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Broken Hero(es). The Construction of Masculinity in Enki Bilal’s La Trilogie Nikopol

09 Feb

by Véronique Sina

In France Enki Bilal may be one of the most popular comics artists who specialised in the genre of science fiction during his lifelong career. Since the mid 1970s his work has been characterised by the presentation of bleak visions of the future in which ruthless conglomerates reign and governments as well as ecological systems tend to collapse[1]. Most often the protagonists of these dystopic visions are disillusioned and broken heroes whose adventures Bilal manages to capture with the help of his surrealistic artwork. In the following I would like to focus on one of those broken heroes – namely Alcide Nikopol, the protagonist of Bilal’s comic book series La Trilogie Nikopol (1980-1992) – in order to analyse the construction of masculinity[2] in Bilal’s work by showing how performative discourses of gender and media go hand in hand in La Trilogie Nikopol[3]. In this respect, ‘masculinity’ is understood as a performative concept, i.e. as doing masculinity. As the American gender theorist Judith Butler elaborates

“gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self”[4].

In the first part of the trilogy, which was published in France in 1980 under the title La Foire aux immortels, Bilal recounts the story of the renegade Egyptian god Horus and the political dissident Alcide Nikopol. In 2023, after having spent about thirty years in a frozen cosmic coma[5], Nikopol unexpectedly returns to earth where he meets Horus – a mythical half human, half falcon figure – who, together with fellow gods, is cast away in the city of Paris as his/their pyramid-shaped vessel has run out of gas. Whereas the deities are looking for a way to restore their fuel supply in order to continue their journey, Horus does not want to leave earth. Instead he is looking for a human host he can take control of. He finally finds the perfect host in Alcide Nikopol. By taking possession of Nikopol’s body he is able to confound the efforts of his divine companions to take control of the capital’s government and its gas supply. Horus even manages to bring Nikopol to power by substituting him for the incumbent fascistic governor Jean-Ferdinand Choublanc. Shortly after this putsch, Nikopol is assassinated. However, the ancient Egyptian deities decide to resurrect him and to punish Horus for his betrayal.

As this short and by no means complete summary shows, La Foire aux immortels constitutes a rich and complex work that combines a whole range of different topics in an often diffused and scattered way. The dispersed quality of the narration, which incites the readers to re-read the comic book in order to grasp the storyline, is also reflected on the aesthetic level of Bilal’s work. Hence the first part of the trilogy begins with a comic-tableau that seems to consist of randomly juxtaposed panels[6]. Yet, a closer look reveals that the panels shown on the first page are not at all arbitrary, but premediated[7] pictures that are taken out of the narrative context of the story line and reproduced in an altered (i.e. cropped) way[8]. This collage-like effect is further enhanced by the use of a relatively long caption that seems to lack any connection to the image plane, providing an overall sense of disorientation, hybridity and fragmentation. In fact, elaborated texts can be found throughout the comic book as Bilal tends to use rather copious speech and thought balloons that do not only provide the ‘verbal’ information needed but also draw the readers’ attention to the tense relationship between written text and image that is so typical of the graphic medium[9]. Another form of tension is provided by the deliberate mixture of coloured and black and white drawings as Bilal repeatedly incorporates into his comic book so-called revues de presses – i.e. fictive, black and white press reports – that stand in direct contrast to the remaining colourful pages of La Trilogie Nikopol[10]. This obvious change in style consciously lays open the different artistic techniques used by Bilal. Moreover, the mixing of different modes of representation also further amplifies the feeling of fragmentation and hybridity already provided by the scattered narration.

However, Bilal does not stop here. In La Foire aux immortels he also experiments with various “narrative (diegetic) levels”[11]. Besides quoting and remediating “different voices from the press”[12] Bilal also confronts his readers with the remediation of well-known French poetry, as he integrates various poems from Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire (1857) into his comic book. In general Baudelaire’s poems in Les Fleurs du mal can be characterized as rather gloomy and melancholic, contributing to, as well as enforcing, Bilal’s bleak vision of the future in La Trilogie Nikopol. According to Kai Mikkonen, these lyrical intertexts lead to “a poetization of the comic book form”[13] that manifests itself in “a certain disorientation of the language and the temporal order of the narrative”[14]. The person who recites Baudelaire’s poems is Alcide Nikopol. During the course of the narration, the protagonist not only suffers from increasing headaches but, due to the repeated appropriation of his body by Horus Nikopol, also develops a personality disorder that becomes manifest in the seemingly random recitation of French poetry[15]. Nikopol reaches the peak of his unstable mental condition when he is murdered and resurrected shortly after: despite the fact that he regains physical health, he is no longer able to communicate in a conventional way and loses himself in the recitation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal[16]. As an unstable, schizoid hero, Nikopol is admitted to a mental hospital. Moreover, the protagonist also loses his political agency as his look-alike son Niko (short for Nikopol) eventually takes his place and becomes governor of Paris[17].

