Black Paths: David B. (Trad. Nora Mahony)

Black Paths

I would say that I’ll stop talking about TCAF soon, but we all know that’s a lie. David B.’s Black Paths may be the last of the few books I managed to pick up at the festival this year, but the fact is, the party’s happening again next year and I will be at it. And I will no doubt be prepping for it several months in advance, as is my wont. So basically, TCAF is a recurring theme in my brain. It’s not going anywhere.

And thank goodness for that! Have you been? It is fun central. Seriously. The most amazing comic artists come from all over the world. Like David B. You know, the guy who co-founded one of the most influential French comics publishers and wrote the incredible Epileptic? Yeah, he came to TCAF. And he signed my book! In a Glyn Dillon and Frederik Peeters sandwich! And he made an approving noise at my French name. Perhaps he was simply glad to be given a name he knew how to spell. (I know this pain. Signing my own book, the question I ask the most is “How do you spell that?”.)

I was so excited to meet him and get him to sign his latest work in English, and then I totally forgot about it. Which is basically how I work. I am a chronic list maker because if I did not make lists of what needs to be done, I would never do anything. I have a terrible memory. In a way, it’s comforting. I don’t worry that I’m forgetting things because I’m getting older; I’ve never been able to remember anything. (Except things in textbooks for tests. I am a very good test taker.) So you can imagine my surprise and delight when, looking for something to read, I encountered this on the shelf of unread books.

I loved Epileptic, the very personal nature of the story, the thick black lines, stark on the white page. So I was a little hesitant approaching Black Paths, which is in full colour and tells a distinctly non-personal story. Set in the early 1920s, the book loosely revolves around a pair of lovers in a city of fighters. Some of it is true, like the city of fighters, a place called Fiume which is taken over by a poet at the end of the first world war. But most of it, like the lovers Mina and Lauriano, is not.

Lovers

The first half of the book is taken up with prologues laying down the groundwork and letting us know just what we’re in for. We see the cast of characters, get some history, and learn who we’re supposed to be rooting for. The second half, “Ghosts”, shows us where these threads all tie together. The book is at its best, oddly enough, when it’s focussing on the city and the brawling. Although Lauriano—roof walker, cat burglar, ex-soldier, ghost see-er—is a charismatic and compelling character, I was less interested in the story of his relationship with Mina that threads through the book, than that of the poet/commander Gabriele D’Annunzio and the free state of Fiume. The portrayal of the city under siege where anyone is accepted and where art rules is fascinating. Particularly interesting is how out of sync the high-minded ideals of D’Annunzio and his cabinet are with the citizens of the city, who start a new riot every other day. Lots of brawling in the street.

Battle

And this brawling is where the art really shines too. Stacks of faces and uniforms and fists flying from all angles, panels full of that strong line I love. Flashbacks to the war are also great, with the greys and browns of the battlefield becoming sharp reds as the fighters are turned into dogs. There is something about the energy in David B.’s lines that make these battles feel fierce and dynamic.

The translation by Nora Mahony is great and reads so smoothly, you’d never suspect the book wasn’t originally in English. I think I need this woman to give me some lessons. She’s already taught me I need to find ways to incorporate “gob” into my work more with declarations like “…Three punches in the gob, two kicks in the arse, and it’ll all be sorted!”

I wanted to love this book and I came away just liking it. The cast of characters is too large and many of them are not particularly memorable, so I spent a fair bit of the prologues flipping back pages and reminding myself who was on what side. (See above remarks about my terrible memory.) The story itself feels fractured, like David B. was torn between writing a story about the city and writing a story about the lovers. The long buildup in the prologues doesn’t really pay of in “Ghosts”. It all hangs together, but it feels like things are missing, like the book wanted to be more than it is. When Lauriano plans a celebration to bury their missing dead, it finally feels like the whole thing is coming together, but that’s basically just the last ten pages. It’s still a rich and beautiful book, it’s just not quite the book I wanted it to be.

1918

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