Called to Comics
The artist-writer team of Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin has produced some of the most fascinating comics art of recent years. Their Legendes d'Aujourd'hui (Legends of Today) has received more acclaim with each album, culminating with the extraordinary succes of Partie de Chasse (The Hunting Party, serialized in 1984 in Heavy Metal), a political table set in Eastern Europe in which leaders of the Supreme Soviet meet for a little hunt - not only animals, but also of each other. The album was a great succes and made inroads in to parts of the public that had rarely ventured to read comics art before. Bilal and Christin have also produced Los Angeles, a book-lenght "documentary" of imaginary Hollywood star for which Bilal referenced actual photographs of L.A. The team has published two other "documentaries," on New York and Cairo, in Pilote.
Bilal was born in Yugoslavia in 1951, emigrating to France in 1960. He began publishing in Pilote with serries of horror-SF stories very much in the mold of H.P. Lovecraft. His collaboration with Christin spawned five albums in the Legends of Today series, giving Bilal the confidence to realize, in 1980, his first full-lenght solo work, La Foire aux immortels (serialized in 1981 as "The immortals'Fete" in Heavy Metal, and recently released as the Gods in Chaos graphic album by Catalan Communications), which bacame, almost instantly, a classic of comics SF. His sequel to that album, La Femme piege (published by Catalan as The WOman Trap), was released in 1986. Bilal has also produced a few collections of shorter strips as well as numerous book covers, some film posters, sundry illustrations, and glass paintings for the fantasy scenes in La Vie est un roman (Life is a Novel), directed by Alain Resnais. He also designed the Molastar monster for Michael Mann's The Keep. Recently, the publisher Futuropolis issued a high-quality compilation of almost all Bilal's as an illustrator, L'Etat des stocks(State of the Market).
Pierre Christin, born in 1938, has been a journalist, a teacher, and a fiction writer. He first teamed with artist Jean-Claude Mezieres for the series Valerian et Laureline, now numbering 13 albums with another in the works. Christin has provided scripts for a host of other artists, including Annie Goetzinger, Vern, and Jacques Tardi. His other major series comprises the Legend of Today albums with Bilal. Christin has also published a few books: two storie collections, Les Predateurs enjolives (The Embellished Predators) and Le Futur est en marche (The Future in Reverse), and the noval Zac.
This interview was conducted and translated by Luc Pomerleau in the Fall of 1984, and first ran in Solaris magazine, issue 63 and 64. Greg Baisden edited the text for this issue of the Journal.
LUC POMERLEAU: How did you come to be comics authors?
PIERRE CHRISTIN: As always, it was a mix of chance and necessity: I wanted to write, which began in the classic maaner, in school, then writing stupid poems for my girlfriends. After that, I started with fragments of novels that I would read to my friends, boring them to tears. So, I have wanted since childhood to express myself through the written page. I had another wish, which was to draw. I loved drawing, although I could not do it very well. A kind of artistic inclination: I was playing music a lot, piano, and some of my childhood friends were people like Moebius and [Jean-Claude] Mezieres because we lived in the same neighbourhood and we had common tatses, like comics, jazz, cinema, the United States, travel, all sorts of things like that. After that, I went through college, were I learned how to write the French way, in a very straight manner with that damn dissertation plan. Meanwhile, Mezieres, Moebius, and others were in Art school next door to my school. So when they became professionals in comics, they naturally asked me to write scripts for them, since I had already started to write - about cineme among other things. Around 1965, many young talented writers emerged.
ENKI BILAL:For me, it was also chance and necessity. First, the will to draw. I was always encouraged to draw and it always was a big pleasure. Then I left Yugoslavia, where I was born - I lived in Belgrade for 10 years before we moved to France. I had to adapt, to learn French, which was not easy. And I discovered the francophone publications of the day, titles like Spirou, Tintin, and Pilote. I was discovering Christin, Mezieres, all those people, and discovering them made me want to tell stories and draw them. So I started numerous stories thet were never finished, all sorts of silly little things. I even showed them to Chalier and Goscinny, the two editors at Pilote.I was 15 at the time; I studied three months in Arts School and started to publish in Pilote. It all happened very fast. And I met Christin in '72.
POMERLEAU: When you started, you did all sorts of things; humor pages on current affairs, short stories, etc.
