A Positive Love Story
By Frederik Peeters
Translated by Anjali Singh
Fred had long admired Cati from afar... Over the years they bump into each other, but nothing ever seems to come of it. Fred becomes a successful cartoonist, Cati gets married and divorced. One day, they're reunited at a party, and things start to get serious. There's only one problem — Cati's HIV-positive. In this series of short vignettes, cartoonist Frederik Peeters recounts how he came to grips with her disease and his role in her life.
Most of the HIV literature I've read over the years has been laser-focused on the experience of sufferers, and it's refreshing to see one that deals with an ordinary, uninfected person trying to wrap his head around the disease afflicting a loved one. In many ways, it makes the book very effective, as it's easy to put yourself in Peeters's shoes, sharing his anxieties and joys. At times, though, this approach can be infuriating, as Peeters rarely tackles the big issues head-on. Instead, he spends pages dancing around them, focusing on tangents, occasionally having a big insight, but rarely wrapping his head around the full implications of what he's learned. Then again, such an approach wouldn't be true-to-life — when's the last time you had a huge revelation that forced you to re-evaluate everything? If you're looking for something that wraps up Peeters's thoughts in a nice package, you'll be disappointed, but the snapshots we see of his mental state at various points throughout the relationship are equally as revealing.
In many ways, this book is also a love letter to Cati. Peeters clearly admires her strength and perseverance, and it's interesting to see the way they draw power from each other to become far stronger than either could be separately.
Speaking of Cati...
I love this character design. It matches Peeters's description of her perfectly — pale, frail, and beautiful. The large eyes are enticing, striking — and simultaneously pleading and vulnerable. And their unnatural size can sometimes allow them to serve as a barrier, making her inner thoughts seem remote and unknowable. The simple shape of her head gives her an elegant thinness, while sometimes making her feel uncomfortably so. The bags under her eyes and her disheveled hair make her look haggard, but not so haggard that you can't how beautiful she could be. It's a beautiful design, and Peeters's book is filled with great designs like this.
Unfortunately, like a lot of cartoonists, Peeters can't resist the lure of redundant captions and dialogue. It's inevitable that in a book where the majority of the "action" consists of either internal monologue or conversations between two people, some of it is going to be redundant. Here's an example...
The captions on this page are almost entirely unnecessary. The caption in the third panel just reiterates something made crystal clear by the atmospheric art. The caption in the fourth panel is equally unnecessary, as most of the next page shows her mixing the medication into her son's yogurt. I think the page would flow better if those two captions were removed, and the remaining caption moved from the second panel to the third panelto provide a bit of a counterpoint to the art.
But that's a nitpick, because otherwise this is a very well put-together page. The action of the first panel nicely encapsulates the developing relationship between Frederik and Cati's son, with the hedge separating them serving as a nice reminder of the emotional distance between them. Cati's face, dappled with chaotic shadows from the leaves above, really captures both her cheerful façade and her inner turmoil, and those huge eyes are just haunting. Vertical elements in each panel pull the eye down through the tiers, and the panels become progressively darker as well. I also like how the black areas start out crisp and clean, only to become progressively more chaotic — it helps underscore the tension of an otherwise unremarkable moment.
Overall, Blue Pills is a charming book, well-crafted and filled with interesting thoughts on a topic that most people try to avoid. If you're looking for something as profound as Epileptic or Persepolis you may be disappointed, but if you're willing to engage Blue Pills on its own terms you'll be pleasantly charmed.