I’m crazy about the comics of David B. As anyone who has read his Epileptic can agree, David B. has a rare, unique art style with an abstract complexity which could only ring true in the world of comics, but resonates deeply. In his unique page design and distinct worldview, David B. presents comics that are idiosyncratic without being bizarre.
Black Paths, the 2008 graphic novel about the serendipitous 1920s Italian city-state of Fiume, displays his art at its most intriguing. David B. has always been outstanding at presenting the interior-exterior dichotomy of a scene by delivering images which display both intense action and emotion of the people experiencing any given scene.
The opening panels I included above stopped me cold. I stared at those images and wondered what to make of them, rolling around in my mind the question of how to consider those bizarre creations on the printed page until I figured out that the scene was meant to be seen literally and figuratively at the same time. The page shows the literal effects of a riot on the streets of Fiume, where laws weren’t in effect and rioters would start fighting over the most trivial of events, while also showing us the reactions of the people inside the action. David B. is showing the anger of the men fighting each other, their fury abundant in every panel.
But David B. is also being figurative. The people in this riot are employed as stage-setting and background. Black Paths won’t focus on the rioters, but we need to understand them in order to understand the setting and themes that will follow. He gives readers context and forces us to engage in the story. By starting out readers from a position of confusion, David pulls us into the book, forces us to pay closer attention to future events, and sets the stage for a work that often confuses at the same time it intrigues. As we find out on page three, “there are brawls like that every day! We’re bored stiff here!”
Black Paths proceeds in its own rambling and sometimes shambolic way, as is often the case in David B’s comics. This tendency towards meandering worked well in Epileptic where the story followed that of a very confused man-child whose illness ravaged his brain. It works less well here as a standalone graphic novel.
In the beginning of this book we’re plunged into a series of prologues that set the stage, including a fateful encounter with a kidnapped woman and a brief history of the town itself:
Again you can see David’s wonderful design elements at play on this page, with his charming use of symbolism. Sometimes, while reading this, I just wanted to smile and bask in the glory of his delightful designs without consideration of plot and character. It’s interesting to wonder how David B. would produce a piece of straight history that didn’t have a fictional story attached to it because it’s with the story that he has his limits.
The story in Black Paths never gains momentum, and none of the characters really come to life for readers. We meet poets and singers, bandits, masons and revolutionaries. But we never get a sense of who these people really are. We see their actions, which are interesting, but we seldom get a sense of why these people are taking the actions that they take or why they have a certain belief system. We can’t help but to be absorbed by the setting, by the obscure battles that everybody is forced to fight in this strange city simply to get by, and by the sense that Europe was trying to reinvent itself in light of the greatest holocaust that had been visited on that continent up to that time. Regrettably, by the end of the book I didn’t feel very enlightened by the events that I’d witnessed.
Black Paths is most powerful when it falls back to David B.’s wheelhouse in creating powerful images. The sequence above, which takes place in a No Man’s Land during World War I, is weird and stimulating, and has haunted me since I saw it. David’s depiction of the ghosts is so European, so thoroughly different from what we’re used to seeing in American comics that it literally haunts the brain. This is exactly the sort of image I want from a David B. comic.
That scene is undercut two pages later with an offhand comment by one character: “Lauriano made a myth out of his two days in no-man’s-land. The war ended a few months later, and he’d come out of it without a scratch.” Is David looking to weaken his characters, or to make them more realistic by making them unreliable narrators? Whatever his intention, it weakens the thrust of the story.
The War hangs over everything in this book. The nice design above shows the work of revolutionary newspapermen in Fiume, ready to help push Italy into the right stance in the next war. Here again you can see David’s style working against itself. Are the men here intended to look strange and off-putting? Are we supposed to be interested or repelled by the swastika? Whatever David B’s intent, I was repulsed by several of the images he presented. That tension between repulsion and intrigue gives the work its considerable power, since it represents popular schools of thought between World War I and World War II, but that tension is exhausting for a reader.
Black Paths is a disappointing graphic novel. I walked away from it with a feeling that David B. had accomplished most of the work of creating a fascinating world and complex characters, but then wasn’t able to deliver his full vision on the printed page There’s a lot here that could be compelling, but which falls short for one reason or another. It doesn’t help that the book ends on an inconclusive note – likely because David plans more graphic novels in this series. The unsatisfying ending gives Black Paths an awkward, unfinished feel that leaves a sour taste.
David B. wouldn’t be the first cartoonist whose ambitions outpaced the work he could deliver, but he is definitely one of the finest cartoonists to reach that sad distinction. I really wanted to love this book and find myself caught up in this strange Italian town, in the romance he presents, in the revolution presented, and mainly in his amazing artwork. Unfortunately, I only was able to love the artwork.