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Networking Multivalence Trauma through Holonymic Representation in David B.’s Epileptic

By Charles Acheson

Writing about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Leigh Gilmore reiterates a central tenet of her book, The Limits of Autobiography. Gilmore returns to the importance of considering plurality in trauma representations rather than simply assuming the inadequacy of language that forces the survivor to stand outside of and to forgo claiming the experience—an argument put forth in the consistently cited works of Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, and Shoshana Felman.1 While the writings of these theorists, and others working in a similar vein, provide a productive course for thinking about trauma’s effects on survivors, the complexity of traumatic experience and attempts at representation demand alternative frameworks to explicit silence. Gilmore writes, “Any insufficiency in language or representational forms per se is offset by this abundance and ingenuity. Representations of trauma, however, make demands on audiences. As new forms emerge, including visual autobiography and memoir, new interpretive practices must develop to address them” (“Witnessing” 158). Engaging Persepolis, Gilmore draws attention to Satrapi’s ability to imagine and illustrate the unspeakable traumas endured by dissident Iranians. As an indirect witness, Satrapi depicts the unshared traumas of those political prisoners who died from extensive torture, mutilation, and other inhumane conditions. Effectively, Satrapi rejects any failure of language, instead relying on her creative abilities to represent and bear witness to the pain and suffering of those who did not survive to tell their personal story. Gilmore elaborates, noting that Satrapi’s comic modifies the dynamic of bearing witness, insisting “that trauma contains within it the possibility of bearing witness, even if that means bearing witness to what was not shared or sharable” (“Witnessing” 161). Satrapi populates the void traditionally theorized in the wake of trauma, enabling the alterative representational modality that foregrounds visual synthesis of memory and ingenuity. Moreover, Gilmore recognizes how Satrapi demonstrates an alternative method of addressing trauma through the semiotics of the comics medium. The sequential art of comics and the plasticity of the medium engender creation of the alternative representational frameworks that Gilmore calls for. Therefore, following Gilmore’s lead, I will explore another example of a graphic memoirist who relies on their creative capacity to represent trauma visually, in this case, trauma resulting from an invisible disease, Satrapi’s comics mentor at L’Association: David B[eauchard].2

The collected and translated edition of B.’s six-volume L’Ascension du haut malEpileptic is his comics memoir of growing up and living with his brother Jean-Christophe who suffers from epilepsy. Whereas Satrapi visualizes the experiences of deceased political dissidents, B. contends with Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy—an invisible disease except for seizures and resulting injuries. B. furnishes the disease a visual definition as a surreal and multidiegetic dragon-headed, amorphous monster that lingers around Jean-Christophe and causes his seizures by interacting with Jean-Christophe’s body. Although B. enlists other icons as well throughout Epileptic, none function with the same dynamism when representing the traumatic effects of the disease across the family members. Previous scholarship of Epileptic correctly identifies the dragon as a metaphor or metonym for the disease, and while B. never explicitly names the dragon as such, an overabundance of visual and textual clues implicates the dragon within that role. However, to attend to Gilmore’s call, we need to consider other functions of the dragon in addition to simply metaphoric or metonymic. To this end, I suggest that B. enlists the dragon as a representation of the multivalent manifestations of trauma that encroach upon the psyches of not only Jean-Christophe but also David and the other members of the Beauchard family. The strength of B.’s chosen icon lies within the dragon’s simultaneous visual elegance and complexity. The dragon icon embodies how the disease affects each member of the family succinctly while weaving the individual experiences into a cogent representation of the family’s communal struggle. Even when scholarship identifies the dragon as a trauma icon, the resulting analysis overlooks this multifaceted role of the dragon. B. strategically over-determines the dragon with meaning as it engages three valences of trauma—direct, indirect, and insidious—that trauma theorist and psychologist Maria P.P. Root identifies. Like Satrapi, B. overcomes the possible failure of language, instead relying on his artistic capabilities to provide a complex and dynamic representation of the experiences of Jean-Christophe, himself, and the Beauchard family.

B.’s placement of the dragon within each trauma valence engages holonymic representation, a representative modality where his specific renderings of direct, indirect, and insidious trauma serve as meronymic pieces within the overarching trauma experience that epilepsy creates. The dragon’s interconnecting of the valences generates a network of multidirectional exchange where each constituent representation informs reader understanding of the others, and by extension, the overarching communal experience. Through the network inherent within holonymic representation, the dragon produces a sense of gestalt that affords readers a greater understanding of the individual experiences with trauma, while illustrating how those unique experiences intersect to create a broader collective experience.3 While readers recognize each family member’s experience for its inherent uniqueness, Epileptic‘s engagement of holonymic representation persuasively illustrates the overwhelming and overbearing effect of the disease on the family unit. With this holonymic representation in mind, in this essay, I attend to Gilmore’s call for recognizing and exploring representations of trauma that reject silence. I begin with a brief overview of Epileptic‘s previous critical and scholarly attention before elaborating holonymic representation further and placing it within the evolving progression of interpreting the dragon. Next, I will move the article into an overview of both the general and specific aesthetic qualities of the dragon and how they affect the dragon’s functions. Then, I will analyze the dragon within the context of each of Root’s valences of trauma while linking them in the network. In short, working against the dominant theorization of the failure of language, B. creatively represents multiple trauma valences within the network of holonymic representation through the surreal dragon that embodies the multidirectional experiential exchange between the constituent traumas.

