There’s been some buzz on the interwebs already among comics fans in the know about the first of David B.’s two-volume history of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, Best Enemies (Les Meilleurs Ennemis: une histoire des relations entre les Etats-Unis et le Moyen-Orient). Co-written with Jean-Pierre Filiu, Book One, which covers 1783-1953, was just published this year by Futuropolis, Gallimard’s powerhouse indie comics arm, which has brought out most of David B.’s post-L’Association work. Paul Gravett, Britain’s brilliant indie comics pundit, posted a nice appreciation of it in a timely 9/11 blogpost. Beginning with a retelling of the tale of Gilgamesh, this first volume runs from the naval wars with the Barbary pirates through the WWII machinations that cemented the Saudi-U.S. bond. That’s Jefferson in the page above, lecturing Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman, Tripoli’s envoy, on slavery. The amazing little British publisher Self-Made Hero will be bringing the book to the U.S. and U.K.
Most stateside mentions of the book were tied to reviews of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, usually compared to David B.’s The Armed Garden (the two works probably shouldn’t be compared, since they have very different aims, though David B. largely dodges the accusations of Orientalist slumming currently leveled at Thompson by being at once more narratively inventive and aesthetically hermetic). I’ll say it now, and I’ll say it here, since only sixty people read this blog a few times a year: thank God more David B. is coming to the States. As both an artist and writer, David B. has been one of the greatest talents on the French comics scene for the last twenty years, and it’s about time he emerged from the shadow of artists he influenced (Thompson) or taught to draw (Satrapi). Because of the weird time gap it can often take for most foreign artists to make it in America, David B. will probably come to seem reminiscent of artists who couldn’t have existed without him. Let me grouch about this some more. Part of this is almost certainly childish “I knew about this first” pride, or a hipster grumble. I was into David B. before what I hope will be the era of his universally acknowledged cool.
David B.’s U.S. career took a big hit after his masterpiece of a memoir Epileptic, mismarketed by Pantheon in the wake of Persepolis, tanked. For a while the only David B. you could find were short pieces in Fantagraphics’ Mome, a handsome organ that mostly preaches to a faithful choir. But his talent is such that recognition proved inevitable, and the awareness begun back then seems to be turning into a groundswell. A few years ago, NBM put out a book of his dream diairies, Fantagraphics did The Armed Garden (collecting some pieces that had already appeared in Mome) and The Littlest Pirate King (Roi Rose, which David B. adapted from a Pierre MacOrlan short story). Self-Made Hero did his two-book story on Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, Black Paths (Par les chemins noirs). In other words, David B. was poised for a comeback. Problem for me was that these fine and reputable publishing houses had longstanding traditions of working with certain translators already (NBM with Joe Johnson, and for Fanta, co-founder Kim Thompson). Edging in an excerpt from an early David B. piece, A Bomb in the Family (La bombe familiale), at Words Without Borders was the best I could manage. There’s almost nothing the man’s done I don’t like, from standalones to dream diaries to unfinished series to collaborations: Le Tengû carré, La Lecture des ruines, Le Cheval blême, Les Complots nocturnes, Les Chercheurs de trésors, Urani, Le Capitaine écarlate, Hiram Lowatt et Placido, Terre de feu… A review of Thomas McGuane in the New York Times once claimed he “makes the page, the paragraph, the sentence itself a record of continuous imaginative activity.” Replace paragraph with panel, sentence with line, and that applies to David B. His art roils, unrestful, in constant ferment and turmoil, merging idea and reality, inhabiting a constant lucid metaphorical space, at once iconic and dynamic, ritualized and alive, its bold solids and intricate geometries making full use of a static medium.
So, long story short, I’m glad to be working on him at last, and hope he’ll be emerging the shadows this time, into rightful recognition at last as the major figure and influence he is.