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Enki Bilal:

Haunted by the Future

A vigorous and smouldering sixty-two years of age, Enki Bilal has been instrumental in expanding the potential and prestige of ‘bande dessinée’ or the comics medium in his adopted homeland of France. Over the last forty years, Bilal has risen from his promising short strips in Pilote magazine in the early Seventies and powerful graphic novel collaborations with Valerian & Laureline writer Pierre Christin to the status of a respected solo comics author, film-director and contemporary artist. It’s not every comics artist who is given carte blanche by the Louvre Palace in Paris to paint twenty-two ghostly portraits of entirely fictional figures from history, each one intriguingly connected to a particular work of art in the museum, and exhibit these paintings there to an admiring public. Like his Phantoms of the Louvre (below), Bilal is a haunted man, haunted by both the past and the future. To understand him and his unique, brooding oeuvre means understanding the history he’s lived through, and lives with still.

Born in 1951 in Belgrade, he grew up under Josip Tito’s brand of Communism in the former Yugoslavia. Its ethnic and religious divides were patched up after the unifying struggle against the Nazis during World War Two, only to eventually unravel and splinter the country apart. Enki, nickname for ‘little Enes’, embodied those fragile faultlines as the son of a Czech Catholic mother and a Bosnian, non-practising Muslim father. He has described his childhood as “happy but strange”, because of his father’s unexplained departure, leaving his mother and sister when Bilal was only five. His father, Denis Bilal, had fought in the resistance and been appointed Tito’s personal tailor, yet he refused to join the Communist Party and declined the leader’s largesse of a desirable house. In 1956, he departed Belgrade for Paris for a year to pursue his couture career, perhaps to avoid more political pressures, perhaps to safeguard his family. Father and son would not see each other again for five years.

The Cold War bred suspicion. A Communist state was not an easy place for a mother raising two children, whose father had left with no proper explanation for the bourgeois West and a job at luxury fashion house Lanvin. Packages of money, American chewing-gum and other gifts would arrive from Paris. Enki Bilal has never forgotten one present: “I remember this pair of ice skates, because they were too small and I was never able to put them on. My father had not thought to ask my size.”

As a boy, Bilal found other ways to have fun, playing street football, going with his mother and sister every Sunday to the movies, especially his favourites, westerns. Equally inspired by reading Walt Disney’s Donald Duck comics, re-named Paya Patak in the children’s supplement of Tito’s newspaper Politika, he would come home from the cinema to draw his own versions of the films. He also took to drawing in coloured chalks on the pavement; little did he dream that his artwork would one day hang in the Louvre. His talent was spotted by a director named Petrovic who was casting Colour on the Asphalt, a film about two rival gangs of kids. Enki was off school for a month making his screen debut, aged nine.

Stardom was short-lived. Back in class, Bilal was told off for not paying attention and answered back, “Well, anyway, we’re going to leave.” The secret was out. After the lesson, his teacher quizzed him and took him home to question his mother further. Luckily, instead of informing on them, the teacher revealed that her husband could arrange the family’s exit papers. Her motive was simple: she wanted the Bilals’ apartment. So their departure in 1961 happened swiftly, in fact too swiftly. After forty-two hours on the train, on their arrival in Paris on a rainy night, Bilal’s father was hardly ready for them. Secretly, his married mistress wanted to end their double life. After five years, it was not a joyful family reunion.

To escape these tensions, Bilal sought refuge in sport, excelling in high jump, in learning and reading his second language, from Baudelaire to Hergé, and in drawing, especially comics. Through the Sixties, the weekly magazine Pilote magazine, home to Asterix, Lieutenant Blueberry and more, grew up with its readers, among them Bilal. He was fifteen when he took his pages to show editor René Goscinny, who was encouraging but urged him to finish his schooling first. Five years later, in 1971, after brief studies in literature and fine art and a series of dead-end jobs, he said to himself, “I’ll never be able to lead lives like these. I must succeed at what I like, comics.” He submitted a two-page colour story, inspired by the opening cavemen sequence from a favourite movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to a talent contest run by Pilote and won in the ‘realistic’ category. At the prize ceremony, he was welcomed by the great names, his heroes, from the magazine, including Valerian artist Jean-Claude Mézières, who drove him there in his Citroen 2 CV. “I was really surprised by this camaraderie between comics creators.” The first of several of his short comics was published in Pilote in 1972; Bilal was the ‘new boy’ on the team.