Addressing the previous critical attention paid to Epileptic reveals an evolving understanding of the surreal elements within the text; however, while effective readings in their own right, the preceding scholarship does not fully attend to the complexity of B.’s dragon.4 In his aptly titled review of Epileptic, “Metaphorically Speaking,” Andrew D. Arnold provides analysis noting that the dragon’s metaphorical representation inhabits B.’s world as much as any of the real characters (par. 4). Arnold correctly identifies the dragon as a metaphor, as well as how the icon circulates the narrative world as all the other characters. Although he does not address the trauma implication of the dragon, Arnold denotes the importance of recognizing that the dragon functions metaphorically, as many other surreal characters within the memoir similarly do. Despite the limitations of the review, Arnold establishes an important foundation for scholarship of the graphic memoir. Murray Pratt endeavors towards examining trauma weaving throughout the memoir by analyzing how B.’s surrealism enables him a mechanism of expressing his own fears and subsequent mental defenses designed to combat those fears. Pratt explains, “David B’s visual mythology also enables him to develop more nuanced readings of his own psychological trauma namely the worry that he, without the defensive armours of his childhood obsessions (drawing, historical epic heroes, fantasy phantoms from the realm of the esoteric), might in turn become subject to epilepsy…” (143). Pratt orients his reading in a more trauma-centric foundation that opens discourse to the oppressive qualities of indirect trauma in relation to the overall experience, but he does not identify the iconic nature of the dragon. Moreover, his analysis arrests the traumatic experiences in broad strokes—that demonstrate how B. reconciles his traumatic childhood—but do not separate the multiple valences at work within the memoir.

Jonas Engelmann understands the surreal elements in a similar manner. He builds on the trauma theorizations of Sigrid Weigel and Manfred Weinberg, while noting the importance of the phantoms that populate Epileptic. Engelmann writes, “it would be a reduction to see the phantoms only as icons or metaphors for the disease: They rather have to be read in a metonymical way. All aspects connected with the disease, on a personal as well as on a social level, culminate in the phantoms” (49). Engelmann takes an important step by recognizing that B.’s surrealism moves beyond simply metaphor. Reading the dragon metonymically captures the overarching pressure applied by the traumatic stressor. However, Engelmann conflates all the apparitions into a single grouping (phantoms), where he glosses over the varied functions of the surreal characters. By not delineating the forest ghosts which appear to David on the Beauchard family property in Olivet from the dragon, for example, Engelmann correlates David’s immediate need for witnesses of his daily struggle with Jean-Christophe (and lack thereof within the family) to adult B.’s attempts to reify the complexity of traumatic experience into his memoir. This temporal dissonance obfuscates the complexity and effect of B.’s illustrations. Instead of constructing all the surreal creatures of B.’s memoir within a similar functionality, Epileptic necessitates individual interpretation of the visual elements, especially within the context of trauma and memoir in a way that moves beyond visual metaphor and metonym. Michael A. Chaney offers the deepest reading of the dragon, noting, “the iconic effect of the dragon-like rendering of epilepsy… is by no means limited to representing the affliction, but encompasses the rupture of discourse and epistemology entailed by the affliction as well” (142). Chaney acknowledges the complexity of the dragon but refrains from explication. Still, he correctly identifies the dragon as a trauma icon and its effect throughout the narrative with special concern for the oppressive and disruptive nature of the trauma inherent within the illness.

Evidenced by this representative example of critical and scholarly interpretations, the importance of the dragon to B.’s trauma representation modality grows with each reading, thus leading to the necessity of thinking about the icon holonymically. Previous Epileptic scholarship tends to write about the trauma circulating the comics memoir nebulously with little (or no) attention paid to the individual experiences. The experiences of Jean-Christophe, David, and remaining family members vary regarding how Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy affects them despite it being the original stressor for all. B.’s narrative complexity and willingness to address multiple valences of trauma within the same text—complicated by his surreal characters—not only arrests trauma’s mosaic qualities but also highlights the individual. Seeing the forest for the trees is important when bearing witness to trauma, but the opposite carries equal necessity.5 Overlooking the individual trees in the forest silences their personal experiences. A risk always exists of one traumatic experience displacing others within a community as the representative experiential example. In addition, the possibility exists of ignoring individual experience in favor of a communal narrative that rejects the nuances of individual experiences. Bearing witness is a difficult task for listeners or readers and the promotion of a representative individual or obfuscating communal experience enables an artificial witnessing that eases the reader’s duties at the expense of the survivors.6 However, the dragon icon inherently reminds readers of the multidirectional exchange occurring wherein one experience informs the others and the communal experience at large. Because B. employs the same recurrent icon as the visual holonym, each of the individual experiences or trauma valences remains equal in importance that prevents the displacement and silence of individual voices. Therefore, understanding the interworking of the nodes within the network, while recognizing their interplay, enables a simultaneous bearing of witness to individual and communal traumas that provides a greater understanding of all within the network.