The literal doubling of father and son continues to play an important role in the third part of the trilogy, which was first published in France under the title of Froid équateur (1992). Here, it is not only Niko who replaces his father, as Nikopol is repeatedly (mis)taken for his son:

“The men have the same name, Alcide Nikopol, and are of the same age. The paradox is first made possible by the fact that father Nikopol’s body is restored to life after a generation spent in a state of deep-freeze. In the last part of the trilogy, son and father switch places and thus literalize the metaphor of their double and the notion of ‘full’ correspondence or equivalence. Further, while the Nikopols are in a sense replicated by each other, Nikopol the elder is also split from within, since he shares his body with the Egyptian god Horus”[18].

In this respect, Alcide Nikopol can be seen as a hybrid figure that seems to be split on various levels. In contrast to traditional epic male protagonists, he is a broken hero who progressively loses ground as well as (masculine) sovereignty[19]. Nikopol’s fragmentation is additionally underlined by the fact that he loses a leg on his return to earth[20]. Eventually, his missing limb is replaced by an iron prosthesis forged by Horus, who is a hybrid figure himself[21]. Thus, Nikopol constitutes a physically, as well as psychically, ambiguous character who violates prevalent notions of what ‘being human’ means. Thus, the figure of the broken hero embodied by Nikopol also emphasizes the fact that traditional concepts of identity – more precisely that of gender identity – are not at all ‘natural’ or stable, but rather flexible and therefore open to permanent change and negotiation[22]. Moreover, due to his iron prosthesis, Nikopol can be referred to as a cyborg-figure: “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism”[23].

According to Donna Haraway, the cyborg constitutes a fiction that maps “our social and bodily reality”[24]. Nature and culture are being redefined by the concept of the cyborg as “the one [that] can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world”[25]. As a contingent figure the cyborg blurs the lines between conventional dichotomies like nature/culture, pure/impure or human/artificial. In addition, the idea of a fixed subjectivity is also challenged. More precisely, as Bianca Westermann points out, the cyborg is a concept that established itself in science fiction in the 1980s and that focuses on the non-decidability and interminableness of questions of identity[26]. Hence, Nikopol finds himself in a permanent state of identity (re)construction. This becomes especially apparent within the last part of La Trilogie Nikopol: there the protagonist suffers from “a curious linguistic disturbance”[27] as he starts to interchange letters (like “D” and “P” or “S” and “Z”). Moreover, identities also seem to be flexible and transposable in Froid équateur[28]. Thus, we can observe that Nikopol and his father repeatedly switch roles. Furthermore, the protagonist adopts a further (alternative) identity, namely the identity of a professional athlete called Loopkin[29]. Parallel to the repositioning of the letters in form of an anagram (Nikopol becomes Loopkin), the identity of the name carrier is also being reconstructed within the narration. In this respect, the name Loopkin can be seen as a reference to the loop phenomenon, which is itself based on the performative principle of permanent repetition[30].

In fact, motifs of repetition and doubling play an important role (both in relation to the content and on the aesthetic level) throughout the trilogy, as they do not only point to the performative constitution of the comics medium but also pose the question of original and copy, sameness and difference. One such motif can be found in the recurrent display of mirrors and reflections in La Trilogie Nikopol[31]. The fact that several characters seem to look alike or at least closely resemble each other can be seen as another example of repetition and doubling in Bilal’s work. The use of mise en abyme constitutes a further motif of repetition that plays a crucial role in La Trilogie Nikopol. Hence, not only does Bilal frequently make use of the medium within the medium or the frame within the frame[32], but he also resorts to the language within the language[33]. However, the most concise use of repetition and doubling can certainly be found in the figure of the doppelgänger. According to Ole Frahm, the portrayal of the doppelgänger (as well as of the twin or the clone) has to be understood as a reflection of the duplication and serialization of the comics medium in general and the comic book character in particular[34]. Due to the seriality and sequentiality of the medium, comic book figures have to be redrawn, i.e. recreated and therefore reproduced from panel to panel, page to page and issue to issue. In this respect, the aspects of duplication and amplification play an important role in the medium of comics. Furthermore, the doppelgänger also fulfils the function of a fantasy of reproduction as it represents an unconventional form of reproduction detached from traditional concepts of biological/heterosexual reproduction [35].

