IT MAY HAVE taken some time, and Alan Moore’s penning of the perennially acclaimed Watchmen, but graphic novels have proven a force to be reckoned with in contemporary literature. Writers within the comics world are becoming less occupied with superhero stories and Archie-esque escapades, and have become more focused on the human element. Contemporary comics writers such as Craig Thompson, Julia Wertz, Dong Hwa Kim, and Nate Powell, among many others, have found success away from commercial fantasy, turning instead to introspection, sociopolitical struggles, disease, and everyday life. As equal but different mediums, graphic novels and traditional literature can now tackle the same fundamental subjects in tandem.
One of literature’s favorite subjects is the nature of art, especially the nature of books themselves. Graphic novels contribute as much as any other medium to the discourse on reading, its value, and its evolution. In fact, when comics represent the written word — using the benefit of a visual medium to depict books, bookshelves, pages, words, and even letters as drawn objects — we see exactly what the graphic novel has to offer. It is this kind of meta-narrative that we find in the works of French comics artist and writer David B.
Born Pierre-Francois Beauchard, David B. has developed a reputation as a comic book writer for transforming the mundane into something majestic. His most notable work, Epileptic, received widespread acclaim for its inventive take on the autobiography and moving, even magical look into the world of a family living with social disease. The book won many awards, including the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario and the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist. Since publishing Epileptic, David B. has authored several other books, such as The Armed Garden and Noctural Conspiracies, and has co-founded the L’Association collective — a French publishing house for comic books.
David B.’s latest excursion is the Incidents in the Night series, which follows the same template of magical realism and extraordinary events that permeate his other works. Incidents in the Night Volume 1 was released in 2013, simultaneously translated into English by Brian Evenson — an American writer with his own work in fantastical fiction: a short story collection, Windeye, and the novels Immobility, The Open Curtain, and Last Days, which won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. Evenson is no stranger to foreign languages in literature, having done translations for writers such as Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Éric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and Manuela Draeger, and has even had his own work translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Slovenian. Evenson helped introduce the majestic verses and mind-bending art of David B. to the critical eyes of American comic book consumers to great success. The release of Incidents in the Night Volume 1 saw David B. enjoy much of the same critical acclaim as Epileptic, receiving an Eisner award nomination as well as being named a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in 2013. Its follow-up, Incidents in the Night Volume 2, was released this May.
The first volume begins with a bookstore — in essence, an idea. David B. introduces the reader to a fictionalized version of himself inside a dream. In the dream’s bookstore, books are organized, and each volume is easy to find. The protagonist discovers a mysterious book, “Les Incident de la Nuit,” and the story launches off in a clear direction. But when the character awakens, he enters a world where books fill up rooms like water in a fish tank, and there are bookstores at every turn: literally every building shown in the first few frames is labeled with “bookstore,” or is some sort of library, drawn in freakish proportions. When the protagonist acknowledges, “when I wake up, I scour all the bookshops in Paris, in search of [the book],” we see him stand at the same height as buildings without any sign of surprise or concern on his face. Thus B. sets up the reader in an inverted universe, with the surreal acting as the mundane and everyday life relegated to dream worlds. In Incidents, inhabitants of reality would sooner see demons and physical letters wandering around the neighborhood than organized bookshelves and non-cartoonish faces.
This is further represented by the ideas of history coming into play, as the reader is introduced — I use that term loosely — to the histories of Napoleon Bonaparte and the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, which are presented with historical accuracy when mentioned in dreamlike flashbacks, and a twisted reimagining when brought into conversation during the present moments of characters’ lives. In this reality, Azrael — god of death in many mythologies — walks the earth freely and is a return customer at bookstores, literary enthusiasts can literally leap into books they want to understand further, Bigfoot wanders around bookstores as though he were in the woods, and words will literally defend themselves against vandals of literature.
