And so we come to ponder the mysteries of Enki Bilal
one final time. Born in Belgrade, raised in Paris, filmmaker and comics artist - a man of unique qualities.
Oh, he's a bestselling comics guy, yeah; he might seem a bit like your Moebius or Jodorowsky at first, at least in terms of sheer praise and international recognition; artists as seemingly far removed as Taiyō Matsumoto have cited him as influential, once you poke around.
But Bilal is also quite different from the 'major' artists published by Humanoids in North America -- the multi-book artists, I mean, who got the hard sell by name -- in that he entered the French comics scene in 1972, breaking into Pilote
just as a major contingent of the magazine's artists departed to found L'Écho des Savanes
. His talent blossomed as Humanoïdes was formed in France, two years later. He was a comics artist first (though he would later direct movies), and among the first of the Franco-Belgians to know from the start an environment capable of supporting many works that needn't always keep children in mind as a pertinent faction of the audience; his growth, thus, was concurrent with that of the scene
There's also something that sets him apart from the rest of the Humanoids crew in North America. Moebius, for example, is the kind of artist that most English-reading comics enthusiasts have at least heard of, if maybe not quite read. Jodorowsky may not be as well known as a comics writer, but his has a film career to feed his name recognition. Both of them could be presented to North America with some easy confidence.(Our Man, with alien and wife, from Memories)
Bilal, on the other hand, is the kind of European comics artist that gets what I like to call a "perennial effort" in English environs - a series of 'pushes' by various publishers, every few years, with each instance resulting in a number of works being published and a number of admirers getting branded, but nothing quite sticking, and then everything fades, until the next attempt (typically by a different publisher), by which time many potential readers seem to have forgotten who the artist is. Jacques Tardi is perhaps the ultimate "perennial effort" artist, having gone from the earliest days of Heavy Metal
to issue #1 of RAW
through Graphic Story Monthly
, Cheval Noir
, Drawn and Quarterly
, and all the way down to Fantagraphics' upcoming slew of releases
; and just as I'd prepared to check my watch!
So it went for Bilal, albeit to a lesser extent. The first press came in the late '70s/early '80s, when Heavy Metal printed a number of his short stories and serialized a few early albums. Flying Buttress Publications also published a collection of shorts titled The Call of the Stars
in 1979. This was the underground 'bridge' period, from which came the first push of Humanoïdes material into English-reading North America, although not all of the Bilal content released originated with Humanoïdes.
The second period (1986-90) arrived by way of Catalan Communications, which did a very impressive job of anticipating virtually every move DC/Humanoids would make over a decade later. Seriously: one of the books contained in the DC/Humanoids omnibus Memories
was published as Outer States
; one of the three albums making up the DC/Humanoids Townscapes
appeared as The Town that Didn't Exist
; both component parts of the DC/Humanoids The Chaos Effect
popped up separately as The Hunting Party
and The Ranks of the Black Order
; and the first two parts of The Nikopol Trilogy
emerged as Gods in Chaos
and The Woman Trap
. That's four out of five DC/Humanoids releases accounted for, and Bilal hadn't started drawing the fifth one.
Humanoids kicked off the third period in 2000 by bringing out their very first trade paperback, an edition of Bilal's then-new(ish) The Dormant Beast
. A number of oversized hardcover volumes of earlier work followed, including a newly re-colored edition of the Jean-Pierre Dionnet-written Exterminator 17
, which takes the triple crown for showing up in all three periods of Bilal's North American presence (Heavy Metal, 1978-79; Catalan, 1986; Humanoids, 2002) while also somehow managing to be the only one of Bilal's works to not
get reprinted under the DC/Humanoids deal, despite a sequel series drawn by Igor Baranko (of The Horde
) starting up in prime 2003 placement. Perhaps they were waiting for future chapters?
In any case, don't expect the next effort to come from the present DDP/Humanoids partnership; even as the DC deal started coughing up blood in North America, Bilal picked up his entire French catalog and moved it over to the large publisher Casterman, which just released the artist's latest book last month, a self-contained futuristic eco-western titled Animal'z
. The Bilal Library still can be of some use, though, as its completism-unto-redundancy offers an able enough peek at the life 'n times, from the lingering youth focus of the '70s to the auteur advancement of just before the last time it all ended.Townscapes
And god, how didn't this
catch on? I guess North American audiences just weren't ready for a comics series detailing the adventures of a streetwise, trenchcoat-clad magician with a violent past and a thing for left-leaning causes. Bit of a lady-killing bastard too; lots of hard politics behind the stories. That shit never plays. At least he doesn't smoke!
