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BOOK REVIEW

'Nocturnal Conspiracies' by David B.

Graphic novel depicts the author's dreams in Surrealistic form.

February 01, 2009|Karrie Higgins | Higgins is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

In one of the 19 dreams re-created in David B.'s "Nocturnal Conspiracies," the French comic book artist's dream persona is a living shadow who can morph into the shapes of things around him. At one point, he takes the precise shape of a several-story building, matching it window to window so he can permeate the facade. This image captures perfectly the experience of the book: We permeate David B.'s nocturnal world through drawings that feel like shadows cast by dreams.

Although David B. avoids imposing a narrative arc on his material -- allowing, instead, the "mysterious logic" of dreams to unfold -- "Nocturnal Conspiracies" is not purely a dream journal. Spanning the period from December 1979 to September 1994, the collection feels coherent, even linear, albeit in an intuitive way. Images of the Khmer Rouge, resistance leaders, massacres in Africa and armed outlaws paint an intensely personal portrait of an artist acutely aware of political and criminal threats. Though the dreams are arranged in chronological order, the time gaps between them (one might be from 1981, the next from 1983) suggest conscious juxtaposition, and indeed David B. writes in a pre- face that he was inspired by repeating themes.

At times, the boundaries that distinguish dream and interpretation blur, as when David B. notes the symbolic links between "The Leper," a beheaded member of the French resistance, and a mythological figure such as the "Hidden King," an Arab soldier who, according to legend, carried his head into the underground and now reigns from beneath the city of Samarkand.

Making these connections even more porous is the question of whether they emerged first in the act of dreaming or the act of drawing, an ambiguity that echoes Surrealist art.

Fans of David B.'s earlier graphic memoir, "Epileptic" -- a black-and-white comic about his epileptic brother and their family's unconventional attempts to cure him -- might be surprised by the addition of the color blue in "Nocturnal Conspiracies." It is subtle in some frames: a faint coloring to a woman's hair, shading in the fabric of a coat. Other frames appear saturated. But even here, David B. uses dramatic contrasts between heavy shadows and hatched lines. Overall, the drawings create an anxious, voyeuristic intimacy, as if we are peering through a window unseen.

In "Epileptic" the young David B. draws war images to channel his rage about his brother's epilepsy. In "Nocturnal Conspiracies," the images feel more personal. The dream dramas are cinematic at times, casting the artist as a key player in unarticulated missions or as a witness to violence: shooting at an unknown person on a bus, carrying the corpse of a lover, stumbling on a massacre in Africa.

"Nocturnal Conspiracies" continues the emotional and artistic work of "Epileptic," stripping the art -- and the artist -- down to raw process.

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