Without going too far into the realm of things better understood by those whose French extends beyond my own, The Chaos Effect contains two separate stories called "The Black Order Brigade" and "The Hunting Party." Originally published as Les Phalanges de 'Ordre Noir, occasionally translated as "The Ranks of the Black Order", the first story has apparently been tweaked around a bit by Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin since the original publication began in 1979. "The Hunting Party", originally published as Partie de chasse, was first serialized in Pilote in 1981, eventually published as a collected edition in 1983. It was also published in a 1990 English translation by Catalan, which did not include the newly written epilogue that Bilal and Christin had released that same year, an absence reflected in 2002, when Humanoids brought the story out in a hardcover with the epilogue included. Now, since we mentioned what the DC deal got right when we talked about Memories, they've put us in the dubious position of returning to the choir of contempt--Chaos Effect not only ignores 1990's epilogue, but it uses some images from the epilogue as spot illustrations, as if to say "Yes, we've made an inexplicable decision. Enjoy what you're not reading!" (Or, as some might rightly say, "Learn French if you care so much, jerk-off."
"The Black Order Brigade" opens with a small group of old men arriving in a small Spanish town in Aragon "on a terrible evening in January." In three pages, these old men kill 72 people--men, woman and one could assume, children--and after they've placed enough gasoline to burn the town to the ground, the group drives away, leaving piles of the dead behind in a heap of ashes.
And like that, Bilal and Christin go on to tell the story of who these men--who call themselves "The Black Order Brigade"--are, or to be more accurate, who they were. The act of violence that opens the book goes mostly ignored, as the "little snob with oxford accent" who runs Britain's Daily Telegraph sees it just another terrorist attack on the continet, the kind that "happens every single day." But for an old leftist guerilla fighter turned caged remnant, it's the spark that instigates the reunion of the volunteer brigade that had spent the late 30's fighting these same old men. Using the papers resources, phones ring across the globe, all of them answered by men--and one woman--who have found themselves nearing the tail end of lives, thinking that their days of fighting were long over. Make no mistake, Bilal and Christin never stop treating these elderly warriors similar to the way a Hollywood film would--the volunteer brigade that rises to chase down Black Order's terrorists consist of people that are old and out of practice in the acts of espionage and violence that had determined the course of their lives in their younger days. These people haven't been doing push-ups for the last few decades--they're old, fat and slow. The only thing that hasn't aged is their determination, their commitment to "the cause". The calls that the stories narrator, Jefferson Pritchard, makes from a late night marathon on the Telegraph's dime are all met with the same level of shock and fury that would have carried the conversation on a drunken night in 1938, when the two groups fought each other with anything they could find. It takes no prodding to get the team back together, and if the sequence reads as stereotypical, that's because it was probably meant to be.
There's a level of comedy to Black Order, not in the dialog, but in the mere sight of a bunch of old people acting like 20-something revolutionaries. Christin and Bilal must have known this, and their solution is not to ignore, but to embrace, the obvious ramifications of the story--these are people playing out old scores and old ideas, and when viewed by those around them, all that matters is the violence. The non-actors in the story--the young, the police, the newspapers--care not for the idealogical debate. What matters to Spain isn't the specifics of why these old terrorists are killing people while another old group of leftists tries to track them down, what matters is that people are dying for what amounts to little more than a finished discussion. The fascists are wrong, and so are the hardcore leftist guerillas. For the people on the sidelines, the people that our heroes are supposedly fighting for--this is just death and decay, and it's pointless to figure out the specifics of why.
Bilal would save his feelings and response for the conflicts in Yugoslavia for the later Beast Trilogy, using that work to "exorcise the anxiety" he felt for his birthplace, but, even though he didn't write Black Order, it's told in a similar vein. It's a simple story--two groups of old radicals rising up to bring their fight to more present day setting--with a simple enough message, that this violence won't work, and while "Hell is what they deserved", the good guys "deserved it as much as they did." The idea that what they're doing will bring about change, a claim that the 30's had allowed them to make, however dubious the truth might have been, is no longer on the table. At least 100 people, many of them merely bystanders, die. None are given an adequate reason why, and by the close, it seems clear that neither Christin or Bilal think there could be one anyway. These are the fruits of your idealogical battle, Bilal's dead bodies say. The lessons they have to teach us are few, and the people who should pay heed to them aren't listening.
The story of Black Order Brigade ends with by-design predictability--the only survivors are Maria, who abandons the team to pursue a May-December relationship with a young artist, and Jefferson Pritchard, who realizes that it was his calls that sent his "friends" to their graves. They weren't early graves, and you can't really argue that Pritchard cared a huge amount of any of those people--it's made clear at the beginning of the story that these revolutionaries had nothing to do with each other during any of those years in between, but there's a choked, lazy sense of learning with which Pritchard delivers the story's final lines. He may not have grasped the futility of his actions--the story doesn't even pretend that it was neither possible nor probable that the Spanish authorities could have killed the Black Order Brigade as easily as anyone else--but he seems willing to take the guilt and shame on his shoulders. While that probably isn't enough for Bilal, Christin or the reader, as all Pritchard's feelings don't amount to much with so many now pointlessly dead--it will have to be enough. Sometimes when a limb is rotten, you cut it off. Here, the storytellers just let the rot take over, as if to say "This couldn't have come sooner."