Ah, but while the man on the cover might as well be John Constantine's older cousin, his series isn't much like Hellblazer
at all. It's also a bit different from the rest of the Bilal Library, in that Bilal isn't the original creator of the work - that would be writer Pierre Christin, best known for the popular all-ages sci-fi series Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent
, drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières.
Christin started Légendes d'aujourd'hui
(roughly, Legends of Today
) in Pilote in 1972 -- the same year Bilal entered comics, via the same magazine -- with the story Rumeurs sur le Rouergue,
drawn by no less than the aforementioned Jacques Tardi, whose contributions do not appear to have been widely reprinted, or even acknowledged. Literally the most
said of Tardi in Townscapes
is through a single art detail included as part of an 'in-story' comics-format introduction to the series, which picks up as the young Bilal appears for the series' second storyline, first collected in 1975. The artist would remain with the series for the rest of its run, ending at three post-Tardi albums in total. The contemporary default appears to frame the series as a purely Bilal-Christin work.
That makes publishing sense, I suppose; the pair went on to work on several additional projects, including the two albums collected in The Chaos Effect, as well as the as-of-yet untranslated likes of 1984's faux-documentary comic L'étoile oubliée de Laurie Bloom: Los Angeles, 1984
(The Fallen Star of Laurie Bloom: Los Angeles, 1984
), 2001's postcard-type art showcase Les correspondances de Pierre Christin: Le Sarcophage
(The Correspondences of Pierre Christin: The Sarcophagus
), 2005's Coeurs sanglants et autres faits divers
(Bloody Hearts and Other Various Events
), which I believe is a collection of assorted short works, and Bilal's 1989 film Bunker Palace Hôtel
, which Christin co-wrote.
Yet the stories of Townscapes seem set apart from the rest of Bilal's works, even those written by Christin. Most obviously, it is early
work by Bilal, visually, and separated from the fantastical scenery and overt surrealism that marked so much of the short works collected in Memories. It's still quite nice to look at, granted, and spiked with a fondness for physical comedy that wouldn't appear in his 'mature' works.
Of course, that immediately leads us into yet another confrontation with Humanoids' alterations to the material, a re-coloring job by Dan Brown. Once again, though, the situation is a little different than what we saw with Moebius
, in that Bilal eventually became his own
colorist -- indeed, an innovator in 'direct coloring' in French comics altogether -- with such a distinctive style that really any
of his art that doesn't sport his particular approach seems to be somehow incomplete. Think early Mike Mignola, or any Mike Allred comic not colored by a member of his immediate family - it's like they're different people, so powerful is 'their' coloring, even if they're not personally applying it, as Bilal does.
As a result, even the original colors of these works don't seem entirely 'right,' although I do still prefer the older style. Take this bit with a chapel breaking free from the earth:(from Heavy Metal Vol. 6 No. 5, August 1982)
Now, there's no denying the fact that the 'before' sample has been slightly blown up for publication in comparison, but I still like the primal force of the harsh white rock thrusting against a stormy blue sky - it creates a movement of its own, in contrast with the more naturalistic style of the DC/Humanoids 'after' image, all 'realistic' earth tones and (fitting!) drabness that nonetheless seems to coax Bilal's work into stillness, despite the action being depicted.
That seems to have been the guiding principle behind most of Humanoids' coloring choices: realism, when gloom and grit couldn't make things serious
. Note too the more poetic intent of the Heavy Metal translation - I don't have access to the French text so as to verify the fidelity of either example, but the earlier example does seem oddly responsive to its searing colors, while the Humanoids stuff is as matter-of-fact as those muddy hues.(Id.)
