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Christin and Bilal's Urban Trilogy
by Alasdair Stuart
For decades, Europe has been the unacknowledged dynamo of modern comic writing. Where manga has grabbed the spotlight and critical acclaim thanks to books such as Akira, Ghost In The Shell as well as series such as Dragonball Z, the work of European writers and artists has quietly been building a colossal following. Now, with US company DC Comics making a concerted effort to translate and promote this work, it's finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Pierre Christin and Enki Bilal's loose trilogy of books: The Cruise Of Lost Souls, Ship Of Stone and The Town That Didn't Exist is a perfect starting point for anyone looking to take the plunge into this field. Originally released separately, the three books, when read together, not only combine in remarkably subtle ways but also become far stronger, thematically.
At the heart of these stories is an examination of modern community and what it means to be part of one. It's interesting then that Christin and Bilal achieve this by placing a nameless character in the centre of the action in each one, a man who whilst he's not the hero or central character, is instrumental to the action. This individual is first introduced to the reader in a prologue story that sees his work being discussed by members of the French Intelligence Services. It's an odd, jarring way to start the book as each one is introduced, shown to be deeply unpleasant in a variety of ways and then briefed on this dangerous, anarchistic individual. All the while, the same man, disguised as an aide, is luring each one of them into different rooms in the building and terrifying them with hallucinations.
Exactly what they're trying to do is only made clear when Christin and Bilal themselves make guest appearances, called in by the authorities to offer insight on this individual and why he keeps turning up in their comics. It's a brave move, and one that, oddly places the trilogy in line with elements of both American and Asian comics. From Stan Lee's numerous appearances in Marvel comics and films to Junji Ito's cheerily odd personal meditations on horror in the superb Uzumaki, comic creators have always been interested in placing themselves in their own stories.
Here, Christin and Bilal effectively lay out their stall by explicitly stating what this man is. Christin describes him as: "an extra, the expression of societal forces in the midst of struggle, class struggle..." Whilst Bilal describes him as: "a foreigner, ill at ease within a crumbling world..."
The sequence is written in a comedic manner, with the pair of them being derided as hippies by the government officials and shown out, but when looked at in depth it's actually a devastatingly clever piece of writing. Not only do Christin and Bilal freely admit to having a character that exists solely to move the plot along but also explain that that's what they're doing. In short, they let the reader know exactly what's going on and exactly what sort of story they'll be telling in a way that is both subtle and obvious.
The concept of class struggle, as referenced by Christin so early on is central to The Cruise Of Lost Souls, the first in the trilogy. It follows the inhabitants of the small village of Liternos as they wake one morning to find their houses are now hovering a few feet above the ground.
One of the key points of Christin's storytelling becomes apparent early on here as, after the initial shock, the inhabitants of the town simply settle down into their slightly modified way of life. Cows still have to be fed, children still have to go to school and if something outside the town caused this to happen then something outside the town will, eventually, cause it to stop. Only the deputy mayor reacts badly, incensed by the townsfolk's good-natured jibes about it being a military experiment - which, of course, it turns out to be.
This communal apathy lies at the heart of all three books and is the way in which Christin approaches the 'crumbling society' he describes in the opening story. All three towns are rural, all three towns have external problems foisted on them and all three towns deal with those problems in very different ways.
Liternos' inhabitants, for their part, simply get on with their lives and greet the arrival of two strangers with customary good cheer. One of them is the white-haired anarchist described in the opening story and the other is a female scientist. Whilst the deputy mayor is instantly suspicious of them, the townspeople embrace them just as they have the sudden levitation of their buildings. One of them even sums up the town's mindset by saying how pleased he is that something is finally happening in Liternos.
One of Christin's greatest strengths as a writer is the casual honesty with which his characters speak, and this is a perfect example of it. The inhabitants of Liternos are neither happy nor sad, they are just aware of their place in the world and how little they really matter. They accept their fate and only really become concerned when it looks like their town is going to blow away. The scene where walkways are rigged between the buildings and animals are brought into the flying houses is again downplayed but strangely moving. The town is literally pulling together to keep its identity and this, more than anything else, is what shakes them from their reverie.
The actual cause of the sudden levitation turns out to be an experiment being carried out at the local military base in an attempt to perfect the use of antigravity as a weapon. The female scientist the anarchist is with was part of the project and stole a vital component, ensuring that it didn't work within the base but instead, could be targeted on a specific area outside the base, namely Liternos.
An elaborate scam follows, in which the scientist and anarchist quietly move the village ever higher until it finally begins to sail away and the military struggle to cover up what they've done. As frantic activity begins across France with the media rushing to cover the story and the military rushing to cover it up, life in Liternos continues in much the same vein.
It's a brave narrative choice by Christin but one that really pays off. By failing in many ways to react to the situation, the inhabitants of Liternos become stronger as a community, the calm eye of a storm which briefly rages across all of France. They become so focussed on maintaining their sense of community in this exceptional time that they, ultimately, don't care about what has caused the situation. The one time it's discussed with the anarchist, the conversation is never finished but is clearly heading towards one conclusion; that no one cares about what caused the town to drift away, only that it's reminded them of how important they are to one another. This sentiment would, of course, be endlessly picked over and focussed on in any other medium but here it's an earthy, pragmatic part of the villagers' worldview. It's simply part of their way of life, and the levitation only brings that to the fore.
