Review: ‘Blue Pills’ by Frederik Peeters
By Frederik Peeters; translated by Anjali Singh
Houghton Mifflin, January 2008, $18.95
This is another one of those semi-autobiographical graphic novels; I’m not going to assume that this is all “true” (whatever that means), but I will note that Peeters’s bio says that he lives with his girlfriend, her son, and their daughter — and that [[[Blue Pills]]] is the story of a man named Fred, his girlfriend, and her son. (And the main character of this book mentions that he working on a graphic novel about their lives.) So keep that in the back of your head — some proportion of this book is true, though we don’t know how much.
Fred, the narrator of Blue Pills, is a Swiss cartoonist, still in his mid-20s, who’s lived in Geneva his whole life. He remembers Cati vividly from a pool-party late in his teens, but never really knew her well. When he moves into the apartment building where she lives, though, he comes to see more and more of her and her young son (called “the little one” or “L’il Wolf,” but not named). Before long, Fred and Cati are drifting into a relationship, and Cati has to sit Fred down and tell him something difficult — both she and her son are HIV-positive.
(The “Blue Pills” of the title refer to their drug regimen to stay symptom-free, though they’re never called that in the body of the book. The fact that most Americans will immediately think of Viagra when blue pills are mentioned is unfortunate, but neither Peeters nor Houghton Mifflin seems to have taken a moment to worry about it.)
Blue Pills goes on from there to chronicle Fred and Cati’s relationship, in a very matter-of-fact, everyday manner. L’il Wolf is in the hospital for an intensive treatment in the summer of 2000, which is clearly difficult and frightening at the time, but it doesn’t become the axis of the story.
In fact, it’s difficult to define the second half of Blue Pills, because the book is so everyday and focused on Fred and Cati’s relationship — there are pages and pages of them talking, or of Fred thinking about the relationship. (Or, in one case, riding a talking mammoth and chatting with it about his relationship — such are the possibilities of comics!)
In the end, Blue Pills is about HIV only inasmuch as HIV is the big barrier to Fred and Cati’s intimacy — every couple will have some issue that can pull them together or throw them apart, depending on how they deal with it, and this is their issue. They see a doctor several times, first in a panic after a condom breaks, and gradually settle into a comfortable sex life, without panics.
I should mention that, though there’s a little bit of tasteful nudity in Blue Pills, the sex in question is all off-page. It’s talked about, and it’s important, since it’s a big piece of their relationship, but this isn’t a book about bouncing body parts.
Peeters’ art is appealingly offhand, defined by lots of thick black lines. His characters manage to look fleshy and imperfect in his black and white panels, with their big teeth and wide staring eyes. His storytelling is quiet and occasionally elliptical; Blue Pills, at times, takes place mostly in Fred’s head. I seem to be reading a lot of these not-precisely-true but not-exactly-not-true GNs lately; Blue Pills is good but not spectacular in that company.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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