Granted, the early Heavy Metal did have a tendency for wordiness, to sometimes clunky effect (that last balloon must've been hungry, since it ate
that dude's hand). And the Humanoids rendition here does seem to fit the dialogue in a very literal manner, although I still like the disconcerting cheer of those limited greens and blues(from Heavy Metal Vol. 6 No. 7, Oct. 1982)
It all comes down to blood-red mystery fluids vs. sweat-on-scales, I guess. Surely the re-coloring here isn't nearly as awful as that on The Incal
; sometimes it even intensifies the lived-in nature of the community scenes Bilal puts together, even as it strips away an added layer of the fantastic, which maybe helped offset the callowness of Christin's concept.
You see, Townscapes isn't just the adventures of a tough, dark magician-of-the-people. I haven't even mentioned his name since, er, Christin doesn't give
him one, at least not beyond the various aliases presented in the introduction. It doesn't matter - he has no personality at all, really, and typically doesn't interact with the characters of any given storyline beyond what is necessary to facilitate the magic of each plot. Christin himself admits as much in that introduction (wherein he and Bilal appear as characters), dubbing his protagonist:
"A nothing, a non-hero, one product among many of the society where he belongs... just an extra, a represenentative from the historical future, the expression of societal forces in the midst of struggle, class struggle of course, in which the dominant ideology is ridiculed by the
At which point he's cut off by frothing, sunglasses-wearing military General with a crew cut, who will later be thrown down a burning pit into the sewers, which is about the tone struck by the rest of the work as well.
Townscapes, you see, is a political book. A wildly simplistic, reductive, arguably reactionary political book, held together by a "non-hero
" that essentially advocates an active divorce from modern society. For kids! And pay attention to the Légendes
in the original French title; these are really political fables
, its characters poised in the manner of archetypes of virtue and wickedness so as to charge their writer's views with the snap of classical wisdom, no doubt to get the message across clearer to Pilote's youth-skewing readership.
Hey, 1972 wasn't that far off from the Paris student riots of '68, which sparked a radical sentiment in a lot of artists. One suspects this stuff is coming mostly from the heart, albeit pumping with enough experience to know that revolution itself is unlikely to happen, since all three of these stories deal with escape: The Cruise of Lost Souls
deals with a village that temporarily floats away from its rapidly industrailizing surroundings; Ship of Stone
sees another village dismantled brick by brick by magical forces and reassembled far away from resort development; and The Town That Didn't Exist
presents the erection of a walled-off, classless utopia in the midst of urban labor struggles.
As mentioned before, Christin's nameless non-hero is a catalyst
rather than a personality. He typically shows up out of nowhere, holding the key to mastering some esoteric technology or magical persuasion, or sometimes having merely convinced someone with better resources than him to do something. He always works to aid the People, whom Christin typically presents as a collective
, with individual personalities mostly allowing for jokes or smoother conversation. But they are always the Workers, the Farmers, the Fishermen, and always meanaced by unfailingly wicked or buffoonish developers, captains of industry, various bourgeois or worse - heaven knows anyone
wearing a military uniform in these comics is at best a poor fool under the control of malevolence, if not overtly malevolent themselves. Our Veterans are accorded some respect, though, to the extent that they (always) return to a cruel place that exploits them!
And I assure you, as fascinating as these comics can be for the purposes of studying political diatribe in children's comics, they really are as tinny and uncomplicated as I'm making them out to be. The Cruise of Lost Souls
in particular is loaded with facile metaphor for empowerment as the town floats above various stunned people's heads, all while the military goons who were trying to master the floating technology for warfare find themselves mutating into literal monsters. There's a nod toward dissent in the form of the town's sputtering conservative deputy mayor (not a real leader, tee hee), who's heroically threatened with death when the time comes to negotiate with the twisted military forces, thus evoking the timeless political theme of No Snitches.Ship of Stone
goes even deeper, when resort development in Brittany pisses off a local sorcerer, the sacred power of the land, if you will, prompting Our Non-Hero and the obligatory villagers to witness a parade of all of the dead from the long history of the region -- including some obviously alien pre-human settlers -- rising up to load the friendly old fishing town on a big ship to set sail for another, unspoiled place - and who's going to argue with the force of history, all of which happen to agree with Pierre Christin's politics of the '70s?
Indeed, the 'radical' stance Christin presents in his legends is really an affirmation of tradition
, and a broadside against the industry and militarization that threatens the sacred soil of bucolic France and all that. All of these unwitting (but happy!) revolutionaries are against the modern world, primed to escape to a place where good people work the land and technology knows its place, and neighbors help one another and all kinds of truly fantastic notions about a probably-more-legendary-than-these-legends past. It's nostalgic
, even in its evocation of gothic fantasy tropes as the stuff of magic, which will lead us away from this caricature of society that is post-industrialization.
