirates. As you might expect, the artist does wonderful things here with churning seas, underwater monsters and the skeleton crew. The ending is profoundly sad, enough to make me hesitate before handing it over to any young child (to say nothing of some of the bloodshed on display) but adults can read it without fear, though you may find yourself getting a bit teary-eyed at the end.
For those wanting background material, The Comics Journal #275 features a nice interview with the artist, courtesy of Matthias Wivel, which is especially notable as the artist talks about the reasons why he left L’Association in 2005.
As of this moment a treasure trove of David B’s work remains untranslated, including the Journal D’Italie sketchbook, La Lecture des Ruines and Incidents de la Nuit. Not to mention his numerous collaborations with folks like Joann Sfar, Emmanuel Guibert and Chris Blain. I’m still waiting for someone to translate La Revolte de Hop-Frog. None of these works should be avoided, but until their translated, and assuming your French is about as good as mine (which is to say, terrible), you might want to save tracking down these books for last.
Thanks to Kim Thompson for his help and advice selecting untranslated titles.