To produce the simultaneous witnessing, B. employs the dragon icon to highlight the semantic relationship of the meronymic constituent experiences in relation to the holonymic whole. We can understand roots, branches, and leaves as meronyms of the holonym tree. Each possesses important individual functions, but their combination creates something greater than the sum of the parts. The meronyms do not lose individual importance; instead, they reveal nuance that can be lost when visualizing an entity broadly. In other words, holonymic representation provides this nuance of the individual trauma that illuminates the experiences that might be elided by the broader strokes painted in community-wide trauma. However, the greatest empathic power to witness originates beyond seeing various individual experiences but also knowing they populate the trauma network: each shares a representative connection with the others. Holonymic representation achieves a sense of gestalt here. To depict this mode of representation clearly and concisely, the speaker—or in this case the comics creator, B.—requires an icon that operates in the dual capacities and creates the interplay necessitated by holonymic representation. The dragon stalks the backgrounds of individual panels and experiences, while embodying a network where each example of witnessing finds itself informed by other links in the trauma network. Moreover, this visual icon provides malleability and plasticity to represent the traumas within the individual experiences distinctly, while possessing enough consistent form for interconnectedness. Each time the dragon appears in relation to the various valences of trauma, it functions holonymically to connect the depicted experience to other individual experiences within the network. Thus, through the over-determination of meaning B. assigns the dragon icon, he engages holonymic representation that unsettles readers and moves them toward more effective witnessing through empathy.

The aesthetic qualities of depicting the icon as nonhuman that B. imbues the dragon bolster the icon’s ability to operate holonymically, and by extension, convey traumatic experience through greater empathic reader response enabled by the nonhuman icon. Trauma theorist Judith Herman identifies the significance between designating trauma as something naturally occurring within the world rather than a manmade creation. When the trauma stressor occurs naturally, or might be seen as an “act-of-God,” witnesses empathize more readily with the survivor, because there is no potential split of human loyalties (7). Although B. experiments with exaggerated shadows of Jean-Christophe in relation to the disease (primarily early in the text), the predominant depiction of the dragon achieves Herman’s designation. By default, this representative mode favors empathy for those affected by the dragon. Ian Williams echoes this sentiment with his discussion of comics creators depicting the invisible components of diseases. He writes that they trigger “a trace of emotion in the reader. Comics demand reader participation—inviting readers to empathize with a subject by entering its world and seeing through its eyes—and enable the reader to gain insight from the vicarious experience” (127). Williams’s attention to vicarious sight strikes an especially poignant note concerning Epileptic, as B.’s reliance on surreal figures accentuates the vicarious experience. Witnessing trauma—a cognitive rupture of previous experience and expectation—benefits from a nonhuman representation, which mimics the surreal feelings resulting from the traumatic experience. The dragon is a consistent visual marker throughout the memoir that designates a disruption of normative events. If B. engaged a more human-like icon—for example, the previously noted shadows or human-shaped phantoms—the empathic effect would be minimal as readers would be more apt to blame Jean-Christophe. Even when B. does draw connections between the disease and Jean-Christophe’s more hateful outbursts directed at the family, the emphasis remains on the disease for causing these actions within Jean-Christophe, as something nonhuman controls him. By inserting the dragon icon as a visual holonym of the trauma network, B. inherently calls attention to the disruption that trauma causes the survivor. With each appearance of the dragon in each trauma manifestation, B. retains the empathic power by forcing readers to reconcile the inhuman qualities of trauma and their interconnectedness through the visual holonym.

In addition to the broad aesthetic qualities of the dragon, B.’s specific design choices also labor towards developing greater feelings of empathy within the reader. As Figure 1 illustrates, the dragon adopts numerous shapes throughout the text, but it retains a regular characterization dominated by heavy black ink with bold lines, stripes, and possesses a consistent head with definite facial features. B.’s artistic direction of the dragon causes the icon to register as something uncanny: strange, yet familiar. This recalls Scott McCloud’s famous edict of “amplification through simplification” as a means of connecting readers with the imagery through more cartoonish artistic styles (30). B. invites readers to consider the dragon as an imaginative (meaning, pulled from imagination) caricature of the trauma, especially when considering its simplified features. I want to clarify my invoking of caricature in relation to traumatic representation. Caricature has the potential to include satire, which is not my goal, nor is my intent. My intent with using the concept of caricature is to connect the unsettling qualities of the image to the Beauchard family experience. Caricature provides a quick shorthand for thinking about the aesthetic features of the icon, as well as connecting to a history of comics life writing. B. infuses the dragon with exaggerated features and overall grotesqueness that arrests reader attention, which calls to mind Charles Hatfield’s theorizations of caricature in comics. As Hatfield notes in Alternative Comics, because of caricature’s shorthand, caricature can help an image’s persuasiveness through increased understandability of the image’s inherent features (114). Case-in-point, the caricature style of the dragon underlines its disruptive role of the dragon to the overall narrative. It accentuates its role as trespasser into the lives of the Beauchard family, and through B.’s eyes, readers see his interpretation and understand his feelings. The consistent style of the dragon, even with the plasticity that B. employs, highlights the interconnection of each trauma manifestation in the graphic memoir. No matter how B. morphs the dragon, readers return to the centrality of the icon and the illness. The icon, like the illness, embodies inescapability.

Figure 1: Epileptic (79)

Although my intent is to articulate how the dragon represents trauma holonymically in Epileptic, we must remember its metaphoric position as well when addressing the individual traumatic experiences. If we overlook this capacity, we risk erasing part of Epileptic‘s empathic ability. Writing about visual metaphors in relation to generating empathy, Elisabeth El Refaie establishes they “are often more specific than their verbal counterparts, capturing nuances of meaning that would be hard to convey through language and often evoking profound emotional responses” (208). As my sections pertaining to the dragon’s aesthetic qualities attest, the uncanny qualities of the dragon—both in an existential and specific creative sense—enable the reader to feel for the survivor. The metaphor needs to capture the overarching feelings and sensations of the survivors (in the case of the dragon, uncertainty, fear, and dread) to function effectively empathically. Readers do not need experience with epilepsy to respond to the metaphor, the nonverbal qualities of the metaphor capture them succinctly. El Refaie continues, “[Visual metaphors] often convey complex abstract thoughts and emotions that would be impossible to represent in any other mode or form. Such metaphors are by their very nature open to more than one interpretation, which makes their use more ‘risky’ for authors, but also potentially more interesting for readers” (208). El Refaie correctly identifies the possible danger when using visual metaphors, but in the context of Epileptic, the potential upside translates into a greater possibility for empathy. Visual metaphors carry an inherent risk for off-putting certain readers if they perceive malice within the creator. We only need to remember the response of Polish nationals to Art Spiegelman’s usage of pigs to identify Poles in Maus. However, because of the malleability of the dragon throughout Epileptic, the metaphor captures the feelings of the different trauma experiences in a nuanced manner that evokes empathy.

