Graphic Medicine #3: ‘The Epilepsies of the War’ in David B’s Black Paths by Maria Vaccarella

12 Aug

Three newspapers and eleven books arranged on a bed in the shape of a man. Though familiar with David B.’s brave visual metaphors, at first I struggled to make sense of this image from Black Paths, his 2007 graphic novel published in English last month. I had often browsed in amazement through his outstanding embodied depictions of epilepsy in his best known work Epileptic, and was now confronted with a disembodied protagonist, Lauriano, a former soldier, a cunning bandit, a crafty seducer, and an experimental writer, reduced here to a display of printed pages on a blanket. And among them, a newspaper entitled Incidents de la nuit, just like David B.’s collection of oneiric graphic tales…

The more I looked at the panel, the more I felt an invitation to read through those books and newspapers, in order to evoke Lauriano’s presence and access his complex psychology, just as his lonely lover Mina had been doing in the novel. This blog post is an account of my personal exploration of Lauriano’s ‘portrait in newsprint’. I hope it will help set the atmosphere for 2011 Thought Bubble Comics Forum’s conference on day 2 about Graphic Medicine: Visualizing the Stigma of Illness, which I am organizing with my colleagues Ian Williams, Columba Quigley and M.K. Czerwiec.

Based on the historical, yet surreal, interwar siege of Fiume in Croatia, violence and literary echoes permeate the pages of Black Paths: an anthropomorphic bunch of scattered books could actually symbolize the whole graphic novel. Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio’s project of establishing an aesthetic republic in Fiume – a whole new concept of avant-garde state – relied on a collective post-war frenzy, whose inner incoherence and violent manifestations are well explored in the book. A meaningful moment – no matter whether historical or fictional – is when D’Annunzio and his collaborators think of summoning all the madmen from Italian asylums to appoint them as political advisors: a paradoxical utopia, reminiscent of Jean-Christophe’s project of leading a ‘revolt of the handicapped’ in Epileptic.

While the historical character of the artist ruler is relegated to the background of Black Paths, the fictional character of Lauriano emerges prominently among the endless urban fighting and the shared frantic rhetoric of Fiume. But rather than a traditional hero, Lauriano is a man on the run, from rival gangs and from himself, and the reader strives to follow him through the pages while collecting fragments of his story. An explanation finally comes from the sceptical account of his friends to Mina: Lauriano is obsessed with his dead comrades’ ghosts, he is affected by shellshock, the much stigmatized “male hysteria”. David B.’s style hits its highest point, as he carves out the imaginative visual projections of his protagonist’s mental distress: disproportioned bodies and spirits fill panels to the brim, often morphing into animals, a vivid reminder of resurfacing brutal instincts and primal fears in men at war. You could see the shadow of Septimus Smith, the highly iconic shellshocked soldier in Mrs Dalloway, behind Lauriano’s back. The author’s crafty balancing of the blue-gray palette in the trench panels conveys the feeling of relished solitude in the midst of a brutal conflict, reminding me of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem Vigil, in which he explores his innermost feelings during a night spent beside the slaughtered corpse of a comrade in a trench.

At the launch of Black Paths in London, Paul Gravett asked David B. the question that had been puzzling me, since I first heard of this new graphic novel: ‘What is the relationship between the violence depicted in Epileptic and the violence depicted in Black Paths?’ To which, David B. replied by pointing out that in Black Paths, he had illustrated ‘the epilepsies of the war’. He referenced here a longstanding representational trope in Western literature: epilepsy as a signifier of chaos or as a metaphor of social upheaval. I couldn’t help thinking of Elsa Morante’s History (1974), an unconventional historical novel about World War II in Italy, seen through the eyes of the humblest people, above all a primary school teacher, Ida, and her young son, Useppe, who both have epilepsy. The illness is ultimately a powerful metaphor for Morante’s distrustful view of the history of humanity, ‘a scandal which has gone on for 10000 years’ (as the cover subtitle to the first edition stated). A further proof of this is one of the novel’s working titles, Il grande male (the Italian for grand mal/tonic-clonic seizure), which more literally means “the great evil” and which might refer to the world war and/or to totalitarianism as well. Or, as literary critic Lucia Re wrote, ‘a metaphor of History itself as an endlessly destructive mechanism, whose seemingly gratuitous and arbitrary yet faultlessly consistent logic selects the most innocent victims as targets of its violence.’ (1993, 365)

David B. articulated one of the most compelling graphic accounts of illness-related stigma in Epileptic, and this creative experience resounds in crucial moments of Black Paths. Though mainly focused on the controversial aesthetic drives in totalitarian ideologies, Black Paths also conveys the profound sense of loneliness and incommunicability at the core of many mental illness experiences, which complicates their socio-cultural perception and any attempt at effectively eradicating the stigma often attached to them.

Dr Maria Vaccarella is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London. Her main research field is narrative medicine and she has worked on medical-themed graphic novels, particularly on epilepsy and breast cancer. She is particularly interested in graphic depictions of illness embodiment and in how graphic illness narratives are being used in medical and patient education.

Comics Forum 2011 is supported by Thought Bubble, the University of Chichester, the Henry Moore Institute, Dr Mel Gibson, Routledge, Intellect and Molakoe Graphic Design.


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