A SF “bande dessinée” Review: Enki Bilal’s La Foire aux immortels (trans. The Carnival of Immortals) (1980), vol. 1 of The Nikopol Trilogy (1980-2005)

Collated Rating: 4/5 (Good)

Art: 5/5 (Masterpiece) + Story: 3/5 (Average)

Enki Bilal’s La Foire aux immortels (trans. The Carnival of Immortals) (1980) is the first volume in The Nikopol Trilogy. All three bande dessinée received a 2016 single-volume English translation by Titan Comics. Due to the limited chronological reach of my site, I’ve chosen to only review the 1st volume as the sequels, Le Femme Piège (trans. The Woman Trap) and Froid Equateur  (trans. Equator Cold), were published in 2005.

Of the SF graphic novels I’ve read, The Carnival of Immortals proved by far the most successful. Bilal blends his terrifying depictions of decadence and decay with an oblique, if a bit clunky, story that hints at surrealism and otherworldliness. For what I’m comparing Bilal’s vision to, check out Howard V. Chaykin and Samuel R. Delany’s Empire (1978), Paul Gillon’s La survivante (1985), and Gene Day’s collection Future Day (1979).

Thank you Mark Pontin, “Friend of the Site”, for the recommendation.

The World of “Phallocratic” Fascism and Alien Patinas

On election eve in the “politically autonomous and irredeemably fascist greater Parisian area,” two unusual events transpire that threaten Jean-Ferdinand Buglieri’s regime (Mussolini’s politics reimplemented) (5). A pyramidoid spaceship arrives inhabited by the immortal Egyptian Gods–Anubis, Bes, Thoth, Bastet, Sobek, et al.–who immerse themselves in unusual waters and play Monopoly. Their ship looms over the Parisian cityscape, a transformed urban environment characterized by layers and layers of decayed alien patinas, demanding fuel.

On a decrepit boulevard, a frozen astronaut plunges ingloriously from the skies into the filth, leg snapping upon impact. Horus, an exiled Egyptian immortal wandering streets seeking a way back into the pyramid, rescues the body from Buglieri’s militia. Thawed by Horus, the astronaut Herakles Nikopol wakes up in a truly alien future. Nikopol, a consciences objector in a conflict with the Sino-Soviet Coalition in 1992, last remembers his exile into space. Horus hatches a plan–he will co-occupy the mind of Nikopol–and reclaim his place. But Buglieri’s fascists stand in the way… and a nightmarish world reveals itself–a violent hockey game unlike any other, an Archbishop with a levitating crown and cherubs who reproduce at an alarming rate, cybernetic legs, metro stations inhabited by red cloaked cults, telepathic green-striped cats, an array of aliens that dwell in the Parisian mud, and an encyclopedic range of newspapers that indicate a linguistic slide mirroring France’s spectacular fall.

Final Thoughts on this Decrepit World

In Antyphayes’ recent article “In Praise of the Infodump”, I pointed out in the comments that my favorite form of information deluge in science fiction are those that convey a tangible “physicality” found within the world. I listed the following examples: the info dump as children’s lesson, future TV programs, maps of transformed cities, lists (oh how I love lists), a museum exhibit, and newspaper clippings. Bilal’s The Carnival of Immortals is the perfect graphic novel example of the use of visual and textual information deluge that furthers the story and world.

Bilal’s Paris is a veritable compilation of signage (real Parisian streets transformed), alien species, shades of mud, advertising slogans, strange foods, obliquely referenced organizations, and body parts both human and alien scattered amongst the mud. Inserted at various points with the narrative, collections of newspaper clippings from Buglieri’s fascist regime and underground resistance organizations convey a range of perspectives and interpretations of the events that transpire. The culminative effect is an encyclopedic visual documentation of the new fabric of existence that drapes a far future Earth.

Recommended.


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27 thoughts on “A SF “bande dessinée” Review: Enki Bilal’s La Foire aux immortels (trans. The Carnival of Immortals) (1980), vol. 1 of The Nikopol Trilogy (1980-2005)

  1. Looking at the various pieces of artwork you showcased, I have to say it is extremely gritty looking.
    Do the writers give a good reason for the astronaut to have kept his suit on?

  2. I remember seeing a part of this in “Heavy Metal” magazine in the 1980s.You’re right, the story is average and the art is a masterpiece, but that’s all. The script, characterisation and dialogue is bland, despite any good ideas, concepts or themes it has.

    • So you go from kind words in one comment to a very weird condescending brand of snark towards me in another… That said, “Phallocratic Fascism” is a term quoted from the story… I accidentally wrote “phallocentric” (which would also work) so thank you for pointing me towards my misquote.

      The full quote from a newspaper article in the text: “One of the first new acts of the new revolutionary regime was to free some 25,000 unfortunate women known as “breeders” from the sinister Holy Savior Maternity center. It is clear that the women will now take back a leading role in the new society underway, a right long denied them by years under the yoke of phallocratic fascism” (63).

  3. It was the only issue of “Heavy Metal” I’d had. As you probably remember me saying, I was quite keen on comics, but had gone off them by then, as the mainstream comics had already declined and I could say devolved by then, particularly in the case of Marvel. It wasn’t what I was used to. A better graphic novel, written later in the ’80s, that might appeal to you, is “Violent Cases” by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, dealing with the unreliable and cryptic memory of a man recalling his childhood.

  4. I’m torn now. I found a French language pdf of this. It does look very cool. Maybe I’ll just treat it as an opportunity for language practice.
    Thanks for the shout out. I too love the found detritus of imaginary futures—even more so past futures. Oh to drown in it!

      • The art is great and the story pretty cursory. Though I suspect that, as you suggest, the dialogue read better in French and we have a particularly plodding translation into English here.

        Serious points for having the Egyptian pantheon of gods as star-traveling, hi-tech aliens, however. Thoth, Osiris, Horus, and the rest were a pretty alien bunch, and it’s surprising how little SF writers have exploited that.

        • Good heavens. There was a film, Immortal, written and directed by Bilal, based on his trilogy and released in 2004. Only actors’ names I recognize are Charlotte Rampling and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immortal_(2004_film)

          Trailer here —
          https://www.imdb.com/video/vi1453850905?playlistId=tt0314063&ref_=tt_ov_vi

          The wiki says: ‘Immortal was one of the first major films (along with Casshern and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) to be shot entirely on a “digital backlot”, blending live actors with computer generated surroundings.’ And that’s what it looks like — very much of its time, for all that was only seventeen years ago.

          • Yes, I know of the film — even before I had heard of the graphic novel from you (I did not make the connection at the time that he wrote the source material and directed it). I’ve wanted to watch Bilal’s Bunker palace hôtel (1989) for a long while. I was a compulsive consumer of weird European films back in college… I lived in the audiovisual library. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096994/?ref_=nm_knf_i3

            I bet I could track down a copy or online version now.

            • Having read your review, I’m now watching my dvd of the film! For marketing reasons I assume, it’s set in New York rather than Paris and the year is 2095, not 2023 as in the books.
              I think it pulls the plot together more but keeps the strong visuals.

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