And so Bilal week begins. For whatever reason--maybe it was DC, maybe it was Humanoids, maybe it was a meeting of the minds--the five DC/Humanoids volumes of Enki Bilal all carry the "Bilal Library" tag, as if the name itself was supposed to jump out at comic book readers, shouting "Hello, little brothers! Your favorite works from Enki are in here!" An odd choice, not an unwelcome one, but odd nonetheless. Alejandro Jodorowsky had more than twice as many reprint collections, you don't see him getting the special treatment. Well, to whomever chose it: it sort of worked, I know it peaked my interest at the time--there's something so alluring about an unknown creator who arrives with the blurb "one of the world's most talented graphic artists", the idea that you're finally catching up with the world beyond the regular, the notion that there's an entire alternate universe of what comics can or should or want to be beyond the notable chunks you've been immersed in for years. We won't be doing in these in chronological order, the Brother Jog and I, but we will be starting with what came first, after a fashion.
Written by Enki Bilal, Pierre de la Varech, Automarchi, Linus, Jean-Pierre Dionnet & Dominique Grange
Art by Enki Bilal
Published by Humaonids/DC Comics
Memories is the compilation edition of two French albums, "Memories of Outer Space" and "Memories of Other Times", themselves compilations of work that Enki Bilal did throughout the 70's for various French publications like Pilote and Metal Hurlant. Jog can confirm or deny, but the Bilal reprints seem to be the only anthologies that the DC deal reprinted--all of the other American reprints consist of stand-alone or serialized works. Three of the Bilal volumes are not--Chaos Effect and Townscapes combine longer pieces into one volume, and Memories contains 26 stories, as well as multiple sketch pages. Memories is also one of the few DC/Humanoids reprints that contains black & white pages.
It's also the only one that features the elderly Beatles, their elderly Beatle robot-doubles, and, although you can't see his face in this picture, an elderly Mark David Chapman.
Young man's work, we gotcha right here.
Almost of the stories in Memories are firmly science fiction stories, and almost all of them end with some kind of joke or twist. If it wasn't for Bilal, the stories wouldn't seem out of place in an old EC comic, albeit one a bit more advanced. The non-SF stories would fit in EC as well--Tales From The Crypt would be a perfect landing zone for "Ill Gotten Gains", written by the one-named "Linus". The only story that breaks the mold is a dream comic, the story of a nightmare that reaches its climax by visiting the room at the end of 2001--don't worry if you can't remember, Enki writes into the story where you've arrived at, demanding that the reader, if they haven't seen Stanley Kubrick's space opus, immediately "watch and rewatch". The man and the woman experiencing the dream? Bilal and his wife. As with any anthology, the quality ranges a bit--some of the stories are a bit easier to predict than others, one of them has too many pages of splash page hallucinations--but that's too be expected. (As it says on the back of the collection, "These science fiction stories showcase [Bilal's] early career from 1972 to 1981 as his style and voice evolved and he went from fledgling artist to international superstar.")
That "international" superstar might catch in the throat of a certain segment of American readers--try as we might, American comics don't seem to have much interest in embracing the publishing strategies or range of content made by non-Western comics. It's easy, and really fun, to take that a step further and assail the entirety of American comics as "super-hero shit for losers" and "lame ass art comics for homos", after all: when the chip is that big, and even the publishers get all testy when people don't immediately cream for a New York Times article, it's too sexy of a target to ignore. But for Bilal, like Jodorowsky and Moebius, "international superstar" is pretty much dead-the-fuck-on.
