One of the first of many vividly expressed moments of honesty in Frederik Peeters’s autobiographical graphic novel, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, comes very early. Cati, the thrilling and beautiful woman the somewhat glum Peeters has just fallen for, tells him that she is HIV positive. A trio of panels follow in which Peeters’s shrinking figure is surrounded by a rush of his “most extreme feelings”—outpouring of thick, blackly lettered emotions that range from passion and pity to desire, flight and sadness.
First published in 2002 in Switzerland, Blue Pills is an off-kilter and moving account of Peeters and Cati’s relationship, which undergoes trial after trial at the hands of her invisible but frightening condition. It manages to be both powerfully romantic and carefully unsentimental and is much more than a mere journal of disease. And the book is injected with an entirely new dimension with the appearance of Cati’s young son, with his moon-eyes and chomping teeth, who is also HIV positive.
Blue Pills won the Best Book prize at the 2002 Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, selling some 20,000 copies in the original French and later translated into several languages, including Korean and Polish. It was acquired by Houghton Mifflin senior editor Anjali Singh and a U.S. edition was released last month. Although Singh has become known for acquiring and editing graphic novels, her specialty is literary fiction in translation. She left Pantheon in 2006 after helping turn the house into a serious contender in international graphic novel publishing by acquiring such acclaimed titles as Epileptic and Persepolis.
In an interview with PW Comics Week, Peeters—a Swiss artist who has worked as an illustrator in addition to publishing comics since 1997—said that his book before Blue Pills, Les Miettes, had been “technically very heavy and complicated.” This time, he wanted “to attack a story very quickly, without reflecting, without writing and without sketching, in total improvisation.” To that end, Peeters turned to the closest subject at hand, “namely the love story that I had lived for around a year.” That he was taking a very intimate part of his and Cati’s relationship and presenting it for the world to see was not a hindrance. “She knew about it right away,” Peeters said, adding that Cati followed the progress of the book, never objecting to anything but making suggestions from time to time. “Every so often she made some remarks in advance, warning me against certain possible paths—particularly excessive sentimentalism and about pity.”
There were a multitude of things that drew Singh to Blue Pills, she said, pointing to a “depth of character” that’s hard to find in graphic novels. She glowingly compares Peeters’s “incredibly honest” work to the French comics she’d worked on previously at Pantheon, calling his a “natural successor to those books.” Singh, who compares Peeters’s artwork to that of acclaimed Blankets author Craig Thompson, believes the book to be “very immediate and accessible,” which is borne out by Peeters’s brash artwork and his purposefully straightforward and reflexive take on the material. Indeed, when she discovered the book she was surprised to find that U.S. rights to the book were still available and said she is “very lucky” to have been able to publish the book here.
Fortunately for Peeters, his first work to be translated into English is in Singh’s hands. Not only has Singh worked on numerous French-language comics before, she also translated Satrapi’s Persepolis into English. Peeters said, “I was not at all worried about the translation. I knew that [Singh] had done a good job on [Persepolis 2]. And she showed me that I had no reason to be worried.” While Singh admitted that “translation is never easy,” she also emphasized that it is “incredibly rewarding when you’ve done it.”
Peeters described some emotional distance from the book today since it’s been in print for almost six years. “I do not reread this book,” he said. “It is a period that was part of my life, in the same measure as so many others. I have changed, everything has changed, but nothing is dramatic.”