Writer, Artist: David B.
Translation: Brian and Sarah Evenson
Publisher: Uncivilized Books
Good luck coming up with an easy summary of Incidents in the Night, David B.’s series of graphic novels. There are elements of a paranoid conspiracy thriller: in the first volume, David B. learns of the existence of a mysterious newspaper and a secret society, and teams up with a morally grey inspector, Commissioner Hunborgne, and a reporter named Marie to investigate them. There’s also an absurdist element: David B. narrates a summary of the events of the first book as a kind of prologue to this volume; towards the end, we encounter this jarring moment: “I am stabbed and thrown into the Seine, but my murder had a strange witness.” There are elements of the supernatural, the metaphysical, and the metafictional all converging on the narrative; the result is often exhilarating.
David B.’s brother Jean-Christophe shows up in this volume to continue his brother’s investigation. This time around, the plot includes even more secret societies, leaping back and forth in time to suggest an even more vast shadow history of Paris. There are conspiracies for good and ill: some of bookstores, some of kings and some of bridge-watchers. And the antagonistic figures in the story—the possibly immortal Émile Travers, the sinister god Enn-reveal even more of their surreal methods. In one particularly memorable stroke, the reader learns that Travers recruits his gang along almost archetypal lines; the artwork depicts armies of potential duplicates, physically distinctive individuals awaiting their turn to replace some evildoer killed in the midst of an unpleasant action.
At times the detours into histories official and secret remove some of the drive of the first volume. There are a number of scenes that involve characters sharing information with one another; if the stories in question weren’t so bizarre and evocative, that might be more of an outright criticism. Here, it suffices that this feels like a middle volume: it’s both a deepening of what David B. created in the first book and a continuation of it.
The artwork here showcases characters both grotesque and elegant: Travers’s gang in particular features a memorable selection of grotesques: a rogue’s gallery that could serve as the dictionary illustration for the term. As befits his vaguely sinister origins, Hunborgne is given a demeanor somewhere between authoritarian and fearsome. There are also loving depictions of arcane, possibly occult volumes, gorgeous images of Paris buildings at night, and ominously assembled ceremonies featuring beggars and kings alike. A bookstore whose interior transforms into an evocative landscape is one of the most adventurous takes on bibliomania readers are likely to encounter. And a few glimpses of pages from Incidents in the Night—the publication within the publication—are both evocative and unsettling, full of uncanny and menacing imagery.
Whether it’s read as a strange meditation on storytelling and obsession or a detective story unlike any other, this volume of Incidents in the Night has plenty of strange and compelling narratives to offer. As befits a story in which rare books and obscure histories play a key role, there’s a slightly insular quality here. The story being told is cerebral and visceral in equal measure, and it succeeds impressively in both qualities.