Reading the Ruins – David B
Although there have been translations of some of his work, it seems to me that the English speaking world haven’t really caught on to the genius of David B, one of the greats of the European graphic novel scene. It took 10 years for the artist/writer’s 1996 masterpiece L’Ascension du Haut Mal to be published in English as Epileptic, and since then only a few of his works have been translated and independently published in the UK or USA. Actually, I think the English speaking world have been deprived of the opportunity to read a great number of original talents in the European market, but that’s something that Europe Comics are starting to quickly rectify with their eBook English translations, and finally, we’ve now have another marvellous little gem from David B.
Originally published in France in 2001 for Dupuis, Reading the Ruins (La Lecture des ruines) is a good choice for an audience unfamiliar with his work or style, even if it isn’t typical of it. In full colour rather than his familiar heavy black-and-white line work, a dark First World War fantasy rather than an autobiographical indie comic, Reading the Ruins is nonetheless a work that comes wholly from the wild imagination of David B.
It’s 1917 in Northern France and one of the French weaponry engineers has gone missing. The military authorities aren’t entirely surprised as Dr Hellequin’s behaviour, his ideas and his inventions have become increasingly bizarre. Among the weapons the crackpot scientist claims to have invented to mentally disorient and destroy the opposing German forces are a Dream Cannon, Killer Shadows and Barb Vamp-wires. Captain Phillimon, who has lost a few body parts in the terrible war, has asked Dutch operative Van Meer, a historian of folklore, to look for Hellequin but not to actually find him. It’s hoped rather than an apparent search for the scientist will keep German spies distracted and following the trail of a lunatic.
Intrigued enough to investigate, Van Meer has no intention of finding Hellequin, but it’s not long before the scientist unexpectedly turns up and introduces him to his strange world. There’s no question that Hellequin is deranged, as he reveals that he has abandoned his inventions to instead read the messages that are being left behind in the ruins of the destruction. He believes that the war is speaking to him, leaving messages in the geometry of the ruins around him. “We must decipher what the shells and bombs have been saying for the last three years”.
Hellequin might well be insane, but his response is actually totally in keeping with the insanity of the times Trying to come up with new ideas, new ways of fighting war and trying to rationalise and make sense of war is enough to drive anyone insane. The ruins are indeed leaving a message, but the only message they have to reveal is death and devastation.
You can perhaps detect an influence of Jacques Tardi’s work in this period and in War of the Trenches works in Reading the Ruins with a little bit of Adele Blanc-Sec in its period espionage adventures, but the underlying darkness is also somewhat Kafkaesque and David B. is very much at home exploring those extreme states beyond the surface and literal. Reading the Ruins sees his style at its most surreal and phantasmagorical, but in contrast to the free-flowing Epileptic there’s a colder, mechanical edge evident here that is in keeping with the subject.
Accordingly, following an absurd dream logic, Reading the Ruins hardly keeps to a rational path, and David B. is as creative and imaginative as ever. His extraordinary detailed panels blend symbols with drawings that look like illustrations from medieval texts, blending folklore and mythology into the dark brutality and nightmarish quality of total war, finding a way to get beyond the surface to try and touch on the underlying insanity, and the insanity of seeking some kind of meaning or order within it.
Reading the Ruins by David B. is publishes as an eBook by Europe Comics
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