Like the cyborg (or the clone) the doppelgänger stands for a figure that is situated beyond any kind of biological genealogy[36]. While the original and the copy can no longer be distinguished from one another, the doppelgänger evokes the horror of sameness, as Ulrike Bergermann observes. Moreover, the doppelgänger manages to simultaneously irritate temporal linearity, generational hierarchies as well as conventional gender roles[37]. In La Trilogie Nikopol it is both the visual as well as the narrative doubling of Nikopol, i.e. of father and son, that undermines conventional perceptions of heterosexual reproduction, kinship and linearity:

“The relationship between son and father cannot be understood according to the traditional narrative model of family history, parenthood or the order of inheritance. Their relationship is, instead, characterized by the figures of the quiproquo and the double, the mistake and the superposition of identities. The double, furthermore, is a model for a kind of metaphoric ordering of discourse, structured around the replacement of things rather than their succession”[38].

By closely linking the motif of the doppelgänger to the quest of identity, the importance of fatherhood; linear inheritance; masculine sovereignty; and creativeness are being questioned. What is also being contested by the doppelgänger is the essentialist idea of a stable and ‘natural’ origin or the closely linked idea of a fixed and unchangeable (gender) identity.

In this respect, Nikopol and Niko find themselves not only in a permanent exchange of roles, but also in an ongoing process of becoming and identity (re)construction. Hence, their identity formation is neither completed nor clearly defined or coherent. This ‘brokenness’ and this inconsistency are also reflected in the frequent display of fragmented bodies in La Trilogie Nikopol. “Images of torn-up bodies, of limbs torn apart, of dismembered bodies are the apt symptoms and representations of the motif of split identities”[39]. The already mentioned display of mirrors and reflections is another important aspect that underlines the hybridity and fragmentation of Bilal’s characters. In Froid équateur it is, for example, Niko who looks at his image, which is reflected by a cracked mirror[40]. “[T]he camera moves closer and closer to his reflection, so that the vertical crack in the mirror now looks like a scar across his face: an appropriate symbol of his split identity”[41]. The symbolic significance of the “cracked mirror” is further enhanced by the display of a gecko running over Niko’s reflection[42]. As a regenerative animal the gecko stands for the cracks and ruptures in his personality as well as for the ability/possibility to recreate himself and therefore also for the performative process of identity (re)construction. Moreover, as Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux states in her essay, “[t]he symbolic significance of such an image [the gecko running over Niko’s reflection] is supplemented by the wordplay, in French on lézard (gecko, lizard) and (se) lézarder (to be cracked, to crack up). Thus, the apparently disconnected item (the gecko) is an apt example of Bilal’s surrealistically meaningful cuts-away”[43]. Consequently, the feeling of fragmentation and hybridity is not solely limited to the formal level in Bilal’s surrealistic comic universe. It also extends to the protagonists living in it. Just like the world surrounding them, they are characterised by a certain kind of ‘brokenness’ and contingency that brings to light the artificiality as well as the discontinuity of their performative gender identity.

Véronique Sina works as a research associate and coordinator of the interdisciplinary Master Programme Gender and Queer Studies (GeStiK) at the University of Cologne. She obtained her PhD in Media Studies at the University of Bochum in June 2015 with the dissertation: Comic – Film – Gender. Zur (Re)medialisierung von Geschlecht im Comicfilm. Her research interests are Gender and Media, Comics Studies, Intermediality (especially the correlation of comics and film), Processes of Remediation, Media Aesthetics, Cultural and Media Studies as well as Jewish Studies. She is the co-founder and spokesperson of the Comics Studies Working Group in the German Society of Media Studies (GfM ‘AG Comicforschung’).

References

Bergermann, Ulrike. 2002. “Reproduktionen: Digitale Bilder und Geschlechter in Alien.” In: Gender Revisited, ed. Katharina Baisch, Ines Kappert and Marianne Schuller (et al.), 149-172. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

Bergermann, Ulrike, Breger, Claudia and Nusser, Tanja. 2002. “Einleitung.” In: Techniken der Reproduktion. Medien – Leben – Diskurse, ed. Ulrike Bergermann, Claudia Breger and Tanja Nusser, 7-14. Königstein/Taunus: Helmer.

Bilal, Enki. 2005. La Trilogie Nikopol : La Foire aux immortels – La Femme piège – Froid équateur. Paris: Casterman.

Bolter, David and Grusin, Richard. 1999. Remediation. Understanding New Media. London: MIT Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” In: Performing Feminisms. Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case, 270-282. Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press.

Frahm, Ole. 2010. Die Sprache des Comics. Hamburg: Philo Fine Arts.

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. 2007. “Enki Bilal’s Intermedial Fantasies. From Comic Book Nikopol Trilogy to Film Immortals (ad vitam).” In: Film and Comic Books, ed. Ian Gordon, Mark Jancovich and Matthew P. McAllister, 268-285. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Grusin, Richard. 2010. Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11. New York: Palgrave.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hatfield, Charles. 2009. “An Art of Tensions.” In: A Comics Studies Reader, ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, 132-148. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Mikkonen, Kai. 2006. “The Paradox of Intersemiotic Translation and the Comic Book: Examples from Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy.” In: Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry. Vol. 22/No. 2, 101-117. London: Taylor & Francis.