His most important collaborator there would be renowned writer Pierre Christin, whom he was introduced to by Mézières. Christin offered him The Cruise of Lost Souls, which he’d originally intended for artist Jacques Tardi. Released in 1975 and coloured by Bilal’s partner Patricia, this was the first in a trilogy of sociological fables about ecological and employment protests and regional issues of the day, completed by Ship of Stone (1976) and The Town That Didn’t Exist (1977) (photo above from the late Seventies, courtesy of Philippe Morin). Christin’s tales, set in different regional towns in France, demanded realistic artwork, even field trips for research and locations. For a fantasist like Bilal, “Drawing with devilish precision houses in Britanny or Citroen cars was hell!” Luckily, Bilal was able to convince Christin to incorporate some fantastical elements, partly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, adding mysterious forces to the political turmoil at stake in these ‘Legends of Today’.

Bilal and Christin’s next collaborations were even more politically charged, addressing, if not anticipating, world events as they were happening. In The Black Order Brigade (1979) a band of Fascist terrorists, now in their Eighties, massacre a small village in Spain, re-igniting the country’s civil war after fifty years (the page above is the original line artwork, sold July 4th 21012 at Sotheby’s for $11,020). Closer still to Bilal’s East European background was The Hunting Party (below), developed in tandem with Christin as they serialised it in Pilote from 1981 to 1983. Its catalyst is Vassily Chevchenko, a fictional veteran of the October Revolution, who is paralysed, unable to speak, but determined to hold onto power. He invites high-ranking loyalists from several Communist countries to a hunting weekend as an elaborate cover to eliminate a possible successor, assassinated ‘accidentially’, while nightmarish flashbacks plunge us into the buried atrocities Chevchenko has overseen, including the death of the woman he loved. The ailing leader becomes a symbol and portent of the Soviet Union’s disintegration to come.

Before The Hunting Party, Bilal made a vital breakthrough in 1980 as an independent solo author and artist. He wrote his first full-length graphic novel Gods In Chaos, evolving it intuitively as he switched back and forth between his writing desk and drawing board. He also abandoned his technique of first completing meticulous linework in black ink before applying colours over them, in favour of lightly pencilling and then painting in ‘direct colour’, in acrylic, pastel, crayon. The linking thread through what became a trilogy of albums is Alcide Nikopol (named after a Ukrainian city), a man who fell to earth, after orbiting in suspended animation, imprisoned in space for desertion. His miserable mortal life alters radically, when he is revived, injured but unchanged, 20 years later in the Paris of 2023, where everyone else has aged. His missing leg is replaced with a metal graft welded by Horus, a naked, falcon-headed alien renegade, who looks like his namesake, the Egyptian god.

Nikopol can no longer call his life or body his own, because Horus needs to possess him to act as his instrument of revenge against his fellow gods, hovering in their pyramid spacecraft above the French. Global power politics have devolved into a bizarre circus. Inside the body of Nikopol, Horus infiltrates the chambers of the painted Parisian governor Choublanc (French for loser) and seizes power. In a time-warping twist, Nikopol discovers that his wife, long dead, had a son, who is now the same age as him and virtually his twin.

Bilal returned to the saga in 1986 with The Woman Trap, spotlighting the enigmatic femme fatale Jill Bioskop (the Serb word for cinema), a blue-haired reporter of the future, addicted to pills that erase memories but not the blood on her hands (above). He eventually concluded the trilogy in 1992 in Cold Equator, following Nikopol Junior to Africa in search of his father. Bilal’s futures are not radiant paradises but flawed, damaged, weathered by adversity, like his protagonists. He reveals a decadent dystopia, overwhelming and baroque, inspired by directors like Andrei Tarkowsky of Solaris and Stalker. Bilal’s plotting is dense, unpredictable, and repays close attention. There is also a seam of dark, absurdist humour, from the freakish make-up of politicians and the striped alien cat Gogol to the world chess-boxing championships. Bilal never imagined that this bizarre mix of mental and physical prowess would become a real sport, with its first European Championship in 2005. This year, London hosted the next qualifying bouts on June 8th at the Scala nightclub (see photo below and the London Chess Boxing website).

