Sunday, May 22, 2011

bilal's evolving revolutionary

Finale to The Hunting Party (1983)

Enki Bilal is a comic book illustrator/writer and movie writer/director who was born in Yugoslavia in 1951 and emigrated to France at the age of nine.

Bilal's art and vision are magnificent, both on the page, and on celluloid, but a theme which runs throughout all his major works (including those he only illustrated) is the role of the revolutionary. It's natural to assume that the atmosphere in post WWII Belgrade influenced this trend, plus perhaps, and more personally, his own family's history (apparently, his father was once a tailer to Tito; more importantly, his father was Bosnian, while his mother was Czechoslovakian).

For whatever reason, the revolutionary, the anti-establishment anti-hero, has featured as a leading character in all of Bilal's significant works. The role of this character, however, has evolved over the course of Bilal's career: from hopeful successes, to temporary victories, to pessimistic post-heroes, doomed to relive the consequences of their revolution(ary act), without even the recollection of its motivation.

Anti-gravity town making trouble for authority figures in The Cruise of Lost Souls (1975)

The initial phase is clearly visible in Bilal's work with Pierre Christin, who wrote a trilogy of fanciful political commentaries for him, eventually collected as Townscapes. In each of these three stories, a mysterious stranger interferes in some bizarre way to bring about a surreal political statement, heartily endorsed by local disaffected townspeople. In the first two, Cruise of Lost Souls (1975) and The Ship of Stone (1976), there's a strong sense that change is achieved, if only on the local level.

With the third book in the trilogy, however, The Town that Didn't Exist (1977), a strange foreboding appears. The local factory has been shut down, and the workers protest for better wages and benefits. When the old man who owns the corporation dies, his crippled daughter inherits his wealth and his business. She employs her financial resources and political influence to construct a utopian dream city for the inhabitants of the old town—here they may do as they please without worries about finances or security.

Here, the progressive social goals of the trilogy's enigmatic protagonist appear to have been achieved, yet when he leaves the new city, he is joined by several of the former factory workers, one of whom proclaims "that town doesn't really exist." Interpretations abound here—is utopian success a dream? Is philanthropic behavior such as that of the daughter in principle impossible in capitalist society? Or is it the workers who are blind to what they can achieve, who doubt the validity of the Marxist utopia that could await them if only they found the right resources? The text is silent on interpretation, but the darkness and ambiguity of the ending casts a long shadow over the earlier stories.

Horus chats with Nikopol about godly matters.

Perhaps the most optimistic of Bilal's revolutionary stories can be found in the first volume of the Nikopol trilogy, his most famous work. The titular character, Alcide Nikopol, unlike almost any other Bilal hero, is not actually a full-fledged revolutionary, but a mere deserter, sentenced to life-long hibernation. When incompetence awakes him on a corrupt future earth, he is partnered with Horus, a "revolutionary" figure in the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Horus wields his supernatural powers to place Nikopol in political power over the Paris of 2023. A fascist dictatorship is overthrown, Nikopol is free to implement the progressive policies of his choice, and Horus abandons control of him for more godly matters.

Yet, despite La Foire aux immortels (1980) evincing the first instance of widespread political control and change achieved by a revolutionary (albeit a reluctant one), the atmosphere at end is far from optimistic. Nikopol goes mad and his son (who looks like his twin due to Nikopol's period of government mandated suspended animation) is placed in control in his stead. By volume 3, Froid Équateur (1982), just a few years later, we learn that Nikopol's son's progressive government has been overthrown by the fascists: revolution is short lived. And Horus himself, the revolutionary deity, is on the run throughout the entire trilogy, defeated multiple times by his peers. (Though in the final scenes of volume 3, after the Egyptian gods' pyramid-shaped space ship is accidentally destroyed, Horus' leadership is finally welcomed.)

Horus takes control.

During the decade+ it took to complete the Nikopol trilogy, Bilal collaborated again with Pierre Christin on The Black Order Brigade (1979) and The Hunting Party (1983) (collected as The Chaos Effect). Both books paint a much bleaker picture of the revolutionary than Bilal's earlier work with Christin. The Black Order Brigade, in particular, features the first introduction of a common theme in Bilal: the ex-revolutionary. Here, a group of passionate progressives who had fought in the Spanish civil war, reconvene in their old age to combat the titular "black order brigade," a fascist death squad with whom they had had many skirmishes during their glory days.

The "Black Order Brigade" assassinate a leftist politician before the eyes of our "heroes."

Unlike in the war itself, however, when the young progressives had been suffused with idealism and optimism, they find their new quest quickly sours. The pains of old age, the indifference of the general public, and the futility of correctly conveying their message (in the media, they are treated as terrorists, no different from their fascist counterparts) drag down their spirits and motivation. By the end, they succeed in eradicating the black order brigade, but at the cost of all lives but that of the original organizer and narrator. In the final panels, as he relates the conclusion to their saga, he mournfully proclaims "I . . . got all my friends killed for a reason I can't even really remember anymore."

Ironically, the mysterious traveling revolutionary of the earlier Bilal / Christin collaborations makes a brief appearance as an accomplice—sympathetic to the cause, but largely outside the specific plans and woes of our heroes. This war is not for him, and its Pyrrhic "victory" hints at the impossibility of radical social change. Idealists cannot succeed, and, more importantly, they cannot even maintain their idealism should they try.

