As much as I complain about some of my favorite comics not existing in English, I cannot pass up the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite creators of all time whose books have been partially translated (even if not as easily accessible as I would like them to be). I think Enki Bilal is one of the greatest things since sliced bread, and I am not the only one!
As an illustration of the recognition Bilal gets outside of the world of comics, he was involved in two large scale exhibits in Paris in the past few years. First, for le Musée des Arts et Métiers (a museum of technological innovation) Bilal made a series of original pieces investigating the relationships of animality, humanity, and machines- blending the organic and the mechanic.
He was also given carte blanche by le Louvre. He took pictures all over the museum, selected 23 of them that were printed on canvas that he then painted. Each painting is the summoning of a ghost or a soul wandering the museum. The exhibit was collected in a book.
His paintings now sell with six figure price tags. His latest book was printed at 150,000 copies. In France Bilal is just a super star beyond comics. Painter, movie director, choreographer, he seems to be at ease with any form of visual art.
So who is this amazing artist? Born in Belgrade in 1951, Bilal moved to France when he was 9. His childhood in Tito’s Yugoslavia and his exile in France still feed his artistic universe. A lot of his characters have ties to Balkan countries and the questions of roots and relationship to socialist totalitarianism are very present in his work. His books are haunted by the threat of war and the influence of the past. But Bilal transcends history through science fiction.
His early work was very influenced by Mœbius, but then moved beyond this early inspiration to forge a very personal aesthetic in which blue hair became a visual signature. His artistic process is pretty unique as he has forgone inking altogether. He goes straight from pencils to applying colors with acrylic paint and pastels. Each panel is a painting. And I feel that the looser the traits get with time, the more dynamic energy comes out of the panels.
Where should you start? I would say the Nikopol trilogy. I still consider this book to be Bilal’s most emblematic. First published between 1980 and 1992, this work describes the journey of Alcide Nikopol who comes back to earth after a thirty year sentence in a cryogenic state. He is now the same age as his son, finds France under the ruling of a fascist government, and crosses the path of a rebel god who wants to escape his destiny. Poetic and allegoric, deep and funny, this book is for me a watershed moment in Bilal’s work. The moment he truly started pushing the boundaries of comics. The three separate chapters have been published in English under the titles Gods in Chaos (La foire aux immortels), The Woman Trap (La femme piège), and Cold Equator (Froid équateur) as well as collected in a single volume by Humanoids. Bilal wrote a screenplay and directed a movie loosely based on the first chapter: Immortal (Immortel, ad vitam).
Since then I would consider that the Beast tetralogy is his true masterpiece. Nike (a Yugoslavian orphan whose true origins are never made clear) uses his prodigious memory to understand the past and violent present in which obscurantism rules. Bilal’s latest story reads like a post-apocalyptic fable in which the darkness in his work makes some room for more color (both figuratively and literally). Beyond his multiple book story arcs, he has also produced a number of “lighter” projects including an incredibly funny prediction of what soccer is going to become (co-authored with Patrick Cauvin). When it comes to Bilal’s work, it would be easy to stop at the stunning art (which would legitimately be a good enough reason to read his books), but one of his true strengths is to manage an incredible balance between character development and plot progression, between psychology and action. His books are things that stay with you.
Unfortunately, even for the books translated into English, the rights are spread between a few publishers from Wildstorm to Humanoids to Casterman. Some of them have not been reprinted in 10 years. And Bilal changing publishers in 2006 actually seemed to have stopped the translation of certain projects in their tracks. For example, the Beast tetralogy -which was originally only supposed to be a trilogy- stopped being translated part way through. I guess I will never stop complaining about French comics not being more widespread. I love Mœbius with a passion and he has had a profound impact on me, but I am a little bit tired of Mœbius seemingly being the only true ambassador for French comics. There is so much more out there that deserves recognition. Bilal is worth the effort of hunting his books down. Maybe we can hope for an eventual digital release of his work. I will keep my fingers crossed.
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