-The guy who said the above also wrote this
The Hunting Party opens with a quote from Gyorgy Konrad, a Hungarian writer and communist dissident. In DC/Humanoids, it's translated to say "You've acquired a taste for power, like the taste for rare meat." Not bad, although I sort of prefer the version found at wikipedia, which says "You have become accustomed to power as to bleeding flesh." (God knows if that wikipedia quote comes from the same person who wrote the plot synopsis, which goes on for multiple paragraphs and inexplicably chooses not to reach the story's last 15 pages.)
Similar in the way that Black Order examines the wreckage of the past by forcing the players into the same game in a present day setting, Hunting brings forward a cast mostly made up of aging Soviet's and a cross section of Europeans as they all gather for a Rules of the Game type hunt in the frozen wilds surrounding a Polish mansion, looked after by an old Jewish character in debt to the stories main character, a mute Russian with facial paralysis named Vassily Alexandrovich. The scheduled hunt is in that Russian's honor, and while none of the characters grasp that it will be his last, there's a sense of finality from the story's opening--this is the last time this specific group will meet under the current political circumstances, and the only Western eye on the proceedings will be the easily-manipulated French translator, supposedly brought in to take over the position as Vassily's Girl Friday, which is soon to be vacated by another aging Russian who currently occupies the post. Bilal gives many of the characters a distinct enough appearance so that they can be distinguishable amongst each other, but Christin gives them all such extensive and detailed backstories that it's unsurprising that the 2002 Humanoids edition also included a "Who's Who" page--there's a lot of raw information to keep track of, and while it adds a superb level of depth to the story, it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn't require a certain level of mental note-taking when following along. Although I've never seen the claim made, I'd imagine on a surface level, the story could be dismissed as routine--a lot of flashbacks to the history of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe to set the stage for Vassily Alexandrovich's final act to help push the country forward, a sort of "he's still got it" tale. That is, after all, the story that's told. The trick is what's in the details, and it's the details that propel a simple tale--powerful men carving out the future through subterfuge and murder--into becoming what the Hunting Party is, which is the best of Enki Bilal's non-science fiction work, and an extraordinarily good comic on any scale. (And that's any comic, not just "European" ones, but thanks anyway Warren Ellis.)
Like Black Order Brigade, you can see Enki Bilal beginning to incorporate painting into the story for more than just skylines, and it's hard to imagine the story without it. Sure, we've still go the heavily lined faces of men at the edge of decay, but we've also got this sort of thing happening.
None of Vassily's memories come without a healthy dose of blood, shaping them all. A man who placed the survival of country, the survival of power, in the face of all other needs--he has left many behind, some who mattered to him on a personal level. Implacable and obscured, his own feelings are played out only in his silent rememberings--a chance mention of a change in the political weather, an angry foreigner in a huff--and Bilal brings out the birds, he brings out the guns, he brings forth the past. It's not ugly, but it can't be called beautiful, there's too much of the artist in that, and Vassily never made that his mission. As Christin writes him, this is a man who seems only to mildly regret the ramification of choices he's made, but never the choices themselves. Or does he? As the story reaches it's true conclusion, the one that follows the setting up and impossible to prosecute murder of one of the visitors, Vassily has taken his own life, blasted his brains out in his private train car; still stoic, still uncompromising, even in his own demise. Is it because his life's task--the creation of a stable nation--is as complete as he will be ever able to take it? Is it because he has tired of a life spent in silent mediation on the horror of his past? Or is it because, as Bilal depicts him, he is exhausted of the frozen husk of flesh that contains him?
Maybe DC did us a favor by not including the epilogue that Bilal and Christin created in 1990. I wouldn't know--I haven't read it, and, if it truly does contain a sort of "end of Animal House" riff on Where They Are Now, I'm not sure I want to. The final pages of Hunting Party don't tell us everything, but they tell us enough. Lessor writers might have gone for something more direct, a suicide that is in itself a statement on the lives we live. They might have given some dialog, even in thought or writing, where Vassily Alexandrovich tells the reader why he has done the things he's done, and what he thinks of himself. It's not neccessary, and just as the imagined population of the countries on display are never to find out what, exactly, these men did to create the lands and governments that surround them, the reader isn't privy to the internal machinations of the secrets these men contain. We don't need to be. No understanding could be comprehensible anyway. These are just choices, writ large on the impact of history, and the men behind them will be remembered only as the unfeeling gears.
Besides all of that, it comes down to the simplicity of the thing--The Hunting Party isn't a story of communism, and it isn't a story of violence. It's a story of a man, and if he won't tell his only friends the truth, it wouldn't be fitting for the artists to imagine it either. After all, we don't really matter to him anyway. Our job is just to live in the world he provided. Anything more would be asking, as the future asks him, far too much.
-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