Babel #1, by David B.
By Friday morning it was pretty clear that I didn't like most of the comics I bought last week. The best were merely clever; the rest were lifeless exercises, written to fill another month, bought because they showed up on my pull list, exactly the kind of comics I told myself I wouldn't read anymore.
So I went out and bought some different comics. Not a particularly highbrow bunch: the Batman: Son of the Demon reprint, Brave New World (at $1 it only had to be one-third good, and so it was), a collection of seventies Justice Society stories, and Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk's delightful Agents of Atlas, reuniting Marvel's 1950s characters for a spy/sci-fi romp. (The Nat King Cole playing in the background when I read it was perversely appropriate. I recommend you try it yourself, with smoking jacket and pipe.) These are not all great comics--some of them, in fact, are crap--but they all seem sincerely glad to be superhero comics, which is more than I can say for the ponderous wheel-spinning of Daredevil or 52.
But the comic that restored my faith in comics was the first issue of David B.'s Babel, published by Drawn & Quarterly back in 2004.
I hadn't read any David B. until I caught this review of The Armed Garden by Jog, which indicated that the serial of war, debauchery, and talking geese brought a unique approach to the literalized representation and concretized language that have recently caught my eye. I picked it up as a kind of scouting mission for the next book project, and because a recommendation from Jog is usually enough for me (speaking of which, thanks for pushing The Grizzly Man!). Now I'm thoroughly hooked on David B. This means I'll probably have to buy another volume of MOME filled with amateurish, derivative indie work just to get The Veiled Prophet, but I'm on the trail and I won't be dissuaded. It's one of those rare cases where my professional interest intersects so perfectly with my reading pleasure that I'm reminded why I went into academia in the first place. Amazon discount, here I come!
Babel is a companion piece to the acclaimed Epileptic. It's a dream comic somewhat akin to Rick Veitch's Rare Bit Fiends, but it's also a chronicle of the Biafran war and an autobiographical account of how his brother's epilepsy affected his own development as an artist--all of David B.'s signal themes (I gather) roiling together to produce this strange fusion of surreal visuals and frighteningly real terrors.
It would be foolish to talk about the ways these themes converge--they're never really separate--but the obvious overlap is a common focus on images and the power they hold over the mind of young Pierre Francois (David B.'s alter ego). Only images can record his brother's spasmodic contortions. Only images can convey the terror of a murder or a civil war. Only images can describe the King of the World, a mysterious dream figure who is also the King of Images, yet "his face is always ambiguous and elusive." Wielding power over images but screened from them, the King of the World "is the image of power" to Pierre Francois, a graphic hypostasis of all the power his brother and his family lose following the onset of the epileptic seizures.
But even more grandly, more discomfortingly than that, the King of the World is the image of power itself, and the image of the imaginary itself. He's not just the brother's lost power or the proof of the breakdown of language implied by the comic's title; he's any breakdown or abuse of authority (helpless doctors, a smack from Dad, a civil war) and all the pain that rushes in to fill the void, from Orleans to Biafra. He exists outside language and therefore, in Lacanian terms, outside the entire symbolic/parental order that fails Pierre Francois and his brother, but he is just as exempt from the images he commands. (This prohibition against seeing the imaginary authority is something I expect David B. develops in The Veiled Prophet as well.) He is power subject to no power, the thing that can't be symbolized or pictured, the way we shut out the trauma of the real and the trauma we shut out.
If these thoughts seem half-formed, that's because they are; "half" is probably too generous by half. The most exciting thing about Babel is that it gives me too much to think about, and that's really all I can ask for. (What was all that stuff about the African charity in last week's Batman review if not a reviewer desperately looking for something to sink his teeth into, and not finding anything else?) It helps that David B. stirs these ideas together with consummate skill, his figures blurring the line between letters and images, individual panels also forming full-page designs.