For all the complaints leveled against American comic book creators and publishers regarding "late" books, The Nikopol Trilogy upsets the apple cart a bit. The first part, "The Carnival of Immortals" or "Gods In Chaos", appeared in 1980, with the second album, "The Woman Trap" arriving in 1986, and the final volume, "Cold Equator" finally dropping in 1992. That's a hell of a wait, and while neither of the first two parts end on a sort of white-knuckled cliffhanger, it does point to a totally different relationship in art consumption. One wonders what the internet would've made of that wait back then, although I couldn't tell you anything about the tolerance of French audiences beyond some stale reference to Jerry Lewis. Doesn't matter: it's 2009, and Enki Bilal finished Nikopol in his own time, and if that meant twelve years, it meant twelve years. Of course, if you want to read these now, have a good time tracking them down: the DC/Humanoids volume this little chapter of writing is based on will now cost you somewhere around 363 dollars if you're lucky, which I guess means America was sort of interested in some of these Humanoids books. (Copies of Transgenesis still available at prices lower than a six pack of Fanta!)
Those twelve years where Alcide Nikopol fans were left hanging aren't attributable to laziness. Besides Enki Bilal being introduced to Mr. You May Feel You're In A Church And Need To Giggle himself, Alain Resnais, whose support and encouragement led Bilal to direct his first feature film, Bunker Palace Hotel, which he co-wrote with frequent comics collaborator Pierre Christin, Bilal also found himself on another movie set, this one in 1983 with American film director Michael Mann, for the available only on used VHS or illegal file-sharing networks The Keep. According to apocryphal legend, Mann was the one who showed Enki Bilal the stacks of Pilote and French comics magazines containing both his work and that of Moebius, saying that French science fiction imagery and design had served as crib notes on Hollywood sets for years. True or not--which is suspect, as Alien would have been filmed by then, and Jodorowsky's Comics Versus Spice Dune set-up would have happened as well--Mann knew Bilal's work, and Bilal was subsequently hired to illustrate and help design the physical form taken by the film's non-Jack Deebs antagonist, a demon named Molosar. Using many of the same references that Bilal had looked to for The Carnival of Immortals when illustrating his Egyptian gods and goddesses, Bilal's final designs for the character were used as best they could be at the time--which, if you've seen The Keep, isn't wholly impressive. While the Scott Glenn connection and striated musculature survived the process, Molosar isn't a character endowed with much grace or sense of movement. While Bilal's Vassily Alexandrovich was a character immobilized by neck braces, the rest of his characters are usually expressive, dynamic creations, and Bilal's notes seem to reference a character that would have that same grace, albeit one tangled up in Gigantic Scary Monster That Kills Nazis And Other People. But The Keep's Molosar looks sort of like an angry statue, and he has christmas lights for eyes. It'd be curious to know if any of Michael Mann's mania for perfectionism rubbed off on Bilal, as it is, I haven't found any reference to the men ever bumping into each other again. Of course, Bilal went onto the fortune and fame of a successful career built off sprawling science fiction stories--a term and genre he claims not to care for--and Mann went on to make a bunch of films about stoic men who marry therapists and have sex with their jobs. Not much cross-over, there.
Eventually though, Bilal pissed off from Hollywood to finish his Trilogy, and he was as surprised as any when Lire, a french literary magazine, picked the final album as their book of the year--not comic, book--a selection that "was very badly received both in the literary world and the comic strip world", according to Bilal. No matter. The Nikopol Trilogy was published in full within a year, eventually making its way into a sort of mash-up adaptation film directed by Enki Bilal himself in 2004 and a somewhat well received video game in 2008. (Jog reviewed Immortal at comiXology earlier in this Humanoids odyssey.) People who I don't care about or read probably reviewed the video game somewhere else.
Enough with this stuff though, you're saying, right? What about the comics? Hell, that's what really matters.
Well, what do you want to say? And where do you want to go?
The further one goes into Nikopol, the harder, it seems to me, to find the way around Nikopol. While it's not a comic completely laced with hieroglyphic symbolism that dances around the edges of what comics can or must do, it is a comic fired in the fields of singular, impulsive imagination--when asked for an explanation of the "symbolism" behind naming the evil fascist dictator "Choublanc"--which means "loser" in French--Bilal answered with something that's far more fascinating than a general, yet accurate "because he would lose his power near the climax of the volume through Jedi Mind Tricks"--he responded by saying this:
I'm incapable of writing a book or making a film without knowing the title beforehand. It comes out of the blue. There's nothing premeditated about it. When I started the story about Choublanc, I didn't even know how it was going to develop.