Amusingly, if you take a good look, Christin is apparently also more than willing to turn back the clock on social politics to accomplish the greater good. He may have created one of the most beloved female characters in the history of French comics with his sci-fi Laureline, but the women presented here are either firmly planted in traditional mothering nurturer roles or unthinkingly obeying the commands of wise males so as to accomplish anything.
I presume Our Non-Hero's propensity for sleeping with one pretty lady per storyline is there to keep the audience's eyes open, but his uncaring abandonment of his lovers after they've carried out his revolutionary orders (and they always take
orders, even as the nominal heroines of the stories) smacks of teaching women their place in the revolution; wouldn't want to upset the classical virtues of the land or anything!
This is definitely a radical vision that does away with those messy women's issues of the time, and you might as well forget about gay rights - the only
hint of alternative sexuality in the book comes from a gross, sweating realtor who's (eeeeew!
) into transvestites. Christin kinda tries to cover for this by having one of his 'establishment' characters comment on how gross it is, but there's no hiding his characterization of queerness as primarily a derangement of the upper class, absent from the good earth, where men are men
, you know!
And the funny thing is, I like
a lot of red meat, macho man leftist comics from the likes of Pat Mills or Howard Chaykin, but they're dealing in characters
, while Christin is dealing in icons
. His concept for the series makes it so that his non-hero's abandonment of his women (let's say) isn't a Constantine-like character flaw but the forces of politics and magic itself making some ineffable decision. It's all just the way of the world, sorry! And too bad these political opponents of mine are against the world
, as my evocation of the fable suggests! But these are complicated issues, and Christin's treatment of them as players in a struggle as simple as little kids against hungry witches is utterly ridiculous, unless you're so firmly on the writer's side you're willing to roll your eyes and then roll further with the punches.
Yet there's even a limit for Christin himself, it seems. The Town That Didn't Exist
devotes most of its space to tracking the construction of a utopia in the midst of striking workers and cold industry types, all of it orchestrated by the sensitive young female heir to a fortune, acting under the suggestion of Our Non-Hero, naturally. Soon, a mightly bubble city with fanciful, Winsor McCay costumes and spires appears, a true utopia. Then, Christin shows the need to post guards to keep the outside world at bay, and the lingering gaze of the place's creator as a sort of dictatorship. Soon, some citizens are dissatisfied (although we're assured that most
people love it very much, thank you!), and the magician leads them away, since he's in the midst of beating feet now that his latest implied conquest has more of a totalitarian aura in the morning.
It's not exactly complex, but at least it shows some understanding that the rhetoric of revolution doesn't lead to results as predestined as the prince waking the princess with a kiss, if even then it sort of lands as an apologia for big ideas that got nasty - hey, lots of people in totalitarian regimes are happy
, you know! Right?! Oh, how Our Non-Hero gazes back at the city, his ideal, Christin's fiction, yes, the Town That Didn't, Couldn't
Exist. God, at least there weren't any queers!The Beast Trilogy: Chapters 1 & 2 - The Dormant Beast/December 32nd
So, fast-forward to 1998. Bilal is as established as a cartoonist can be, a writer/artist with a style entirely his own and a readership willing to move 400,000 copies of his albums in Europe. He's made movies, he's won the Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoulême -- hell, he won that in '87
, and that's for an artist's entire body of work! -- he's received countless plaudits and he really doesn't have much left to prove. The Beast Trilogy
began there, and would eventually become his biggest latter-day work.
You wouldn't quite know that from the DC/Humanoids release, which scoops up Humanoids' prior softcover release of vol. 1 (of 3): The Dormant Beast
and pairs it with 2003's vol. 2 (of 3): December 32nd
. Only after the DC/Humanoids deal fell apart would Bilal complete the work with 2006's vol. 3 (of 3): Rendezvous in Paris
and 2007's vol. 4 (of 3): Four?
