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Infectious hope

Blue Pills A Positive Love Story; Frederik Peeters Translated from the French by Anjali Singh; Houghton Mifflin: 190 pp., $18.95

January 20, 2008|Peter Terzian | Peter Terzian is editing an anthology of essays about beloved record albums.

THE setting of Swiss cartoonist Frederik Peeters' autobiographical book-length comic, "Blue Pills," is a rainy Geneva populated by young urbanites. Frederik and his new girlfriend, Cati, meet in a world of cafes and late-night parties. The early pages convey the messy texture of single life in one's 20s: razor stubble, wreaths of cigarette smoke, tangles of pasta, lines under the eyes. Throughout the book, eyes are rendered wide and saucer-like, at first with innocence, then with bewilderment -- as Frederik learns that Cati and her young son are HIV-positive -- and finally with surprise at the new family's resilience in the face of the AIDS virus.

Except for a few flashbacks, Peeters' memoir, first published in Europe in 2001, is narrated chronologically. When Frederik and Cati meet, he is a moody, diffident young artist and she is the slightly older, boisterous sister of a friend. Their backgrounds aren't shaded in, but Cati may be something of a party girl. (Peeters first draws her in a wet T-shirt, hoisting a bottle of Champagne as she bobs in a swimming pool.)

They run into each other sporadically over the next few years; Cati marries and has a son. When he finds her again, sitting alone on a couch at a party to mark the turn of the millennium, she is separated from her husband. Frederik and Cati finally make a connection. In a lovely panel of the couple on that couch, the party has fallen away and they drift alone on a sea, talking and laughing. Not long after, during an early date, Frederik learns that she had at some point been infected with HIV and passed it along to her son in the womb.

Drawn in the first three months of 2001, "Blue Pills" follows Frederik and Cati over their first year together. The all-too-familiar story of a couple dealing with one person's chronic illness is made fresh by Peeters' imaginative visual sense. Over time, the pair must figure out ways to navigate sex. (It is, Peeters writes, "as though we had to make love with straitjackets . . . in our heads . . . groping our way . . .")To illustrate this, Peeters draws himself and his partner naked, standing before a ferocious judge, who condemns them "to the condom, in perpetuity!" During a moment of lovemaking, Frederik's condom breaks, and the two spend a night awake, worrying about the consequences. They visit a reassuring doctor the next day who tells Frederik that given the "weak concentration" of HIV in Cati's blood, "you have as much chance of catching AIDS as you have of running into a white rhinoceros on your way out!" Peeters frames the terrified couple on the other side of the desk, an enormous rhino looming behind them.

Meanwhile, Frederik becomes closer to Cati's son as the boy's virus becomes active. In one moving scene, Cati administers his first dose of antiretroviral drugs, including a foul-tasting powder. Peeters portrays the boy with a cartoonishly large head, wailing and spitting out the drug: "Blech! Not good!" It captures the pathos of the situation -- a child who will spend the rest of his life on medication.

For such a small and relatively new genre, the memoir-comic has seen a surprisingly high rate of groundbreaking work. It's hard to resist comparing "Blue Pills" to such recent benchmarks as Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis." (Satrapi's editor, Anjali Singh, acquired "Blue Pills" for Houghton Mifflin and translated it from the French.) "Blue Pills" doesn't quite reach the level of those gold standards, lacking both Satrapi's narrative force and Bechdel's breathtaking formal inventiveness. But Peeters' graphic memoir has some subtly beautiful visual touches. His hand is bold and expressive -- unlike the more tightly controlled and elemental line work of Bechdel and Satrapi -- and he embraces the freedom his style allows.

The emotional life of "Blue Pills" is dark and messy, shadowed by illness and death, and the images reflect this. In one scene, Cati examines her teeth in the mirror, maniacally checking her gums for bleeding. Her pixie face briefly turns into a grotesque, crudely drawn fright mask before she crumples in exhaustion. Peeters also gets the pacing just right. A conversation between Frederik and Cati unfolds over six pages as she cuts his hair; a scene of postcoital lovers talking stretches out for seven. In both scenes, the point of view shifts only occasionally, so as not to distract from the rhythm of the dialogue.

The book's climax is an extended reverie in which Frederik encounters a woolly mammoth that quotes Oscar Wilde and the Roman philosopher Epictetus. It's a somewhat heavy-handed way to illustrate Frederik's growth as a person and partner -- that he comes to regard the disease as a chance to look at life more deeply. "Be happy just appreciating in time the things that have an end," says the mammoth. "Blue Pills" has a happy ending, the particulars of which are found on the jacket: Peeters and his partner live in Geneva with her son and their daughter.

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