Blue Pills: review
Blue Pills was previously published in Europe, where it won the Premios La Carcel de Papel in Spain and the Polish Jury Prize at Angouleme. It has sold over 20,000 copies in its original French edition, and now Houghton Mifflin is publishing it in the United States. This graphic novel by Frederik Peeters is a personal memoir of his relationship with a woman and her young son, both HIV positive. Intimate, emotional, deeply personal, it’s exactly the kind of story I thought I wouldn’t like.
I was wrong.
Let’s start with the main thing I thought I wouldn’t like: the artwork. Peeters uses a very blunt line, without a lot of detail. The impression is rough rather than smooth, sketchy rather than finished. The pages are, for the most part, variations on the six-panel grid. It doesn’t feel like something that can easily convey complex feelings, and yet, cumulatively, it does.
Then, I thought I wouldn’t be involved in a story about a man’s pursuit of a woman he noticed, at first, because she had beautiful breasts. Her name is Cati, and we don’t learn a lot about her at first, just as the narrator doesn’t know much. He’s obsessed with her, but I wasn’t. He loves her, but I didn’t. He’s horrified by her HIV status, but I’m not. Not at first. As the story goes on, and we see her interact with the narrator, with her little boy, and with her illness. we see a more complex and interesting character. I love the way she calls her son, "Little Wolf." I love the way the boy carries around his toy dinosaur. I love the way he’s cautious with the man in his mother’s life. His caution and eventual acceptance of the narrator made me feel more accepting. As those two bonded, so did I.
Did Cati grow to love Frederik more because her son did, just like me? Maybe. I think her feelings towards him deepened as he grew to love her son.
The book’s narrative traces the relationship, and the conflicts and special problems that accompany HIV as it develops from a fatal disease to a chronic condition. The medicines Cati and her son have to take, the side effects, the visits to the doctor’s office — all these are things that are part of their daily lives. It’s hardly the stuff of romance novels, and yet it works here as a test of Frederik’s feelings. When Cati tells him she wants to have a child with him, it’s simultaneously a challenge, a celebration, a fool’s errand and a joy.
Haughton Mifflin published an annual collection of The Best American Comics, the most recent selected by Chris Ware, and last year published Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. They had a table at MoCCA this year, and seem to be a real player in the graphic novel market. If they have a house style, I can’t see it. However, as they publish more, I wonder if they will develop loyal fans, such as those earned by Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf and Fantagraphics.
Will these fans argue about the virtues of their favorite publishers, as other comics fans do? Will Houghton Mifflin develop a consistent universe, like DC and Marvel, with all the crossover possibilities that entails?
Probably not. But if so, I call dibs on the t-shirt license.
Blue Pills – a positive love story
by Frederik Peeters
Publication Date: January 15, 2008