Don't say the man doesn't have a sense of humor about himself. These days, the work is better known as the Beast Tetralogy, or sometimes the Hatzfeld
Tetralogy, in keeping with the Nikopol Trilogy's naming scheme, since the 'main' character of the series is one Nike Hatzfeld, an orphan named for the shoes of his dead father and the (actual) French journalist that discovered him, Jean Hatzfeld. And Nike, of course, is the goddess of victory, but nobody won the war Bilal's talking about.
Put plainly, the Beast Trilogy is 'about' the psychic fallout of the conflicts that afflicted the former Yugoslavia in the twilight of the 20th century. Titles aside, there's actually three
main characters: Nike, Amir and Leyla, all of them born in 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. It probbaly wouldn't be too much to read the trio as symbolic of the three ethnicities of the area -- the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats -- particularly since there's the added problem of Amir's sniper father having shot down Nike's dad with the boy still in his arms. Nike knows this, because he's been blessed/cursed with perfect (if delayed) memory, and is slowly reaching the point where he can remember the very day of his birth as the story proper begins in 2026.
None of the grown characters particularly identify with fixed ethnic groups, though - this is in keeping with Bilal's own attitudes toward his background as the child of a Bosnian father and a Slovak mother. Additionally, the world of 2026 doesn't particularly identify as a viable society of less than three decades away - this is also in keeping with Bilal's attitudes toward science fiction, a genre he uses mostly to evoke a global vision and allow for metaphorical comment on painful issues of the present day. Expect no explanation for the flying cars, but do expect to read into the presence of a monolithic consortium of extremist religious types with three leaders that can't possibly agree on who's the best, although all of the are out to tear down reason and science.
It's silly to expect radical Christians, Muslims and Jews to hang out for a supervillain team-up, naturally, but that's kind of the disbelief you have to suspend for Bilal's work to hit you. He doesn't sweat the worldbuilding, preferring for free-floating metaphors to gel into a world that evokes the one we're living in. So, the Obscurantis Order is a phantom of religious extremism, capable of rounding up otherwise well-intentioned folks like Amir and his girlfriend Sacha, while struggling against advancements that might threaten the viability of monotheism, like the odd radio broadcasts coming from the Eagle Nebula, which Leyla is helping to analyze.
For his part, Nike has just finished working with a Central Bank of World Memory, and would really like to track down Amir and Leyla, to put adult personalities to the infant memories that have given him a deep feeling of connection to them; amusingly, his own lover, Pamela, looks almost exactly like Leyla, as if Nike could sense what she'd be like as an adult.
But there are a hundred threats to even a perfect memory, like artificial clone bodies that can be inhabited by discreet users (a la Ghost in the Shell
) or left to their own devices - these are the tools of the wicked Dr. Warhole, a scientist who heads up religious forces for the sake of power, then later becomes an artist in the medium of 'compressed death,' a wormy black cloud that rains corrosive tears on the faces of art critics and witnesses, melting them down for merely watching the horror.
All of this off-the-cuff association responds well to Bilal's own art, which at this point can best be described as supremely confident
. Gone is much of the overt caricature and most of the hard lines of his early work, replaced by a delicate touch that seems to coax forms straight from charcoal sketching, 'realistic' and vividly designed but never stiff. There's a powdery gentleness to his colors too, the very antithesis of the heavy digital work Humanoids often employed as re-coloring stock, soft hues that evoke an odd nostalgia, despite the work's future setting - one of Bilal's favorite themes is memory, and his colors do seem to hint at hazy dream, like all of his works are plucked right from his dreamy recollections.
Another popular Bilal theme is multiculturalism, which is also reflected in his visuals. Of all the 'great' French comics artists of his generation, Bilal is almost certainly the most manga-influenced among them (at least by this point in his career), from his spikey-haired women to his propensity for breaking up the visual narrative with text set against blank panels. When Dr. Warhole debuts a model body to replace his fat old prior self, the resulting character design looks like it just stepped out of shōjo manga central casting, even existing in (mostly) black & white while everyone else continues to live in good European color.
There's maybe subtext to that, a whiff of the same panic over the authority of foreign comics on the French scene that marked works like Albert Uderzo's 2005 Asterix and the Falling Sky
; Dr. Warhole is
a villain so far, after all, if of the 'show humanity the cost of the wars they wage' persuasion. But Bilal's application of foreign influence is too deep for that; even on a basic level, his art seems global, unwilling to remove any influence from the table, ready to live on the page as how the characters there learn to be, a universe inclined toward community.