Having addressed how the dragon works as an icon that generates reader empathy and establishes the network, I want to shift attention to how B. engages holonymic representation on the meronymic level of the three trauma valences throughout the memoir. Each valence that Root identifies possesses certain characteristics, and by approaching Epileptic through these trauma modes, the holonym’s versatility—and by extension, the ability to interconnect the different valences persuasively—becomes evident. Root outlines the three manifestations of trauma as (i) direct, (ii) indirect, and (iii) insidious. She defines each as (i) the most commonly studied form of trauma where a clear link with “the horribleness of the stressor” and the survivor exists; (ii) becoming traumatized by the trauma of another, especially with “one whom identifies in some significant way,” for example, family members; and (iii) the overall oppressive milieu trauma exerts on an individual or community where they are “devalued because a characteristic intrinsic to identity” varies from the normative power holders (239-40).7 Each of these three valences manifests differently, so the chosen holonymic icon requires plasticity to articulate each constituent experience convincingly while creating the network of multidirectional exchange. Because of the aesthetic qualities provided to the dragon that enable B.’s multidiegetic usage of the icon, the holonymic dragon succinctly indicates the linkage between the valences while affecting the experiences of each constituent. For the upcoming section, I will analyze the different valences through (i) Jean-Christophe, (ii) David, (iii) the family.8 As we delve into these constituent experiences, the holonymic role of the dragon within the larger network of trauma representation remains central. As a result, Epileptic works toward Gilmore’s call for understanding plurality in trauma representation, rather than accepting the traditional understanding of absence and linguistic failure.

Throughout Epileptic, the dragon appears most often in relation to the direct trauma that Jean-Christophe endures via seizures and the resulting physical or psychic wounds. With a few exceptions, Jean-Christophe suffers a seizure whenever the dragon pierces, or otherwise affects, his body, causing violent contortions and falls. The direct trauma of these scenes demonstrates B.’s usage of the dragon as a metaphor for the disease, but also the necessity for reading beyond just the metaphoric and into the trauma representation qualities as well. The dragon often stalks in the background of panels, waiting for the moment to strike. B.’s placement of the dragon in the background—though it does certainly appear in other places as well—indicates the disruptive effect of the direct trauma. This also synchronizes with insidious trauma, but I will account for the ramifications of that valence later. For the purpose of direct trauma, B. provides the visual marker that the disease might intrude at any moment, signifying the direct connection that Root designates.

When the dragon does invade, the focus B. provides Jean-Christophe’s body accentuates the understanding and empathy readers generate. Comics creator and theorist Will Eisner writes at great length about the importance of the body to convey emotion within a comics panel. He posits, “In comics, body posture and gesture occupy a position of primacy over text. The manner in which these images are employed modifies and defines the intended meaning of the words. They can, by their relevance to the reader’s own experience, invoke a nuance of emotion and give auditory inflection to the voice of the speaker” (106). Readers witness as Jean-Christophe loses control of his body, but more importantly, they also understand the disease’s clear role in causing his pain. Figure 2 provides a poignant example of Eisner’s comments. The dragon trips, strangles, and bites Jean-Christophe throughout the panel sequence. B. provides narration, “And he instantly collapses into an epileptic seizure. This one is horrendous. The convulsions go on and on. They twist him into knots. As if he was going to explode” (B. 77). In the panel sequence, the twisting of Jean-Christophe’s body becomes very apparent as each new panel presents him in a different, contorted position. In addition, the increasing action of Jean-Christophe’s body builds a figurative kinetic energy in the panel sequence as the postures become more and more exaggerated. Although we know Jean-Christophe does not literally explode, the increasing and compounding visual energy accentuates B.’s narration that Jean-Christophe looks as though he may.

Figure 2: Epileptic (77)

Beyond amplifying the narration, Eisner’s comments also invoke a multisensuous tactility that further creates empathic understanding. B.’s depiction of the grotesque bodily contortions that Jean-Christophe suffers because of his epilepsy engages Laura U. Marks’s haptic visuality as a means of expressible trauma representation. According to Marks, haptic visuality is “a vision that is not merely cognitive but acknowledges its location in the body” (132). As Marks suggests, haptic visuality relies on multisensuous recollection in order to understand the effect of the image on the reader. Familiar bodily engagements fuel this form of visuality, enabling a broader spectrum of experiential representation and reader understanding through surface reading. Although readers might not have personal experience with the effects of epilepsy, B.’s illustrations of Jean-Christophe’s contorted body speak to reader’s own physical movements or injuries to empower understanding. This is not to say a sprain or strain is equivalent to any level of seizure: they are not the same. To suggest equivalency would be reckless and dangerous. However, there exists enough similarity to register empathy to the experience. Rebecca Scherr offers further understanding of haptic visuality as “it can also be a kind of emotional engagement experienced as bodily feeling. In terms of an artistic strategy, haptic visuality can be understood as a connective readerly address incorporating sensation and emotion in its communicative reach; it is therefore a strategy that calls particular attention to the role of affect in the encounter between work and audience” (par. 6). Scherr’s addition to haptic visuality helps reveal the inherent complexity of B.’s illustrations of both Jean-Christophe’s body and the dragon: readers cannot literally feel Jean-Christophe’s physical pain, but through the haptic visuality, they develop a more cogent empathic response to the trauma circulating the graphic memoir than through prose or text alone. Seeing Jean-Christophe’s body contort forces a bodily connection with readers who in turn recognize both the physical and psychic pain within Jean-Christophe and how they might understand something akin to their experience.