In all, The Nikopol Trilogy took Bilal twelve years to complete, while he pursued another obsession and parallel career, film-making. Alain Resnais, a great admirer, commissioned him to design the poster and paint some sets onto glass for his films. Another opportunity came in 1983, when director Michael Mann was in an emergency shooting The Keep and flew Bilal to conceive a suitably horrifying monster. Bilal realised that American film studios had been copying from bande dessinée albums by Moebius, Mézières, Druillet and himself for years. It’s no big secret that George Lucas was heavily ‘influenced’ in Star Wars by the Valerian albums, from the Millennium Falcon to the alien bar scene. Similarly, Moebius and Dan O’Bannon’s short 1976 strip The Long Tomorrow in Métal Hurlant magazine had created much of the mood and style of Blade Runner (1982). Ridley Scott was also inspired by Bilal’s Gods in Chaos, meeting him in Paris for the film’s release to tell him so.

With guidance from Resnais, Bilal directed his first film in 1989, Bunker Palace Hotel, a claustrophobic allegory of a corrupt regime’s final days, working again with Pierre Christin on the script and shooting in his birthplace, Belgrade. In his second feature in 1996, a desperate dictator of the moon hunts down Tykko Moon, the amnesiac source of vital brain cells. With a 22 million euro budget, Immortel (2004) gave Bilal the chance to reinterpret parts of The Nikopol Trilogy and combine actors with the latest green-screen digital effects for some stunningly realised decors, cityscapes and alien Egyptian gods. The film was seen by a million people in France, but failed to get a proper cinema release in the USA. It’s tough to compete with the massive Hollywood machine. Perhaps his fourth film, adapting his 2009 graphic novel Animal’Z, will fare better internationally.

Fuelled by his directing, Bilal had returned to comics with The Dormant Beast in 1998 (above). The compulsion to confront his deep sadness over the The Bosnian War ravaging and disintegrating his homeland at the time led him to imagine the future adult lives in 2026 of three war orphans from a bombed Sarajevo hospital in 1993. One of them, named Nike, an anagram of Enki, is blessed and cursed with hypermnesia or total recall, while the forces of repression of thought, science and culture are the Obscurantis Order, led by maniacal artist Optus Warhole. Most chilling of all was his anticipation of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, years before 9/11. Over the next decade, the project would expand into a tetralogy, whose creation for Bilal was “a long waking nightmare”. It also marked a liberating shift in his approach by painting more freely and gesturally onto individual panels, and “hybridising the material of paint and the framing of film. I drew quick sketches which I enlarged on the photocopier and then painted, in acrylic, with highlights in pastel.”

Animal’z (above) and Julia & Roem have begun his current trilogy, which projects mankind into a challenging realignment with our sentient planet, which has been transformed into an unrecognisable, uncontrollable environment after recovering from a man-made ‘stroke’. Appropriately, Bilal purifies his draughtsmanship here, restraining his palette to subtle touches accenting his fluid pencilling on tinted paper. Bilal tempers his bleak tomorrow by exploring the prospects of fusion between man and beast, set to climax in a third and final album next year which will bring his cast together in an oasis of colourful human-animal osmosis. Like his namesake Nike with perfect memory, like his journalist Jill Bioskop, Enki Bilal cannot stop remembering the past and the future.

On June 4th this year, Bilal opened a major exhibition, both retrospective and forward-looking, at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris till January 5th 2014. Entitled Mécanhumanimal, it explores the hybridity and fusions between mechanical, human and animal in his oeuvre and includes new works along this theme which develop out of some of the Museum’s extraordinary collection. As he comments, “I operate by immersion and obsession, and I have not come to the end of my world.” The future has rarely looked so strangely and beautifully haunting.

Posted: June 16, 2013

This Article originally appeared in Comic Heroes Magazine #18, May-June 2013.

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