Peters, Kathrin. 2002. “Zur Unschärfe des Zukünftigen. Einleitende Überlegungen.” In: Future Bodies. Zur Visualisierung von Körpern in Science und Fiction, ed. Marie-Luise Angerer, Kathrin Peters and Zoë Sofoulis, 1-20. Wien: Springer.

Sina, Véronique. 2016. Comic – Film – Gender. Zur (Re-)Medialisierung von Geschlecht im Comicfilm. Bielefeld: transcript, Edition Medienwissenschaft.

Ueckmann, Natascha. 2005. “Hybride Kreaturen im modernen französischen Comic: Enki Bilal.” In: Der automatisierte Körper. Literarische Visionen des künstlichen Menschen vom Mittelalter bis zum 21. Jahrhundert, ed. Cerstin Bauer-Funke and Gisela Febel, 301-328. Berlin: Weidler 2005.

Steffen Vogel. 2010. “Enki Bilal – ein Comic-Künstler. Welchen Schutz bietet das historische Gedächtnis?” GETIDAN. Autoren über Kunst und Leben, http://www.getidan.de/kritik/steffen_vogel/18030/enki-bilal (accessed 2015/11/05).

Westermann, Bianca. 2012. “Transitorische Hybride – Über die Ruhigstellung ambivalenter Identitäten.” In: Im Moment des Mehr – Mediale Prozesse jenseits des Funktionalen, ed. Peter Spangenberg and Bianca Westermann, 161-191. Berlin: LIT.

[1] See Steffen 2010.

[2] For a thorough analysis of the construction of masculinity and femininity in Bilal’s La Trilogie Nikopol, see Sina 2016.

[3] In 2005 Casterman (re)published the complete trilogy under the title of La Trilogie Nikopol: La Foire aux immortels – La Femme piège – Froid équateur.

[4] Butler 1990, 270.

[5] In 1992 Nikopol refused “to fight against the Sino-Soviet coalition…” (Bilal 2005, 21). He deserted and was caught. One year later a French military court sentenced him “for desertion to be shipped out into the cosmos without hope of returning… with the first twenty years to be spent in a state of hibernation” (ibid.). Due to the malevolence of his guard, Nikopol even spent ten additional years in cosmic hibernation before finally returning to earth in 2023.

[6] See Bilal 2005, 1.

[7] The concept of premediation has to be understood as a counterpart to the concept of remedation established by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. In contrast to the concept of remediation, i.e. the constant appropriation, reiteration and refashioning of media by other media (see Bolter/Grusin 1999), premediation describes a “form of medial pre-emption” (Grusin 2010, 2).

[8] See Bilal 2005, 11;14-15.

[9] See Hatfield 2009, 132.

[10] See Bilal 2005, 42; 52; 62-63.

[11] Mikkonen 2006, 102.

[12] Ibid., 103.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See Bilal 2005, 47-48; 64.

[16] It is interesting to note that Nikopol’s schizophrenic disposition is attested by a doctor who bears a striking resemblance to the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (see Bilal 2005, 64-65).

[17] See ibid, 65.

[18] Mikkonen 2006, 105.

[19] See Ueckmann 2005, 310. Every time Nikopol shares his body with Horus, the Egyptian god takes control of the protagonist’s body and psyche as he is able to completely disconnect Nikopol from his body and mind (see Bilal 2005, 37).

[20] See ibid., 15.

[21] See ibid., 22-23.

[22] As Judith Butler points out, “the ground for gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts trough time, and not a seemingly seamless identity” (Butler 1990, 271). Hence gender identity has to be understood as “a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (ibid.).

[23] Haraway 1991, 149.

[24] Ibid., 150.

[25] Ibid., 151.

[26] See Westermann 2012, 162.

[27] Mikkonen 2006, 106.

[28] See ibid., 105.

[29] See Bilal 2005, 160; 166.

[30] In this context, the term loop refers to different forms of medial recurrence.

[31] Within the trilogy there are various scenes in which different characters tend to look at their reflections (see for example Bilal 2005, 9; 47; 77).

[32] See Geoffroy-Menoux 2007, 279.

[33] See Mikkonen 2006, 107.

[34] See Frahm 2010, 68.

[35] See Bergermann, Breger and Nusser 2002, 8-9.

[36] See Peters 2002, 8.

[37] See Bergermann 2002, 153.

[38] Mikkonen 2006, 107.

[39] Geoffroy-Menoux 2007, 280.

[40] See Bilal 2005, 165.

[41] Geoffroy-Menoux 2007, 279.

[42] See ibid.

[43] Ibid.

 

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