This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on December 29, 2009
Just about every reader of David B.’s memoir Epileptic recalls the four dream sequences that highlighted the closing sections of the book. Purportedly dramatizations of actual dreams, they were obvious allegories of the cartoonist’s complex and conflicting attitudes towards his older brother. These passages are among the book’s most intriguing and powerful moments. They cast the book’s drama in a new light, enriching the meanings and resonances of everything that came before. These kinds of strips have always been a hallmark of David B.’s cartooning. His first major work, Le Cheval blême, was a collection of dream strips. (The book, whose title translates as The Pale Horse or The Ghostly Horse, is unavailable in English. Apart from four pages printed in the interview with David B. in The Comics Journal #275, I have not read it.) With Nocturnal Conspiracies, he has put out another such collection. The book compiles 19 strips adapted from David B.’s dream journal entries between December 1979 and September 1994.
The strength of the dream material in Epileptic gives one high hopes for this new book. One wants to see if, divorced from a larger context, David B. can make the dream narratives effective on their own terms. One hopes for him to create a range of new tropes that would explode across the collection and, like the best poetry and fiction, make it worth repeated reading. Given the time frame in which the dreams occurred, the potential is there for them to enrich a reading of Epileptic as well. Unfortunately, the book is tedious. The strips are dull by themselves, and they don’t create enough of a dynamic relative to each other for their juxtapositions to be compelling. The pieces are often just a showcase of one trope after another for David B.’s self-pity, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy.
Several strips indicate a fear of being aggressive, even (or especially) towards heroic ends. The first in the book, “The Leper,” asks the reader to consider four heroes or leaders relative to one another. The only thing they have in common is that their identities or personalities are somehow hidden from followers, subjects, or those on whose behalf they act. “The Cemetery” builds on this, with David B. showing himself to be afraid and suspicious of taking the heroic mantle. He adopts the role of man of action, but he breaks down crying after shooting a terrorist to death. He is unable to find any rapport with a woman he is attracted to, even when they share circumstances that demand mutual reliance. The attitude being dramatized appears to be that one cannot be a hero and acknowledge oneself, and that there is no fulfillment in heroic actions. “The Attic,” “The Eye” and “The Shaft” all depict David B. avoiding bravery and fleeing foreign armies, an act of fear that “Cats and Tigers” takes even further: David B. shows himself refusing to join a group of locals, armed only with shovels and pitchforks, who have gathered to fight back. One perceives that David B. considers himself a coward relative to societal conflict. He also unconsciously seems to be looking for a way to rationalize this tendency.
The book also leaves one with the impression that David B. is quite anxious and fearful sexually. The depictions of sex betray an extreme self-consciousness relative to the act. The people shown having or about to have sex constantly find themselves in the presence and judgment of others. In “The Attic,” a king and queen are forced into the act by a group of ravenous, man-eating monsters, who proceed to sodomize him and eat her. “Cats and Tigers” features an encounter with a prostitute that is disrupted before she and David B. can begin. He realizes that they are being watched by a figure that is an amalgam of her son and his pet cat. “A Love Affair” has him frustrated in his desire to have sex with a girl he loves because she is sleeping aside a morbidly obese woman. (That woman is a symbol for any number of sexual anxieties.) It seems that, for David B., sex only brings shame and humiliation, with the disdain of others a given.
The most pathetic moments occur in the dreams dealing with David B.’s literary and artistic tastes. They are filled with anxiety over other people knowing his tastes. “Windows” shows him fleeing a carousel of books by a favorite author when he hears people coming. His rationale is that he already has one of the author’s books in his pocket, and he doesn’t want them thinking he is a thief. But this is clearly a trope for the fear of being discovered with the author’s work at all. In “The Serials,” he shows himself sifting through a number of papers in his studio. He encounters a number of drawings that grow progressively more gruesome and titillating, only to be told by his mother that they were his grandfather’s favorites. It’s a classic example of displacement and projection. He cannot acknowledge his interest in this material, so he has to give it the approving imprimatur of his grandfather and mother. One is ultimately left wondering if there is anything that doesn’t fill him with anxiety.
The amount of personal insecurity on display is embarrassing. One wants to scream at the author to lighten up. He isn’t entirely lacking a sense of humor. “The Heads” is an entertaining bit of slapstick, and “The Cowboys” is an amusing allegory of a freelance artist’s dealings with disinterested art directors. But he cannot seem to shed a cloyingly earnest tone when he depicts himself and his feelings of helplessness. One senses he takes himself way too seriously to play the clown. Self-deprecating humor doesn’t seem to be his style.
One could forgive David B. everything--the self-important tone, the failure to create any significant narrative tension, the self-pitying nature of most of the material--if he had just given the reader some powerful imagery. His style here is somewhat different than in Epileptic. The panels are larger relative to the page, which makes the images bolder, and he makes elegant use of the shades of blue he uses as a second color. The book looks very sharp. But the secret to making dream imagery compelling is to give it a sense of tactility or sensuality. Salvador Dalí’s dynamic photorealism achieves this in his paintings, and the effect is not beyond the reach of cartoon styles. Chester Brown’s art in Ed the Happy Clown made one viscerally feel the breaking and piercing of the characters’ bodies. That imagery is nearly impossible to shake off, even years after one has seen it. But David B.’s sleek graphics are almost instantly forgettable. They are there to be looked at, not felt. Some of what he shows should be terrifying, such as the image of a naked man with his wife’s decapitated hands and feet tied to his limbs. One is almost afraid to contemplate what Dalí or Brown would have done with such an image. But with David B., it carries no impact. One’s eye glides over it on the way to the next panel, which promises to be just as cold and affectless.
Nocturnal Conspiracies carries a certain irony. The 1990s almost turned the word “autobiography” into an obscenity for English-language readers of alternative comics. It was the result of one autobiographical piece after another showing its author to have an uninteresting, often pathetic life that he or she was too self-important to have any perspective on. In the 2000s, works like Epileptic helped reinvigorate the genre. The best work of the past decade has often been an autobiography of some sort. In Nocturnal Conspiracies, David B. gives the reader a memoir of his unconscious, and he shows he can be just as dull, narcissistic, and self-pitying as the cartoonists who once gave the autobiography genre a bad name. The man who did as much as anyone to lead comics memoir out of the aesthetic wilderness has now pointed the way to a new wasteland.