As the narrative progresses, B. continues illustrating haptic images that not only add complexity to Jean-Christophe’s experience but also illuminate the interplay of direct and indirect trauma. Throughout Epileptic, the Beauchard family seeks increasingly radical treatments for Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy as each preceding one eventually fails. Eventually, the family participates in the macrobiotic movement, eating according to the macrobiotic credo, and living in communes when possible. The constant change in the family’s living situation begins weighing on all the family members, and Jean-Christophe starts acting out against the family, in part, because he is the only one physically suffering. Illustrated evocatively in Figure 3, B. recalls a moment after some food goes missing from the pantry and his mother questions Jean-Christophe. B. depicts Jean-Christophe’s rage overwhelming him, and the dragon slithers out from his mouth—while brains and guts equally vacate his body. Although the dragon remains verbally silent throughout the memoir, B.’s artistic direction in this panel does not offer a clear answer to who or what is yelling, “Why are you blaming me? It’s not me! Why me? Not me! Why? Me!” (B. 115). The dragon disrupts the scene, drawing the reader’s attention to its materiality. Especially given that the dragon protrudes from Jean-Christophe’s mouth, Beauchard emphasizes his uncertainty as to whom or what is speaking. We can assume that Jean-Christophe shouts these things at his mother, but that momentary indeterminacy regarding the speaker reveals the interplay of direct and indirect trauma within the panel. Jean-Christophe’s psychic wounds—feelings of unfairness and rage about having epilepsy—demonstrate the direct trauma of the scene. Beyond this direct representation, the indeterminacy of the speaker calls attention to the family’s continual inability to alleviate, much less cure, Jean-Christophe. Feelings of failure weigh heavily on B.’s mother and father as Jean-Christophe’s accusations deepen the psychic wounds. Eventually, the compounding effect of helplessness overwhelms B.’s mother, who is Jean-Christophe’s staunchest protector. In a later scene, the mother leaves while Jean-Christophe suffers a public seizure with a crowd of onlookers surrounding the family. When David finds her, she tells him, “I just needed some fresh air” (B. 237). Perhaps not overly dramatic, but her admission to failure at that moment reifies the indirect trauma that has been building throughout Epileptic. Whereas other family members abandon Jean-Christophe, especially after an angry outburst, his mother consistently defends him and his personality. In this moment, when she leaves the scene of the seizure, B. shows how the traumatic burden of caring for Jean-Christophe finally overwhelms her. Charting back to Figure 3, B. articulates a poignant moment during the journey to reaching that moment with his mother, where the dragon simultaneously represents the direct and indirect trauma within the scene. Thus, the holonymic quality of the dragon comes into plain view as B. highlights the network between the two valences of trauma. The dragon reminds readers of the trauma’s interconnectedness.

Figure 3: Epileptic (115)

As shown, the indirect trauma of Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy manifests within all the family members, but B. achieves the most effective representation in relation to his younger self. Considering Epileptic is B.’s memoir, the focus on the self makes sense. Moreover, of all the family members, other than Jean-Christophe, he interacts with the dragon most consistently. B. mentions at several junctures that he feels the onset of epilepsy but manages to protect himself from the disease through an elaborate series of mental defenses. Regardless of whether David fends off the illness through sheer willpower, the indirect trauma of the experience affects him. While the dragon skulks around the remainder of the family, David often addresses the dragon directly. These confrontations commonly manifest as grand battles where David—wearing the armor of his mind and imagining himself as part of a Mongolian hoard—defends himself against the dragon and drives it back toward Jean-Christophe. Figure 4 depicts a particularly dense and complex series of panels that address the indirect trauma. In addition to creating a metaphorical armor to wear, David creates paper sentries to bolster his mental defenses further. B. recalls, “I draw and cut out huge, articulated figures which I hang on the door of my room. Every night, they stand guard while I sleep. They engage in terrible battles against nocturnal threats. I need to double-check the safeguards that I’ve built for myself. Every night I broach my brother’s territory” (B. 83). While the large battle panel contains numerous monsters—a common trope in Epileptic‘s large battle scenes—two iterations of the dragon appear, as well as one in the subsequent panel. Whether David engages the dragon directly, or through his paper sentries, his fear of catching the disease causes the indirect trauma within him. Watching Jean-Christophe succumb to seizures and various injuries leaves a lasting impression on David and he protects himself up against his brother and the remainder of the family. This fear within David parallels the insidious trauma that circulates the graphic memoir, but in relation to David, manifests because of his interactions with Jean-Christophe.