It's a call back to the classic dichotomy that us lowball bloggers never have to mess with: sure, you can come up with explanations for what art "means", and sure, you can create flow-charts of what art "says", but if the artist himself comes out and says that they were playing an improvised construction game all along, if they weren't working towards a climactic image or a bravura closer, if what they were doing was building a house of cards from the bottom up only to see what shape it would take: well brother? How do you second guess them? Are we to believe in the mysticism of story creation now, as well as the crystals on the wrist and the gods made of snakeskin? To buy into the holy concept of artist forced into unified creation whether designs on meaning existed or not? Are children born with the golden mean written on the inside of their brain?
Wait, she's gotta barf.
Part of the Nikopol's current legacy as comics--both as "important classic" and as "willfully obscure" is tied up in what you know, how you know it, what you see and what it means--and when you start traversing languages, when you start traversing continents of origin, when you start looking into who this Enki guy was (Yugoslavian), and is (French, with misplaced heart), and what he was doing at the time (hanging with Gabriel Bryne), you'll start to realize that you're not reading easily classifiable work. These aren't comics that are "sort of like Jodorowsky" or "like Moebius, but moodier". You'll start picking up on part of the problem that this Humanoids thing ran into at times, which was that it's More Than Content that differentiated the entire DC/Humanoids line, it's different aesthetic and artistic ideologies altogether. Some of these comics--not all of them, for God's sake--would fool you, wearing the clothes of the Cosmic Opus and yet telling stories that were nothing like their paneled contemporaries at all. Bilal may not like calling Nikopol science fiction, but tough, that's the clothes it was wearing at the time. But it wasn't the American comic science fiction of King Arthur stories gone galactic, it wasn't the child friendly simplicity of evil in a black cape versus farmboy with pouty lips. It was, it is, weird. (Not in a "Mad Comics" way, whatever the hell that means or doesn't mean, or who fucking says that with a straight face anyway.) But in a demanding way, a way where pure meaning won't serve as climax--what exactly did Alcide and his running buddy Horus do all those years, why so much Rimbaud, when a robot cries white and can love, doesn't that make him something different, her hair, how'd that happen--and when the symbols don't have direct reference beyond what a reader invents--these are comics bent on discussion, and we all know what happens to discussion comics.
See, all of the pieces of Nikopol--including the parts that play by the "rules"--are dealing with stories that operate, and exist, in a multiple different formats, and they've got multiple different acts in which they exercise themselves on the reader. Do you want to go into the wilds of the play of symbols? Hey, we got Egyptian gods sitting above fascist France playing Monopoly while they wait for the humans to buckle under and turn over their fuel reserves. (Destroy it by fire!) We've got a white-skinned purple haired reporter whose last name is the Serbian word for cinema. (Wipe her mind with drugs!) We've got men who replace their sons, and the child born of the god of the sky, and he mostly comes out at night, mostly. (A picture will capture his soul, the lens cap is on!) It's a veritable reference fiesta, it's a big old stew of Egypt and post-war, it's an extreme satire of the worst aspects of vain and degraded Catholicism at one point and a crude portrayal of the lengths one can go when willing to forcibly eradicate memory of guilt from the brain. It's long, it's got text pieces culled from dishonest newspapers and angry graffiti, it's got animals boarding trains to escape the crushing environmental impact of human failings from an artist whose biggest fear is an apologetic "We're doing something to this planet that isn't good", a story that employs film techniques and closes by saying "Don't cut, let it run out..to the empty frame", we've got chronological leaps that bypass the substance of which long manga serials build empires from, and that's just the random stuff you can find if you read it in English--god knows that translations can be great or bad, there's a reason why everybody re-reads Russian novels when the Peavey/Volokhonsky team checks in, comics are no different, In Justin Kelly We Place Our Trust. What's it like reading Nikopol when you're Yugoslavik, as Alain Resnais called Bilal? What's it like when you've had nothing but Jill Bioksop and the Woman Trap for six years and you just want to know if they stayed together? You can't nail this stuff to a wall, and while the differences might be minor, they could be like the Chaland Moebius versus the Beltran Moebius; nicely put, not minor at all.
There's something to be said for going to that wall with some comics, with tracking and re-tracking the transitional qualities across the years, foraging the interviews and puff pieces in an attempt to trace intent and persona, just as much as there's something to be said for pulling back a blue collar "Just looking to be entertained, didn't know the Border Patrol was that quick with hammers". Nikopol is no different, in that regard. You could just paste the plot to the wall and surround it with praise...the story of the man who fell to Earth and joined the gods, the women who killed her memories to escape into a future where she writes from the past, and the boy who just wanted to be with his father and ended up bearing nothing but dad's exile and punishment, oh how it changed the face of French comics and posited the man Bilal as a true master of art. You can go both ways, I'd imagine.
But the most honest tactic? That's probably to sit back for a second and say: I know what this means to me. But I don't know what it means to you.
Of course, until somebody steps up to the plate and republishes it?
Guess I'll have to wait.
-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