This is in stark contrast to the military that spend the book trying to work out what's happened. As they become more and more hideously deformed by the energy fields released by the experiment and frantically try and prevent Liternos from becoming public knowledge, they stand in near polar opposition to the village itself. Where the villagers know exactly who and what they are, and this sense of identity is accentuated by the experiment, the military barely notice the hideous mutations they undergo until it's already far too late.
The message here is clear; that true strength lies in community and that strength is almost never used. When it is, as the anarchist and his female cohort do in Liternos, then the capacity for change is almost total. For a brief shining moment, Liternos is at the centre of a nation's attention and whilst the incident is ultimately written off, the changes that the anarchist and scientist make are real. However, whilst these, superficially, all focus on making the townspeople's lives easier, the most radical change is in the town itself. By being cast adrift, the town finds itself and in finding itself, gains a strength that is beyond anything the military establishment can throw at it. It may not be particularly subtle, but it's heartfelt, moving and grounded in much the same way the village itself is not.
Ship Of Stone, the second in the trilogy, focuses on the small village of Trehoet. Where Liternos is little more than a hamlet, Trehoet is large enough to house a shipyard, a bar and at least one fishing boat. However, where the inhabitants of Liternos were strangely happy with their lot, the inhabitants of Trehoet are anything but. The grocers slave to produce fresh fruit and vegetables they never get to eat, the fishermen do the same and the whole town, including the ancient castle on the hill, is about to be sold to a property company. Christin's favoured theme of class struggle is far more open here, with the property developer's yacht damaging the fishing boat and causing them to lose their catch within the first few pages. The anarchist is, of course, one of the crew.
Where The Cruise Of Lost Souls is a story about giving a community it's pride back, Ship Of Stone focuses far more on the importance of history to a community. The cast of characters are both utterly mundane and utterly convincing, many of them never even warranting names. However, there's a sense of tired familiarity to every conversation they have, a feeling that old ground is being gone over again and again as well as that trademark self awareness. The inhabitants of Trehoet know they're going to be made obsolete soon, know that they'll be moved out of their own village and can't do anything about it.
Here, Christin introduces a second external character in the form of Ankou, the blind old hermit who lives in Trehoet castle. Ankou's place in the story is unusual compared to the anarchist's. Where the anarchist is an external force for change, Ankou is the representation of Trehoet's past, a fact driven home by the startling and again, deeply moving, climactic sequence. The inhabitants of Trehoet cannot win, so instead they simply change the rules. Every house is emptied, a ship at the scrap yard is hijacked and in a staggering sequence, Ankou summons every generation of past inhabitants of the village to help. From the spouses and grandparents of the current inhabitants back to the Normans, Saxons, Neanderthals and wonderfully Cthonic beings that came before them, all the inhabitants of the town turn out to carefully disassemble each house, load it onto the ship and set sail.
In the meantime, Ankou and the anarchist go to the castle to set it loose. Here, Bilal's art is given an opportunity to truly shine, delivering two magnificent images in quick succession. One is a full-page image of Ankou and the anarchist on the roof of the castle, summoning the ancient energies needed to move it. It's a superb piece of art, filled with the intricate detail and careworn faces that Bilal's work is known for but it's true power only becomes clear when it's examined closely. Ankou and the anarchist are the same man, their profiles identical as they stand side by side. Ankou chooses the anarchist for the task because he's an outsider yet, based on this image, he's also chosen because Ankou knows exactly what he's capable of. An alternate reading, of course, is that the pair of them look the same because they're the same type of character, dropped into the story for the sole purpose of steering it, a ship of words and pictures instead of stone, to the author's desired destination.
The second startling image is smaller but nonetheless effective. With Ankou and the anarchist steering it, the castle skims out across the waves and leads the way for the villagers, taking them to a better place. It's a wonderfully incongruous image, the huge stone castle leading the modern boat out to sea and it leads to a beautifully handled payoff where Trehoet castle sinks the property developer's yacht, mirroring the opening sequence.
The untapped strength of history lies at the heart of both Trehoet and Ship Of Stone and it's fascinating to note the effect it has. The village wins, but it's less a victory and more an orderly evacuation. Landing in Peru, the village returns to its way of life but the land on which it stood is still sold and progress still marches on. Where the events surrounding Liternos at least enabled the inhabitants to retain their dignity and lifestyle, for Trehoet to survive it must be completely relocated. Whilst the heart and soul of the village, its history, remains intact there's a bittersweet feel to both the victory they win and the book itself.
This feeling becomes even more apparent The Town That Didn't Exist. At first glance it's the least fantastic of the three books, focussing on the town of Jadencourt and the crippling effect decades of class war have had on it. As the story opens, the town is in the grip of a strike which is finally broken when the 'old man', the owner of the local mill and the head of the richest family in town, dies.
