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Legends Spring To Life In The 'Armed Garden'

When French artist David B.'s strange, sad and beautiful graphic novel L'Ascension du Haut-Mal was published in the U.S. in 2005, it could do nothing but cause a sensation. Epileptic (the book's English title) is told from the point of view of the artist's childhood self as he watches his older brother's epilepsy grow steadily worse, causing his desperate family to chase dubious medical breakthroughs and supernatural cures across Europe. To deal with his feelings of helplessness, young David escapes into his art — a heavily stylized world of vast, clashing armies where his brother's disease takes the form of a terrifying snake. Like Stitches, David Small's graphic memoir about his painful childhood, Epileptic is the story of a self-rescue, of finding one's self through one's art.

David B.'s newest, The Armed Garden and Other Stories, finds the creator turning his gifts to the world of historical legend. The subject may be different but the artist's mysterious and melancholy style saturates every panel; what's more, the three graphic novellas collected in The Armed Garden provide him with plenty of opportunities to draw the epic battle scenes he so loves.

In the first story, "The Veiled Prophet," set in Persia during the time of the Thousand and One Nights, an undulating strip of white cloth attaches itself to the face of a humble fabric dyer. As the story proceeds, David B. keeps iterating the image of that cloth to suit his purpose: Here, its tendrils represent the cacophony of travelers' tales at an inn; here, it takes the form of a ferocious wind; and here, bound up into an enormous ball, it becomes the moon itself. Climaxing in a series of panels depicting a (quite literal) sea of skeletons crashing in waves against the walls of a great fortress, "The Veiled Prophet" features elements — ecstatic visions, religious fervor and bloody battles — that recur in the book's two other tales, and it's hard to imagine an artist whose approach would be better suited to the task at hand.

In "The Armed Garden," set in 15th-century Prague, a blacksmith sets off in search of Earthly Paradise and attracts a horde of followers in the process. These "Adamites" soon run afoul of another sect — in one panel, the artist depicts preachers from both groups engaged in a heated "rhetorical joust" as, above their heads, giant letters of the alphabet hack away at one another with swords and spears. It's one of several instances when David B.'s story and art comment on each another in a way only the comics medium can accomplish. Later, the artist shows us the Paradise the Adamites find — a land of milk and honey where trees carry swords, strange beasts converse with man, and strange faces beam down from the heavens. After their spiritual ecstasy fades, however, he delights in revealing the reality behind the vision: "Around him the Adamites and the beasts, intertwined, slept amidst the garbage. The river of milk emitted a nauseating smell of putrefaction. The river of honey was covered with thousands of insects."

French artist David B. is a co-founder of the independent publisher L'Association.
/ Courtesy of Fantagraphics
Courtesy of Fantagraphics
French artist David B. is a co-founder of the independent publisher L'Association.

In the final story, "The Drum Who Fell in Love," a military leader's dead body is skinned, tanned and turned into a drum that, when beaten, summons his spirit so that he may continue to lead his army into victory. When played more softly by a lovely camp follower, however, the drum inspires listeners to dance with a passion that can raise the dead. The tale of the doomed love between a girl and the percussion instrument that loves her is everything an old story told around a fire should be: creepy and sad and weirdly hopeful, with a darkly humorous twist ending that lands with precision and grace.

The Armed Garden and Other Stories is the witty, finely executed work of an artist uniquely capable of capturing both the fervid ecstasy of belief and the dull, heartsick ache left behind once it cools.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.