(There's been a lot of derision directed at the choices made by Humanoids regarding the coloring on the Incal, etc. Fair is fair, and some props are due: it's only a minor charm to find so many of the images in Humanoids to have the hand drawn borders bleed out, the coloring drops of ink where Bilal went beyond the lines, but it's a minor charm that probably few would have realized they were missing seeing the first time. It's a little, little thing, but for my money, it gives the art an air of humanity to it that would be missing if they'd sliced those off at the borders. You can look at these pages and see the little scratched in corners, the red bubbles of ink at the bottom, and all of a sudden, you're looking at a young artist coloring outside the lines, scribbling out another two-pager at the dawning of his new career. It's to DC and Humanoids credit for letting that be. God knows, if I didn't know I was missing it, and some angry French blogger started screaming at us American philistines for slicing away the humanity for the sake of clear gutters, I'd probably be in the camp of "That's not a big fucking deal, chump." But just look at that stuff. You'd miss it if it were gone.)
Enki was born in Yugoslavia, but his family moved to Paris in 1961 when he was only 9 years old. By the time he was twenty, he had won a "new talent" contest, and it's the next ten years of his cartooning that Memories contains. It was during this period that he met and began working with Pierre Christin, who would handle the writing duties for the stories collected in Townscapes and The Chaos Effect, as they were called under the DC/Humanoids deal.
Having thereby satisfied the part of the agreement with Jog regarding me doing actual research, let's get back to Memories. To be continued!
I'd quibble with the argument that there's any pure "fledgling" art here, many of the stories that are credited completely to Bilal are just as strong as any of his later work, only held back from the rafters by their brevity. But yes, the scope of Nikopol isn't here--some of these stories are two pages long, and they depend on an old school black out joke as climax. Thematically, one could probably argue--scratch that, one probably should argue--for a sort of marriage across the line of ideas about whether or not human morality will advance with their space technology, or if we'll all still be bitter selfish creeps, except now we'll be all bitter and selfish on other planets. Fascism is bad, that's one of the go-to crimes, but it's not a fascism that's developed into a cohesive system of thought or anything: it's just the strong strong-arming the weak, and the reader is left to put the blocks in the proper order.
What's most exciting about the work here is that the jokes never have the same punch line, no matter how many times the set-up is the same: human arrogance wreaks problems, but those problems come in many shapes. (Although the shapeshifter startling our friend above in that gloriously green line-drawing above is currently taking the scared guy's face, that's his second attempt. His first was Mickey Mouse. Because he's on drugs.) Sometimes the humans only catch a simple punishment, sometimes world conquest followed by accidental extermination is their prize, and the only stories that have "happy endings" come with a bitter regret. The boy above, in "Night Sky", never realizes the dream of space travel, ending his life a bitter man staring up at the same sky, his knees pulled into his chest. There's no speed lines, but you can see him rocking himself back and forth, trying to wish away his own life, his own choices. Mark David Chapman's meeting with the Beatles may end with them sending him back to the asylum, refusing his autograph request--but the intake doctor at the insane asylum has them by the short hairs: somebody has to fill out the intake form, and you just know he's not going to accept Ringo's.
There's a lot of tough endings here--but, if you put down the "what's it all mean" for a minute or two, Memories comes out being one thing--an early 20's artist trying to make a career in a field that he eventually became a hero of. It's the first steps down the road towards the guy he is now, which, regardless of how the DC deal worked out, is a whole lot bigger than some random foreigner who was lucky enough to have his books reprinted in a land that never cared to learn about him. You can't call them legends--or at least, you really fucking shouldn't--until after they die. For now, he's just Bilal.
-Tucker Stone, 2009
T1 Introductions & Miss: Better Living Through Crime by Joe McCulloch
T2 Fragile & The Horde here at TFO
T3 Sanctum & Transgenesis 2025 Vol 1: The Ancestor here at TFO
T4 The Incal (Preparations by Joe McCulloch
T5 Son Of The Gun here at TFO
T6 The Incal (Execution) by Joe McCulloch
T7 White Lama here at TFO
T8 The Technopriest here at TFO
T9 Bouncer, Megalex & Metal Hurlant by Joe McCulloch
T10 The Metabarons by Joe McCulloch
T11 Memories here at TFO
T12 The Chaos Effect here at TFO
T13 The Bilal Trilogy here at TFO