Between 1999 and 2002, as the French cartoonist David B. was serializing his autobiographical masterpiece “Epileptic,” he also published the three short volumes of a loopy, surreal series, collected here (and translated into English for the first time) as “Incidents in the Night.” The story, B. claims at the outset, comes from a dream he had: In a bookstore, he discovers a few bound collections of a long-forgotten 19th-century newsmagazine called Incidents in the Night. In search of more, B. loses himself in the chaotic mountain of books within another Parisian bookstore.
He learns that Incidents was founded by Travers, a survivor of the Battle of Waterloo who, miraculously, is still alive. Travers hopes to escape the Angel of Death by hiding inside a book whose “pages are covered from beginning to end with rows of the letter N” — a tribute to a forgotten god of extermination called Enn .
In its obsession with bookstores and libraries, in its nested dreams and tale-tellings, in its straight-faced conflation of history and impossibility, and in the tone of pulpy detective yarns that pervades its final third, “Incidents” owes more than a bit to Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories. The big difference is its visual dimension: Here, as in many of his other comics, B. plays with the ways the sleeping mind can turn reality into abstraction and faces into masks. His artwork is symbolic much more than it is representational; many of his characters wouldn’t look too far out of place in cave paintings or on funerary urns. A pile of books, we understand from the way he draws it, can also be a mound of prehistoric animal bones or a heap of corpses. The author’s own frail body, as drawn by his hand, always threatens to become the letter N, the sign of nothingness in the cosmology he has devised.