With its frenetic plot and surreal themes, Incidents in the Night bears a closer resemblance to the works of Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luis Borges than that of Scott Snyder or Frank Miller. (Think The Encounter rather than Sin City.) Every bit of text within the dialogue bubble speaks to a more philosophical beat than other graphic novels. There are moments where the protagonist has to enter a dialogue with himself in order to fully comprehend the visually arresting world coming to life all around him. For instance, in one scene, the protagonist interprets images for the reader and states:
I am being made of paper. I wander through the forest in search of “Incidents in the Night.” Three hangmen each point me in a different direction. Books come to show me their marvels. Three books imprison me, I look for an exit by leafing through them. Around the bend of a page a door opens. I melt into the night […] I was able to take on several forms according to my mood: I could be a shadow, a skeleton, a paper man, or else the human I usually was.
While much of the story revolves around the main character’s search for a certain book, it appears as though David B. draws attention to the surreal to represent the mind of a literary fanatic. A character known as Travers is portrayed to be the epitome of this idea, as he is an immortal Rorschach-looking man with a book for a head and a penchant for escaping troubles by physically venturing through the lines of books. His connection with the main character, in terms of ulterior motives and other general interactions, remains somewhat of a mystery. Throughout the book, Travers looks to fictional David B. for help, but he ultimately proves detrimental. In a way, this could be the author’s attempt to reconcile humanity’s struggle with imagination: can imagination skew the conscious perception to the point of damage? Or could imagination expose the disadvantages of someone unfamiliar with literature and thus not able to offer much to the real world?
The art does further work piling on elements of the surreal. The style mirrors that of Maus and Persepolis: the black-and-white art; the physically rounded, caricatured citizens of the world; the cartoonish squiggle and sparse shading; and the heavy emphasis on negative space shaping a character’s features. The design, while simple, does not dampen the emotional impact of death scenes or other violent scenarios, and instead perpetuates the notion that all things come to an end and have their darker side, even when drawn in a naive fashion. Especially harrowing are the scenes involving Azrael, as well as the shocking final scene of the first volume, which begs the reader to question how exactly the story could move on after such violent acts.
Which brings us to the second volume of Incidents in the Night. Volume 2 remains faithful to its predecessor without merely rehashing a successful formula. The philosophical talks and bountiful surreal art are still present, but there is a tonal shift. This is a more noirish and less whimsical volume. Events from Volume 1, such as escaping an angel of death and resurrecting dinosaurs, are replaced by a murder mystery and shoot-outs involving hired goons fighting physical manifestations of letters from books. These changes do not replace David B.’s strengths in magical realism and esoteric musings; there are several points within the second volume that mirror the first: allusions to history (this time, parables about the Trojans and various European kings are presented), utilization of the surreal, and the idea of books swarming the lives of those who interact with the main character. But the noir element adds another layer to the narrative, as well as a certain level of intrigue for those looking for a little more speed to their reading when the philosophy and history elements get to be a bit much.
Where the first volume followed bookstore owners and other-worldly characters, the second adds new grounded perspectives. The reader is introduced to gangs, individually, and relatives of characters that have insight into big events. Commissioner Hunborgne, a relatively minor character from the first volume, is given much more room to speak and develop. We see a reporter named Marie, originally cast off as the protagonist’s sidekick or love interest, fully inserted into the murder case as a key investigator. A bevy of other characters are introduced, but the ideas surrounding the mystical and nurturing nature of books are far from relinquished, especially with the addition of the protagonist’s brother, who is as avid of a bookworm and seemingly far more knowledgeable.
The idea of books traverses this title, and their worth is tested by a series of violent acts and breakdowns throughout the story arc. Whether or not David B. wanted this to enter a discourse related to the state of books today is unclear, but Incidents in the Night deserves that kind of scrutiny. The series is filled with so many ideas, and so many visually thrilling panels, that one could not possibly excavate the entirety of B’s vision in a single read-through. If unpacked, the world he has presented in these two volumes traverses literature, history, and mythology, all while grounding the reader in a colorful action-mystery about books.
Marcus grew up in South Gate, California, and recently finished an MFA in poetry from CSU Long Beach. Some of his published work can be seen in Tahoma Literary Review, San Pedro River Review, RipRap Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, among others.