His successor is his niece Madeline Hannard, a young woman confined to a wheelchair following a riding accident. The first time Madeline is introduced we are told almost everything we need to know about her. She's intelligent, principled, desperately aware of the crimes her family have committed in Jadencourt, and desperate to set things right. The anarchist of the previous two books makes his least obtrusive entrance here, working as Madeline's nurse.
What follows is a fascinating piece of political fiction. Like all these books originally written in the 1970s, Town That Didn't Exist is both the most overtly political and the most overtly cynical of the trilogy. Here, the supporting cast consist almost entirely of union bosses and managers who only know how to be at one another's throats and the families caught between the two sides. Christin's Jadencourt is a microcosm of the political climate at the time, the tattered remnants of 1960s' radicalism running up against the increasingly cynical, increasingly capitalistic establishment of the 1970s.
It's a credit to Christin as a writer then that he manages to avoid any rhetoric or flag waving. His view is uniformly world weary and as a result, slightly fairer than you're initially led to expect. Whilst the sequence where Madeline gains control of the company by utilising the vices of the Management Board is both funny and slightly stereotypical, his depiction of the union bosses more than balances it out. Argumentative, tired and obsessed with their fight with management the union bosses are as blind and as stereotypical as the men they oppose.
Dropped into the centre of this ideological trench war, Madeline is a real element of chaos. She's superficially just another manager, but it becomes clear early on that in reality she's something far more complex. Madeline is painfully aware of the damage her family has caused and, after visiting the almost Dickensian businesses she's inherited and touring the streets of Jadencourt, she comes to an inescapable conclusion; Jadencourt as a town has failed. Therefore, she will build a new, better town.
This is a genuinely startling turn for the story to take, and it's the start of a near total change in tone. Madeline's plan is both visionary and simple; she will create the perfect town, one where the inhabitants will want for nothing and where everyone will be equal. To do this, it will be necessary to seal the town off from the outside world.
This process becomes the great unifying factor across every social class in Jadencourt, as workers, union bosses and management alike are all faced with a world where the very social status that defines them is irrelevant. Not only does Christin explore the idea of a utopian present, he examines the effect it would have on those who experience it. The people of Jadencourt, battered and worn down by decades of exploitation find they are being handed a perfect future and, quite justifiably, are terrified by it.
This dispassionate, well-rounded approach to the concept raises Town That Didn't Exist is far above the level of a simple utopian fairy tale. It's a well-rounded, compassionate and utterly grounded look at how altruism fares in the real world and as a result is both the most realistic and most melancholy of the three books. This becomes clear in the final few pages, themselves an elegant mirror of the opening. Paulie, the son of one of the factory workers is dreaming of the utopian town as the story opens and, as it closes, finds himself dreaming of the old Jadencourt. Dressed in the clothes of his original dream and faced with the opportunity to play all day, Paulie is depressed and withdrawn. The old town may have been depressing and broken down, but in a way, it's more an ideal to Paulie than the utopian town that replaces it.
Paulie's unhappiness is reflected across the whole town as these final pages show. Madeline's ideal town is a beautiful, Byzantine place filled with minarets, motorised walkways and wonderfully artistic buildings all sealed beneath a dome. But it's sealed off from the outside world, a world which fears and distrusts it. The exits to the town are under guard following an attempt to blow it up (in a nice touch, it's implied that the person responsible is Joseph the demented old pyromaniac from Ship Of Stone) and there's a growing sense of unease, which is driven home by the anarchist himself deciding to leave. Meeting up with Paulie and Louie, a student activist and union member, they sneak out of the town. There they're reunited with Paulie's father and he, his son and Louie set off for a nearby town to try again.
The exact nature of the title, and the story itself, only becomes clear in these final pages. In the end, The Town That Didn't Exist is not a story about social conscience or the price we pay for utopia but one about human nature. We're never satisfied with what we have and, when we're given everything we could desire, that only makes matters worse. We define ourselves by what we achieve and whilst Madeline Hannard achieves her perfect town, the inhabitants are, despite her best efforts, just components in her dream. That, ultimately, is why the anarchist leaves. He's helped Madeline achieve change, not just in Jadencourt but also in the minds of the inhabitants. She's freed them from accepting their place in society and, whilst the town hasn't succeeded as an environment, it has succeeded as a catalyst. She's caused people to wake up and think about their lives, assert their individuality and take control of their destiny. The town doesn't exist, in the end, because it cannot exist. Utopia, Christin concludes, comes at the price of individuality and as a result, is as undesirable as the status quo. The struggle to better yourself and the world, in the end, is more important than succeeding. This is why the anarchist never stays in one place and this is also why this is the most intelligent and bleakest of the three books.
Christin and Bilal's urban trilogy, when read together, is fantasy at it's best. Aided immensely by Bilal's expressive figure work and landscapes, these books provide an intelligent, compassionate and well-rounded look at what it meant to live in the 20th century. They combine the magic realism of authors such as Peake and Holdstock with a rich vein of idealism that, if handled incorrectly, would come across as patronising and insincere. Instead, it grants Christin a unique voice, making this book one of the best, and most unusual graphic novels on the market today. Highly recommended.
and Enki Bilal
(a trilogy in)
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