Figure 4: Epileptic (83)

The genesis of the fear David feels serves an important function in understanding how engrossing the indirect trauma becomes within David’s daily life. Earlier in the narrative, when B. was still around the age of five, he experiences a dream where Anubis visits him in his room. Following the encounter, B. states, “Since then, I may fear people, life, the future. But I no longer fear ghosts, witches, vampires, devils” (B. 17). As B. delivers this pronouncement, various surreal and mythical beasts swirl around David. However, the dragon is noticeably absent in the panel. Yes, B. does not introduce the dragon for several more pages, but the absence of the dragon recognizes the effect of the indirect trauma. B. provides that famous line metadiegetically, rather than through David, marking a temporal dissonance. In other words, these two sentences come from the adult B., writing back about the child, David. Because of this omission, B. emphasizes a fear of the disease, especially through the connection of fearing “people, life, and the future.” In particular, the fear of the future registers as significant. As previously noted, traumatic experience disrupts the expectations of an individual in regards to a normative life. Trauma interjects and upends the survivor’s understanding and perception of the world. By fearing the future, B. reveals that he lost control of his future to some extent. Granted, David is very young at this point, so the extent of his future plans cannot be fully determined. Yet, identifying the fear of what might happen underlines B.’s worry that he might contract the disease at some point in his life despite his attempts at self-preservation. By bringing this fear to the forefront—especially through interaction with the dragon icon—B. further develops the holonymic representation through the nuance of these private scenes.

The revelatory components of life writing shift private moments into the public, demanding recognition within a larger sphere, which given the networking performed by the dragon icon, highlights the interconnectedness of the disparate experiences. In regards to breaking down the varied spheres of private and public, Gilmore offers the following statement. She writes, “Autobiography exposes a limit between the private and the public: it is a representation of personal experience meant to make a claim on public attention. It cannily introjects the private into the public and ensures that what is published cannot be considered exclusively private” (Limits 49). In Epileptic, B. emphasizes his personal traumas that result indirectly from Jean-Christophe’s illness. Here, B. very literally inserts his private experience into the realm of the public through life writing as Gilmore posits. Moreover, the effect of the indirect trauma shapes David in a manner that he tries to keep private: isolation from the family behind his imaginative barriers, but ultimately, his absence illuminates that something is wrong. Beyond this, the visual holonym of the dragon pushes the boundary that Gilmore designates even further by showing not only experiences of indirect trauma, but also the general aura surrounding the stressor: insidious trauma. By uniting the direct experience of Jean-Christophe with the indirect experience of David, the dragon forces consideration of how the two traumas interact in a visceral way. Returning to Hatfield’s comments on the persuasive power of the caricature in comics, the dragon unsettles readers in both experiences. Jean-Christophe’s lack of control contrasts David’s control through fear, but both find themselves wounded by the epilepsy’s effects. Both originate because of the disease, and their interaction on the comics page elucidates how each constituent trauma informs the other while connecting back to the source through the holonymic dragon. In addition, the direct trauma of Jean-Christophe and the indirect trauma of David accentuate each other, heightening their effect on the survivors. Because of this heightening, the direct and indirect traumas also exacerbate the insidious trauma circulating in the narrative as the chance of seizure and David’s isolation not only perpetuates the milieu of fear for the brothers but the family as well.

Representing the insidious trauma populating Epileptic requires some of B.’s most unique usages of the dragon, often destabilizing the structural components of the comics page to great effect. As Root notes, insidious trauma is the most understudied mode of trauma, particularly because understanding insidious trauma requires witnesses to look beyond the immediate blows of trauma and see how forces outside the survivors affect and construct the world (240). B. employs various methods of depicting the oppressive and encompassing atmosphere that the epilepsy propagates—from crowds transforming into an amorphous amalgam bearing twenty sets of eyes to the now familiar dragon. B.’s most cogent example of representing the insidious trauma through the dragon appears in the two-page spread of Figure 5. On the verso page, B. illustrates a caricature of Jean-Christophe with elongated arms and legs, presumably mid-seizure, functioning as the boundary of diegetic space. Preceding this scene, B. employs the same page construction with Jean-Christophe in slightly different poses but always forming the diegetic boundary. On the recto page, B. substitutes his brother’s body for the dragon. The page spread evokes an easy reading of the interchangeability of Jean-Christophe and the epilepsy in B.’s eyes—by this point in the narrative, Jean-Christophe uses his illness as an excuse to act out against his parents. The disease comes to dominate the lives of all the family members, and this spread highlights that elegantly. Moreover, that encompassing feeling strikes at the very heart of insidious trauma. While the disease afflicts Jean-Christophe with direct blows via seizures, they create a spectacle for onlookers to watch and cast judgment—during the recorded period, little was known about epilepsy and various superstitions abounded. Thus, this spread illustrates the overbearing sense of dread that the disease creates within the family as Jean-Christophe will not only suffer more physical wounds, but also increase the psychic wounds of the family that attends to him.

