First published in France as a six-volume series from 1996-2003, this narrative is often referred to as an autobiographical graphic novel, but it is more accurately described as a graphic memoir. The author, born Pierre-François Beauchard, tells and draws the story of his family's life with the author's older brother, Jean-Christophe, whom we meet on the first page, in the year 1994: "It takes a moment for me to recognize the guy who just walked in. It's my brother . . . The back of his head is bald, from all the times he's fallen. He's enormously bloated from medication and lack of exercise." Flashback to 1964 when the author is five years old and his seven-year-old brother begins to have frequent grand mal epilepsy seizures. There follows the parents' mostly fruitless search for treatment to control the seizures, including: possible brain surgery which Jean-Christophe refuses in favor of an attempt at zen macrobiotics (this seems to work for six-months), consultation with a psychic, Swedenborgian spiritualism, magnetism, alchemy, exorcism by a priest, psychiatry (a different form of exorcism!).

Jean-Christophe's illness transforms family life as other children mock and fear the boy, the family moves to an isolated area, joins communes, and attempts to cope with Jean-Christophe's increasingly disturbed and disturbing behavior that alternates between passivity and physical aggression. The author has vivid visions and dreams and changes his name to David ("a symbolic act. I've won the war [against the threat of acquiring epilepsy" (164)]; his sister Florence suffers from constant anxiety; his mother grieves for many months after her father dies. As an adolescent and young man Jean-Christophe spends time in several institutions for handicapped individuals as well as at home, where he lives a desultory existence that is interspersed with violence toward the author and his father.

David escapes to Paris, living in a studio apartment paid for by his father, reading, writing stories, drawing, and attending classes at the Duperre School of Applied Arts. "I had to draw and write constantly. I had to fill my time in order to prevent my brother's disease from reaching me" (276). He is lonely but avoids people, feels guilty for neglecting his brother and ‘picking on' him yet is fearful that he too will be taken over by epilepsy, or death. Equally upsetting is when David discovers writings by Jean-Christophe: "He speaks of his despair and loneliness and the words might as well have come from my pen" (316). On and off, in moving displays of empathy, the author attempts to understand what happens to his brother during the seizures -- is he conscious, where does he go, does he die temporarily?

Within the narrative are intercalated multigenerational family histories that include two world wars, and European philosophical and cultural movements that influenced his parents and their search for treatments. The final section of Epileptic relates in words and images the author's adult life as he becomes a commercial artist; struggles through several relationships with women; his own infertility; his ever-present confusion, anger, and misery about his brother's illness; and his founding with five colleagues of the independent publishing house, L'Association: "It's the creation of L'Association that saves me" (327).


This is a complex memoir in which the author's emotional response to the family turmoil generated by his brother's epilepsy is vividly depicted in extraordinary and complicated drawings. At one and the same time the work reveals the author's relationship to an illness and to the brother who experiences it, and his own evolution as an artist. Drawings and recurrent images convey what words can only allude to: the rage that the brothers feel (drawings of armies, battle, massacres, Jean-Christophe's fantasies of Nazi parades); grand mal seizures (Jean-Christophe entangled with a dragon-snake or climbing endless mountain peaks); death (grandfather's face in death that becomes frozen into a long-beaked bird head); fear (the author encased in armor to ward off his brother's illness). These recurring images are coextensive with narratives of actual wars, political movements (Naziism, the Algerian rebellion against French colonialism), stereotyping and prejudice. Hence the family story becomes part of a larger narrative of repression, dominance, and oppression.

In our current era it is difficult to conceive of a recent time in which a satisfactory treatment for a condition like epilepsy could remain so elusive, yet the Mayo Clinic's web site reveals that epilepsy requires careful evaluation and individualized treatment, and that "success" rates and treatment side effects are less than ideal. One would hope, nevertheless, that the disability rights movement and current disability studies scholarship can help to inform attitudes toward such illnesses within a larger context of tolerance of difference.

In the "Epilogue," the author of Epileptic holds a fantasy conversation with his brother in which they commune and attempt to explain their divergent paths from a common childhood where they drew and wrote stories together. Battle scenes they drew "had something to do with understanding the brutality of your seizures" (356). The physical toll and disruption caused by repeated seizures (Jean-Christophe: "In forty years of disease I must've died at least a thousand times" [357]) and of sedating medication, as well as their transformed positions in the family, made continued collaboration impossible. In an interview for Time Magazine (published January 7, 2005), David B. says that the writing of Epileptic "changed my relationship with my parents and with my vision of my work. But with my brother, he is so ill that honestly I can't tell that it's changed anything." Perhaps things have not changed for Jean-Christophe, but they will likely change for those who read this book.

Those interested in a more in-depth (and optimistic) perspective on Epileptic may want to read Susan Squier's essay, "So Long As They Grow Out of It: Comics, the Discourse of Developmental Normalcy, and Disability" in Journal of Medical Humanities, Volume 29, pp. 71-88, 2008.


David B. is the pen name of Pierre-François Beauchard. The book's Foreword is by Florence Beauchard. Translated by Kim Thompson. Originally published as L'Ascencion du Haut-Mal in Paris by L'Association, 1996-2004.


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count