This, inevitably, is how the first half of the Beast, er, Hatzfeld... Thingy goes. There's a subplot in December 32nd
that pays extensive homage to Peyo's & Yvan Delporte's 1963 kids' comic classic The Black Smurfs
, a rather icongraphically questionable piece about a Smurf that gets bitten by a fly and becomes black-skinned and angry and aggressive, biting other Smurfs so as to infect them with the black disease.
Bilal understands the possibility for queasy social readings of this work -- which must have been among the first comics he encountered in Paris when he was a child -- and stretches the image of the black fly across the whole series as a symbol for the despair and aggression that might overtake any persion, invading a man's body and laying eggs in his spine, or bending lovers to the destruction of violent religious extremism. Sacha, the lover of Amir, becomes too close to a fly and winds up with her skin turning black, but Bilal's take on the concept is different - her aggression becomes focused, and Amir loves her regardless, and gradually she usurps the 'masculine' protector role from him, which he finds to be wonderful.
Amir is also associated with the fish symbol, which stands in contrast to the fly across the work. As Nike falls deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Eagle transmissions and Warhole's shadowy plan for the world, red fishes begin to surround his head, which only he can see. It's still obscure as to what their purpose might be, but they seem to be devouring his vaunted memory, in the way flies might too be eaten. Again, there is a double effect - the fish both eat his secred hatred for Amir, the son of the man who killed his father, as flaunted by the various clones of him that start running around (yep, it's that
kind of sci-fi), but also obliterates the connection he has to his friends - if the structure of The Dormant Beast
is based on Nike slowly regaining his memories, going back to the date of his birth, than December 32nd
is dedicated to tearing down all that seemed so certain.
This is the state of Bilal's world - nothing is totally good or evil, and even the most liberal cross-cultural mind can become trapped in ethnic-religious conflicts that date back to well before his or her birth. If this is a reflection on its author's identity -- nationally, racially -- it's one deeply conflicted by the new history constantly cropping up in the places he thought he'd departed from, yet can't really leave
All of this is told in Bilal's swerving, possibly improvised storytelling style, which all but assures that each chapter will have a slightly different character than the last, and that the action inside each chapter won't necessarily rise or fall with expected action/sci-fi storytelling pacing.
Apparently someone got upset somewhere along the line, since the version of December 32nd
presented here sports an annoying little guide in the margins to which character the current scene is following; I don't know if this is present in the French editions, or if it's only the latest in Humanoids' many, many attempts to please the North American audiences that stacked the deck against them since the days where Bilal was young, the politics were hot and the metal was heavy enough to just launch around.
There's concilations made on Bilal's part too, if to his audience or his own predilections. You'll certainly get used to his thing for women with pastel-colored nipples to match their hair or eyeliner across his body of work, and his habit for sneaking in naked breasts gets to be faintly embarrassing in a way that never happens with, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose universe of excess and ultra-broad storytelling seems complimentary to that kind of stuff.
With ruminating, poetic Bilal, it's a bit like Andrei Tarkovsky dropping fanservice nudity into the middle of Stalker
; hell, he actually did
pull off some surprise nudity in the middle of Andrei Rublev
, but at least there it served the work's theme. Bilal, in contrast, has Leyla rocking a see-thru top in the midst of an outer space research mission
, which serves no apparent point other than to offer some boyish thrills to the (very large) comics-reading audience. It's not that I don't like sex in a comic like this -- it's a part of any good reflection on life! -- but a lot of the sexualization only seems to be present to appeal to a very juvenile aspect of the comics readership, which it appears is something the French scene cannot shrug off in spite of its history as well.
Bilal may only be interested in grasping the whole of history, though, the bad with the good, his reality-as-sci-fi matching up the sci-fi-powered freedom promised by the birth of Humanoïdes so soon after the birth of his career in comics. He is like a patient zero of the '70s stretch of comics evolution in France, eventually taking on aspects of other growing comics traditions and the interaction of comics and cinema. All of this, while retaining a personal outlook; you'll never mistake anyone else of Enki Bilal; no title was needed for the library. But he's good to study, compact and telling - we have our chance, or had
it. Until the effort again renews.