Figure 5: Epileptic (302-303)

The physical parameters and framework of the dragon in the recto page of Figure 5 accentuate the representation’s ability to evoke empathy. A sense of claustrophobia permeates from the page as the dragon forms a closed border around the panels, preventing any imagery from bleeding off the page. Bleed pages often invoke a sense of timelessness, thus keeping the narrative trapped within these tight quarters evokes a sense of how constricting the insidious trauma becomes. Nothing can escape the grasp of the dragon, which literally now becomes the page’s hyperframe; the significance of which Thierry Groensteen elaborates. He writes that it and margin outside the hyperframe inform the reading of the panels within (32). Not only does the page feel constricted and oppressive, now the dragon affects every panel within the page’s architecture through a tactile relationship. Moreover, B.’s usage of heavy black inks within the gutters accentuates the feelings of enclosure and entrapment even before the combination with the dragon’s spots and other features. Not only does the dragon strangle the narrative, but it also invades the extradiegetic space between panels. Pascal Lefèvre identifies that by populating the space between the panels in such a manner, the insidious trauma informs the tension of comics panel reading, which affects readerly understanding of the scene (161). In other words, the insidious trauma soaks into the page, and readers cannot ignore the dragon’s all-encompassing effect on the narrative. Even the lack of stable panel lines—that populate the remainder of Epileptic—remind the reader of the lack of control felt by the Beauchard family. Beyond the local elements of this page that accentuate the insidious trauma, the six-page build up to the Jean-Christophe and dragon substitution carries a similar effect. In Groensteen’s construction of restricted arthrology, the repetition of images serves to “compliment narration” on the panel or page level within a narrative link (22). Considering the first six pages where Jean-Christophe’s grotesque boy forms the hyperframes, each contributes to the overall linkage and effect of the body. Even before B. introduces the trauma icon on the seventh page, readers already understand what happens to Jean-Christophe. He experiences seizures, and their effects overwhelm the narrative, just as the disease does with the daily milieu of the family. Thus, when B. does provide the trauma signifier in the seventh panel, the effect of the modified hyperframes comes to fruition.

Whereas Groensteen posits the panel as the smallest element within his arthrology, thinking about the iterations of the dragon in a similar manner works toward the same end. Adrielle Anna Mitchell deconstructs Groensteen in this very manner, choosing instead to look at individual visual elements within panels to assess their semiotic weight. Mitchell writes about the elements chosen: “Once selected—more or less apt, more or less resonant—these elements enact their influence on the reader, engendering a critical act of synthesis. The new image they compose gets incorporated into the ever-expanding totality that is the subject of the memoir as created in the reader’s mind” (261). Before attending the obvious implications of Mitchell’s comments to holonymic representation, her contribution also applies to insidious trauma. In addition to the connective links established on the formal level of the comics framework, each appearance of the dragon within the panels builds toward a representational synthesis. Each time the dragon appears in the narrative, it works toward a representation of insidious trauma, because readers witness it skulking around Jean-Christophe, waiting to strike, or in a confrontation with David. The very presence of the dragon serves as a reminder of the continuous struggle of the family, in addition to how the illness fundamentally reshapes their world. Fear of the illness remains an ever-present aspect of their lives. The substitution of the dragon for the hyperframe in Figure 5 embodies the logical conclusion of the proliferating insidious trauma, succinctly and elegantly synthesizing the trauma into a unique narrative construction.

Witnessing the insidious trauma that pervades Epileptic provides the greatest sense of the trauma network that holonymic representation arrests. Applying Mitchell’s comments to the dragon icon across the memoir, we recognize how the holonym’s gestalt weighs on readers. The dragon becomes an omnipresent feeling that each appearance contributes to and creates a growing shadow from which neither the family nor readers escape, as Figure 5 deftly illustrates. Moreover, B. strategically over-determines the dragon with greater semiotic weight that evokes empathy within readers to further the emotive connection and ease witnessing. Because of this diegetic and metadiegetic emotive capacity, reading Epileptic‘s dragon demands recognizing the icon as more than only a metaphor or metonym of the disease. The dragon elegantly represents the overarching trauma experience that Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy generates. Simultaneously, B. supplies the icon enough plasticity to provide each constituent experience a unique, memorable, and understandable representation. Even before B. directly links Jean-Christophe’s contorting body to the dragon in Figure 5, readers acknowledge that his direct trauma, David’s fear and mental preparation, and the oppressive social milieu share the same origin and must not be isolated. Returning to my previous idiom, readers see the forest for the trees, but through the nuance, which B. ascribes the dragon, readers simultaneously see the trees and comprehend the weight of the constituent experience. The holonymic representation that B. achieves through the dragon icon, then, attends to Gilmore’s call for exploring and understanding alternative modes of trauma representation. As a means of starting to conclude, and with the concern with empathy throughout this essay, I want to acknowledge how the visual holonym rejects appropriation of the traumatic experience while invoking readerly empathy.

Holonymic representation not only highlights the experiential network underlying a traumatic event but also prevents appropriation from reader-witnesses by calling attention to the inherent distance between the narrative and the reader. Empathy crosses into appropriation when the reader stops feeling for the survivor and assumes some amount of ownership of the experience. The visual holonym simultaneously and paradoxically evokes empathy while preventing appropriation of the experience by calling attention to itself. In Epileptic, this develops through the reader’s recognition of the surrealness of B.’s memoir, in addition to the artist’s chosen icon of the dragon—a nonhuman figure that cannot literally exist. Empathy manifests in many ways throughout B.’s graphic memoir—including the dragon—but it creates the experiential gap that prevents a reader from assuming rather than feeling for. As such, holonymic representation calls to mind Dominick LaCapra’s notion of empathic unsettlement. He defines it as a “virtual experience through which one puts oneself in the other’s position while recognizing the difference of that position and hence not taking the other’s place” (78). For LaCapra, empathy houses the ability to rock the reader from a position of voyeurism and affect a response to the testimony they are witnessing. With an empathic response to trauma, readers open themselves to new understandings of experiences and events that empirical information might elide. Through the “virtual experience,” witnesses to the testimony gain a greater sense of the emotional toll of the traumatic experience that historical or scientific data might not represent.

