PARIS — An artist was among the survivors of the unspeakable bloodbath at the popular Bataclan concert venue on November 13 last year, when Islamic State jihadists killed 90 people and injured hundreds at a rock concert by the US band Eagles of Death Metal. Published in time for the one-year anniversary of the Bataclan massacre by Lemieux Éditeur, a comic book by that artist recounts the Bataclan attack from a first-person perspective. In Mon Bataclan (“My Bataclan”), Fred Dewilde — a 50-year-old professional graphic artist who illustrates medical books — draws and describes in a black-and-white comic strip format his experience at the Bataclan concert hall the night of the Paris attacks. It is a large formatted 15-page-long comic full of experienced reflection, free of hardened hatred, with a text that speaks of the aftermath of the horror and heartbreak. Dewilde finished the drawings on May 13, 2016, six months to the day after the attacks.
A somber visual mood is quickly established through the pages’ broad black borders. Dewilde depicts himself happily drinking with his friends as the concert began. Then terror ensues. Dewilde renders the jihadists as pitiless, Kalashnikov-firing skeletons in order to express his sentiment that the killers do not belong to a specific human race or religious sect, but are fanatic madness itself. In an interview, Dewilde explained that he did not represent the shooters as human beings because they opted out of humanity through their desire to kill just anyone for a cause. For Dewilde, these men were already dead inside.
In images inspired less by Charlie Hebdo and more by Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse with Pictures series (1498), we see Dewilde, physically unharmed, lying in pools of blood on a dance floor strewn with corpses. He plays dead as he lays between a dead man and a young woman he’s never met named Elisa who has been wounded in the leg. The thunderous sound of gunfire fills the air. In hushed voices, the total strangers hold hands and comfort each other while hiding among the dead. They know that if they are detected among the bodies, the jihadists will shoot them. This terrible ordeal, where tears mingle with stupor, lasts for two hours before police officers arrive and shout: “Stand hands up!”
The booklet is not only instructive in delivering a poignant testimony about what took place that night, but a lesson in how to live after a traumatic experience. In the second, more cathartic part with very few illustrations, “Vivre encore” (“Living Again”), sly black humor helps Dewilde cope, though he continues to jump at noises and has difficulty concentrating. He recounts specific details about friends who survived, his own sense of survivor’s guilt, his interaction with the police and his psychologist, his family’s reactions to the event, and his enduringly tolerant political views. He recounts how his wife, coffee, cigarettes, and movies helped him get through the paralyzing shock. He also recounts what it was like meeting and talking to others who had been at the concert the night of the attack. One, Matt, recounts the smell of the gunfire in the hall, and this sensual memory jolts Dewilde anew. Dewilde also wrote an afterword following July’s truck attack in Nice, when a jihadist ran over 86 people in a crowd enjoying Bastille Day celebrations. In the afterword, he insists that ordinary Muslims must not be blamed for the series of attacks that have rocked France since January 2015, that people must not fall into fear of the other.
This dark but uplifting novella is not only an artistic success, but a moral one, and very helpful in the recovery process slowly underway in Paris after an abysmal year just made worse by Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. The state of bewildered shock in response to that event is palpable. So it is good to hear that the Bataclan itself is planning a defiant return to concerts starting November 12. Along with the reopening of that rock venue, this slim black booklet reminds us in our new Trumped-up world of revenge, intolerance, and isolationism, of the capacity for resistant strength and healing when open and charitable characteristics are sutured back together through the magnanimity of artistic expression and noisy convergence.