Saturday, March 22, 2008

Review: Blue Pills: A Postivie Love Story

The subtitle of European cartoonist Frederik Peeters’ Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story (Houghton Mifflin) refers not so much to the tone of the love story as the HIV status of one of its participants—Peeters’ girlfriend Cati is HIV positive.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. Is this going to be another one of those graphic novels, a memoir casting its writer/artist as the protagonist, heroically facing horribly depressing circumstances, here a terminal disease with no cure?

Well, kinda. But under Peeters’ skilled brush strokes, it’s quite a beautiful book, with loose character designs and jaunty, energetic lines that make each panel flow into the next like a pleasant narrative stream. And while the “positive” in the subtitle may be a play on words, it does refer in some degree to the optimism of Peeters’ story, a story of two young people making a relationship work in a situation that would seem to many of us to be quite literally doomed from the start.

Peeters tells his story in chapters that function as something of a relationship journal, with beginnings, middle and ends to each, even as they contribute to the larger story. He tells of the first time he met Cati, a night he remembers in great detail, though they hardly spoke. He tells of their original courtship and the date during which she drops her bombshell on him over dinner, of their halting sex life, begun on a bed of metaphorical eggshells. And he tells of his own growing relationship with Cati’s toddler son, who is also HIV positive, and how the three of them slowly begin to coalesce into a family.

At first blush, Cati’s story seems like the more dramatic part of the equation, since she’s the one that actually has the disease and the son with the disease, and perhaps the spotlight should fall on her instead of her boyfriend. But looked at one way, Peeters’ dilemma is just as palpable, as he essentially opts into the difficulties of their lifestyle, and struggles with a great degree of guilt over his particular situation.

Peeters takes full advantage of the medium to render complex emotions in simple visual cartoon metaphors, rendering the relatively short book an epic feel.

When the panicked couple visits the doctor after their condom breaks, for example, he tells them that Peeters has as much a chance of catching AIDS as he has of meeting a white rhinoceros on the street outside. Immediately, a perplexed looking rhino appears in the panel behind them, and it will stalk Peeters off and on throughout the rest of the book.

Near the end, Peeters engages in a long Socratic dialogue with a talking wooly mammoth, whose dialogue bubbles emanate from the tip of his trunk, about the role mortality plays in his relationship, and how he’ll ultimately come to grips with it.

That he does, and makes such a compelling comic about it in the process, is just one more positive aspect of this particular love story.

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