Moreover, empathic unsettlement prevents misrecognition of the traumatic event. LaCapra explains that “empathic unsettlement poses a barrier to closure in discourse and places in jeopardy harmonizing or spiritually uplifting accounts of extreme events from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit (for example, unearned confidence about the ability of the human spirit to endure any adversity with dignity and nobility)” (41-2). Empathetic unsettlement demands that witnesses understand the truth of the experience. David finding a modicum of happiness while physically separated from Jean-Christophe does not represent David’s ability to reconcile the past, especially as a moral lesson for readers to consume. The trauma network of the dragon icon emphatically denounces any sort of artificial restitution as the interconnectedness of not only the constituent experiences but also the survivors. When one node within the network remains afflicted and traumatized, that pain bleeds through the circuits and into the other constituents. The visual holonym of the dragon accentuates this interconnectedness of trauma experience from the shared trauma stressor to engage empathic unsettlement, in addition to amplifying the emotions within a narrative.

To finish, I want to return to where we began with Gilmore’s analysis of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. In her reading, Gilmore identifies an alternative trauma representation modality to the failure of language, noting Satrapi’s imaginative and creative abilities to depict the voices of those silenced. Gilmore echoes her call for recognizing a plurality of trauma representation, especially given the complex nature of trauma itself. Throughout Epileptic, B. applies his own creative capacities to represent the invisible disease of epilepsy, while simultaneously networking the varied individual traumatic experiences caused by the disease through the visual holonym of the surreal dragon icon. B.’s elegance of representation not only provides alternative ways of visualizing and thinking about trauma, but the interconnectedness of different trauma valences and how they inform one another. B. very directly challenges and rejects the failure of language by placing the dragon within the traditionally theorized void. To this end, the holonymic representation that B. engages demonstrates not only another mode of trauma representation but also how the vocabulary of comics can support and accentuate these different modes of trauma representation.9


[1] Hillary Chute has made a similar demand on comics and trauma scholarship in Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn though her emphasis lies in documenting lived experiences against the grain of silence, whereas Gilmore posits the imaginative possibilities of images, and especially, the comics medium.

[2] For the remainder of the article, I will use the stylized ‘B.’ when referring to the comics creator and ‘David’ when referring to his textual self-representation.

[3] Although holonyms, meronyms, and their semantic relationship most often appear verbally, Epileptic‘s dragon moves them into the visual space. In this case, then, the dragon works holonymically as the unifying symbol that links each of the individual elements together through the familiar and dynamic trauma icon. This symbol calls attention to the relationship between individual elements, or meronyms (in this case, the different valences of trauma within the family), which in turn, enables the sense of gestalt where the compounding effect of witnessing the valences provides greater understanding of the communal traumatic effects than the individual experience independently.

[4] As already implied, the scope of this article pertains exclusively to the dragon and does not address the other surreal elements beyond passing references. Many of the presented readings provide cogent understandings of these other surreal characters.

[5] Although each of the listed individuals serve as witnesses to each other’s traumas during the memoir, my references to witnessing in the article refer to the reader who participates in the role whether actively or not. The role of the reader-witness cannot be understated as their acceptance or rejection of the testimony present in Epileptic enables the proliferation or silencing of the narrative.

[6] While either situation does provide some representation of experiences that are not without some merit, eliding individual traumas or the communal effect of trauma ultimately rejects potentially difficult to hear or read experiences, which dooms them to silence and lack of acceptance.

[7] Root’s taxonomy of different trauma valences originates in her reassessment of trauma manifestations through a feminist lens. Rather than thinking exclusively of trauma as direct blows (direct trauma), Root pushes that we must also consider how stressors affect victims differently, especially those outside the identity sphere that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders traditionally privileged (239). Thus, Root argues that in addition to a direct trauma experience, we must also recognize a person’s relationship to a traumatized individual, as well as the socio-cultural conditions (racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, just to name a few) that can traumatize individuals outside hegemonic power structures. Given the complexity of trauma, more or different manifestations may exist than Root notes, but these three function effectively when contending with trauma representation in Epileptic.

[8] These are by no means the only instances of each valence, but rather, the ones chosen for close reading. Moreover, holonymic representation applies to experiences of the same valence within the same community. My decision to look at these varieties resulted from a desire to address the complexity of Epileptic.

[9] I would like to thank Anthony D. Baker and Brian J. Williams for the support and feedback as this piece evolved from a thesis chapter.

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Laub, Dori. “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Eds. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. New York: Routledge, 1992. 57-74. Print.

Lefèvre, Pascal. “The Construction of Space in Comics.” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009. 157-62. Print.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper, 1993. Print.

Mitchell, Adrielle Anna. “Distributed Identity: Networking Image Fragments in Graphic Memoirs.” Studies in Comics 1.2 (2010): 257-79. Print.

Pratt, Murray. “Dramatizing the Self and the Brother: Auto/biography in David B’s L’Ascension du haut mal.” Australian Journal of French Studies 44.2 (2007): 132-152. Print.

Root, Maria P.P. “Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality.” Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappraisals. Ed. Laura S. Brown and Mary Ballou. New York: Guilford P, 1992. 229-266. Print.

Scherr, Rebecca. “Shaking Hands with Other People’s Pain: Joe Sacco’s Palestine.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 46.1 (2013): n.p. Web. 07 May 2016.

Williams, Ian. “Comics and the Iconography of Illness.” Graphic Medicine Manifesto. Eds. Susan Merrill Squier and Ian Williams. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2015. 115-33. Print.

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