Sunday, February 17, 2008

In Review Of: Blue Pills by Frederik Peeters

I’ve just put down that book and I’m letting the images swirl around in my head. It’s like that, after you watch a good movie or read a good book, that you let the favorite bits swim round your mind, the way that you spin a nice glass of red wine. You don’t gulp it, you savor it: the taste of story mixed artfully with visuals. The very essence of why we pick up the book to begin with.

Frederik Peeter, a swiss comic artist, has taken a couple of months of his life to document the beginning of his relationship with an HIV positive woman and her equally HIV positive son. It’s a fairly brave undertaking, part exposition, part therapy, part – almost- propaganda for his feelings of how HIV people should be treated, although I doubt that he would admit to it. The story documents his past meetings with Cati; chance occurances that are part of any 20-somethings life as we move through the early days of adulthood. The party here, the café there, friends of friends getting together at other places. It is a time in many lives of the looseness, of being rather dispossessed of money and moorings, the only certain thing that we feel we have in that decade is time.

Time, however, is what some of us don’t have. And as he meets Cati and begins his relationship with her, we find that there has already been a need to treat her 3 year old son with retrovirals, and so her relationship with him already has a sense of mortality that no mother ever wants to have. Peeters is a gifted artist, and not only does he document the growing closeness of their relationship emotionally, but also sexually, and all the tribulations and trials that come with that. Cati has more than enough guilt and anxiety for them both and Peeters admits it: he has the easy part in the relationship. But she comes across as fully realized as a person as brush on paper will admit: she’s sexual, she’s a caring mother with moods and worries and happiness, she’s a partner in a relationship with all the ups and downs that that brings, she has an ex-husband and a past because of her son that will never exactly allow her to sever the bonds with her past. She doesn’t allow her guilt over passing the virus to her son to destroy her life, although Peeters is secure enough to show her at least once bent over and almost crippled by the burden that she carries.

The artwork deserves a mention. I think that I’ve finally found someone with the same brush technique as Bill Watterson. Peeters uses the same looseness of brush work that can only come from someone who has worked so damn hard to make it look so easy. The storytelling is solid, with two entire chapters barely changing perspective so that the pictures never detract from the rhythm of the dialog. And as we would expect from a cartoonist, when he thinks lines such as, “as thought we were in straightjackets… in our heads… finding our way” he draws himself and Cati naked, floating, in straightjackets. And it works.

Peeters work in the final pages perhaps suffers a bit from having to be translated from the French. A final hallucinatory chapter with a discussion between the cartoon peters and a wooly mammoth that can quote Wilde is not as poetic or concise as it might have appeared in the original language. It’s a minor quibble, and the rest of the book is translated so well that I can hardly fault the work for that small number of pages. Blue Pills is, for all the speed with which is was done, a wonderful mature work, one that I will most likely pass along to a number of people.

The final epilogue of the work, by the way, is written not in the book, but on the jacket: Peeters currently lives with his girlfriend, her son and their daughter in Geneva. How’s that for a positive love story?

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