Who Is Enki Bilal?

By | Thursday, April 11, 2024 Leave a Comment
Enki Bilal is probably best known in the United States for The Nikopol Trilogy, the English translation of which was first serialized in Heavy Metal in the 1980s. However, while some of his other works also appeared in that magazine around the same time, and Humanoids Publishing reprinted several of his other stories between 2000 and 2004, Bilal and his art are rarely discussed among American comic fans.

Enes (“Enki” for short) Bilalović was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1951. Though emigration was forbidden at the time, his family was able to move to Paris in 1960, thanks to an administration official with some clout. Bilal claims that he had told his teacher that his family was going to move and, wanting their apartment for herself, the teacher was able to convince her government official husband to pull some strings to allow the exception.

Not long after moving to France, Bilal got to know René Goscinny who encouraged him into comics. Bilal has shown an early aptitude for drawing and was desperate to not become locked in a job he didn’t like. He took to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.

By the time Bilal was 20, he was producing political cartoons for Goscinny’s Pilote. After only a year, he submitted Le Bal Maudit (The Cursed Bowl) to Goscinny, who was impressed enough to run the story in the magazine, making it Bilal’s first published story. Though visably lighter than his later works, this is in part because it’s only in black and white; however, it already shows a heavy uses of cross-hatching, a style Bilal continues to use frequently.

While producing work for Pilote, Bilal met writer Pierre Christin. The two began collaborating and created several stories throughout the 1970s. As their collaborations continued into the 1980s, Bilal took some of his time to create La Foire aux immortels (The Carnival of Immortals) which was to become the first chapter of Nikopol, a work he would not see completed until 1992.

Bilal’s work frequently comes across as dark, both thematically as well as visually. He adds a lot of texture to his drawings in the inking and coloring stages. Heavy cross-hatching, as noted earlier, and layering oil paints and colored pencils add levels of depth that make his illustrations wonderful to pour over on their own merits, irrespective of the storytelling. This also provides a visual weight to even the lightest of pages, and serves to emphasize the darker tone of his stories, which themselves are heavily influenced by the Yugoslavian civil wars of his childhood.

In 1980, Bilal caught the attention of director Alain Resnais, who had him create the poster for Mon oncle d'Amérique (My American Uncle), a movie which went on to win awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the David di Donatello Awards, Fotogramas de Plata, French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the Sant Jordi Awards. Resnais would come back to Bilal in 1982 with more work for La vie est un roman (Life Is a Bed of Roses). Bilal not only did the poster this time, but also did some of the costume design and produced eight glass paintings that were used on camera to help create a more darkly surreal atmosphere for some of the scenes. These were created utilizing several layering techniques, which are similarly incorporated into his print work.

Bilal has noted that he prefers “tough” and “hard” images that almost aggressively grab the reader. Despite often tackling futuristic dsytopias, he tries to portray things in a realistic sense and doesn’t feel his work is overly pessimistic. Though he certainly doesn’t try to claim it’s optimistic either! By treating his subjects roughly, aging and dilapidating them, he feels it gives them more depth. And the stories themselves are merely echoes of the past.

Bilal continued working on comics throughtout the 1980s, working alone on Nikopol but in conjunction with other writers like Christin and Patrick Cauvin. Bilal and Christin soon began looking at other avenues of expression, and started working together on a film that was eventually titled Bunker Palace Hôtel. Bilal had expressed some interest in directing movies in interviews as early as 1985, so he and Chirstin co-wrote the script and Bilal himself made his directorial debut, though he did not contribute to any of the art production here. Nonetheless, many of his stylistically dark themes and visuals were ever-present.

Though seemingly busy with movie, opera and ballet projects, Bilal managed to finish his Nikopol triology. It was a critical success, to no one’s surprise, and Lire voted it Book of the Year in 1993, the first time a comics work had won the award. Bilal continued producing comics like Bleu Sang (Blue Blood) and Mémoires d'autre temps (Memories From Other Times).

He returned to film-making briefly in 1996 to write and direct Tykho Moon, co-written with Dan Frank. Ironically opening the film under Brigitte Bardot’s rendition of “Mister Sun” the movie’s initially serene imagery still contain dark undercurrents before eventually showing a dystopic-looking Paris. Never leaving comics for long, though, Bilal began publishing what’s become known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy in 1998, which takes more direct, if futuristic, look at the break-up of his native Yugoslavia.

He returned to his most famous work in creating the 2004 film Immortel (Immortal), based on the first part of his Nikopol trilogy. Interestingly, Bilal begins incorporating computer generated sets and characters (though the leads are portrayed by live actors Thomas Kretschmann and Linda Hardy). While there is something of a visual disconnect between the actors and their animated co-stars, the darkness and weight of everything help to smooth the transition somewhat. Somewhat surprisingly, too, the computer generated elements, particularly Horus, bear many of Bilal’s textual hallmarks seen in the original comic stories.

Bilal’s influence is world-wide. The character Viral from the anime Gurren Lagann is named for him (“Viral” and “Bilal” are pronounced the same in Japanese) and the character’s mecha is called the Enki. The sport of chess boxing was created by Iepe Rubingh in direct response to Bilal’s depiction of the then-fictional sport in Froid Équateur (Equator Cold) and significant bouts have taken place in Los Angeles, Reykjavík, Amsterdam, Berlin and London. His Nikopol trilogy was licensed by Got Game Entertainment for the video game format in the United States, being released under the title Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals in 2008. He even had a solo exhibition at The Louvre in 2012-2013 entitled "The Ghosts of the Louvre."

Bilal still resides in Paris and continues working in multiple media. He released the graphic albums Animal´Z in 2009 and Julia & Roem in 2011. Though many of his works have been translated into English and published in the United States, relatively small print runs have made them difficult to find, which likely contributes to his relative lack of recognition in this country.
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