Bilal appears to be obsessed with cobalt blue . . .

In The Black Brigade, ex-revolutionaries choose to resume their activities, with ambiguous, arguably disastrous, consequences. In Bilal's films, e.g. Tykho Moon (1996) and Immortal (2004), the lead characters are ex-revolutionaries forced back into revolutionary action. In the case of Tykho Moon, the title character is a former revolutionary suffering from complete amnesia. He recalls neither his revolutionary acts, nor why he engaged in them.

Nevertheless, Tykho is forced into transgressive acts anew by the bizarre lunar dictatorship of the Mac Bee family, whose degenerative disease demands organ transplants, and with whose genetic code Tykho is uniquely compatible. Although Tykho eventually succeeds in executing the last of the Mac Bees and escapes the moon with his love interest (herself a hired killer and former employee of the dictatorship), the motive is never revolutionary change, but mere survival. An actual revolutionary (from earth) who assists him is spurned on the the topic of political idealism and dies in the violence of the finale.

Another Bilal obsession: the Eiffel Tower, not only appearing here on the Mac Bee's moon (alongside some other faux monuments and the rocket launching pad), but also in Immortal's NYC!

In Tykho Moon, we see the personal details of life (survival, love, the chance to dance with a beautiful woman) overwhelm revolutionary priorities. One who simply lusts for a life to himself is forced into revolutionary action, and consequently, his actions are drained of idealism, and suffused instead with necessity. Obligation, unavoidable and personal. At the end, although the dictators are overthrown, we are given no promises about the future political situation on the moon. Our heroes do not aim at reform, merely survival.

Similar themes can be found in Immortal, Bilal's screen adaptation of his own Nikopol trilogy. Unlike the Nikopol of the comics (and much like Tykho Moon), the Nikopol of Immortal is an ex-revolutionary. He has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in suspended animation on a floating prison. A freak accident sets him free prematurely. The fascist NYC in which he finds himself is ruled by a "medical dictatorship," but his name survives as a rallying cry (the "spirit of Nikopol") amongst those who oppose the regime.

Jill learns about humans (since she's quickly becoming one) in the "Human Museum."

Just as in the books, a large chunk of plot is devoted to Horus' attempt to impregnate Jill via Nikopol. Just as in Tykho Moon, the very personal goals of love and survival motivate Nikopol's actions, and the execution of fascist dictators and general social upheaval which take place along the way are largely incidental. In Immortal, not only the whims of the fascist elite, but also those of the gods force Nikopol and Jill into a sequence of bizarre situations. No longer is the blame for the revolutionary's actions foisted solely upon the state—here fate, or at least its proxy, are equally, if not greater to blame.

Horus and Nikopol's first meeting—Nikopol's reciting Baudelaire (as usual), but how does Horus know the words?

So, while Bilal has continued to focus on the revolutionary as character throughout his career, we see a gradual evolution from the revolutionary as active instigator of social change to the revolutionary as accidental instigator of social change. The reluctant revolutionary is at first forced into this position by the very authority figures he eventually destabilizes, though later, it is fate, or forces beyond his control generally rather than merely political forces which motivate his actions.

Amir's lover tries to turn him on to their next mercenary assignment.

The most recent chapter in Bilal's evolving depiction of revolutionaries is the so-called "Hatzfeld tetralogy." Unfortunately, only the first two volumes are available in English (as The Beast Trilogy: Chapters 1&2), so the overall trajectory of the work is as yet unclear to those of us who are linguistically limited. So far, many similarities emerge with Bilal's earlier works. Just as in the Nikopol trilogy, the backstory is elaborate, involving various layers of authoritarianism and fascism. Religious dictatorships, terrorist NGOs, evil policemen, bizarre alien intrusions, all make an appearance, buffeting the world our characters inhabit.

Unlike in the works discussed above, the protagonists are not (yet) explicitly terrorists themselves, but rather mercenaries, scientists, and prodigies for hire to the various competing forces which shape their world. No longer is there an "evil" authoritarian power force, and a "progressive" outsider revolutionary, but rather a sequence of authoritarian forces with various religious and political motivations. There is no "right" side for the would be mercenary to choose, and given the trajectory of alienation from idealism we've seen in Bilal's previous works, it's perhaps unsurprising that the protagonists here do not begin with an ideology, but rather a skill set of interest to ideologues.

The Hatzfeld tetralogy draws more explicitly on Bilal's Yugoslavian heritage than any of his previous works. The story centers around a trio of "Yugoslavians" of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their origin is retold by the protagonist Nike Hatzfeld, who's gift is a complete photographic memory (contrast with Tykho's amnesia!) which dates back to his very first days of life, when he and Amir and Leyla (the other two Yugoslavian orphans) lie next to each other in a Sarajevo hospital as it is ripped apart by violence.

Shades of Nazi death camps (and the terror camps of the Yugoslav wars are mentioned explicitly in Nike's recollections).

The chaos of the future world inhabited by Nike, Amir, and Leyla somehow mirrors the violence of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Bilal focuses on individuals buffeted by larger political and religious forces beyond their control. The revolutionary becomes an employee when there is no right or wrong, but only conflict.

[If we're lucky, the re-emergence of Humanoids as a North American publishing force will result in new editions of the Nikopol trilogy (now, sadly out of print and exorbitantly priced) and the Hatzfeld tetralogy.]

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