BILAL: When i started in Pilote, I drew many short stories that were very influenced by American horror, mainly Lovecraft. I drew four or five stories, seven or eight pages long. Then i was kind of forced to do the current affairs humor because the magazine needed people to work on them. I did very short subjects that were perfectly adapted to the weekly schedule of Pilote. Also, there was already an important portion of the magazine devoted to fantasy or Science Fiction, with people like Druillet, Mezieres, and Pierre; so I was re-oriented toward topical humor. Just when I was starting to ask myself what kind of personal series I would like to do, I met Pierre and we became vast friends. He had a story idea that eventually became La Croisere Des Oublies (The Voyage of Those Forgotten) and we very quickly came to an understanding.
POMERLEAU: Very quickly, you choose SF and fantasy, two genres you had already worked in.
CHRISTIN: That is something I have often been asked since we arrived over here, whereas it doesn't happen as often in France. I'll try to answer it more extensively than I have until now. In my case and Mezieres' the choice of SF was very clear from the start. It was an inescapable choice because in '65-'66 there wasn't a really "operational" SF strip in France, except Poivet's Les Pionniers de l'Esperance (The Pioneers of Hope), but that was a tired, repetitive series and not very interesting. And also Jacobs [creator of Blake and Mortimer series], who was there as a great tutelary figure but whose work was already behind him.
The reason for my choosing SF the was clear: there wasn't any, and the genre was at its literary peak in the U.S. and the U.K. All the big names were starting to appear: we were discovering the old authors and also the modern ones, people like Brunner, a really topical Science Fiction, very contemporary, interesting, and modern. I knew instinctively how to work in that type of SF.
As for fantasy, it was sort of subterfuge. What I wanted to do was a strip directly concerned with the reality of France in the '70s. But at that time, that kind of a project did not sit well with editors, nor with young artists. There was a desire to break out the graphical limitation, to find new formulas. So, the fantasy coloration of my first stories with Enki was there only to get them into Pilote and to reassure Enki - as I had already done with [Jacques] Tardi some time before - because times were not ready for the kind of soft-pedaled fantasy we are doing now. I wouldn't say w e have totally given up on all-out fantasy, but at taht time what interested me was Bunuel or Fellini; I had moved from Lovecraft at least a decade before. But magazines were not ready to accept fantasy in which there wouldn't be some astonishing or surprising element. And Enki evolved very quickly in a direction that suited my intentions. You see, there is a difference between my choice of SF and my choice of fantasy. There was a definite reason in the case of SF, while for fantasy it was partly because I was not ready to accept a story directly concerned with reality. I think I have managed to put into words my feelings about that.
Bilal: I concur with everything Pierre said and I would elaborate on what he said, quite well, concerning me. In the early '70s, I was doing current affairs satire. I had already done some fantasy, and I was starting to establish the foundations of my graphic univers: my first stories were set in a post-cataclys, society, a dislocated city, with odd events in the past of that city. I wanted to avoid any contemporary subject, like drawing from photographs to reproduce a village or city. Avoiding realism - it did not interest me. So I read SF novels, I developed a passion for the genre - in film, too. Then I met Pierre, who offered me an interesting script, but it scared me a bit because there were no fantasy elements in it. We talked about it and I realized he was compromising to make me more comfortable. So I insisted on the visual degenerescence of the militairy characters - perhaps a bit too much - and also on the main character's powers. All that came from me and it allowed me a liberation. I think it was very important because it allowed me to eventually abandon completely that aspect of my approach, while keeping the liberty I enjoyed at that time. If I had not dared to suggest adding fantasy elemnts, I might have run into dead-ends, my art might not have become what it is today.
IMAGINATION AND LIBERATION
CHRISTIN:It was a liberating process for all of us and I would never deny it. Our imagination was liberated. But at one piont. we decided we did not need to use that kind of fabricated universe any more, we could find fantasy simply by looking around us.
BILALThey are a major part of the albums. If we counted the number of panels involving flashbacks, we could come to an impressive number. I call it "historical fantasy." It may not have been done very often. I used memory, fantasms, and souvernirs to displace slightly a specific historical period. I reffered to documents, but I was able to treat them very freely. And taht's what gives resonance to the album.
CHRISTINIt's easy to rationalize a posteriore, but I would say that we went from a fantasy tone to a fantasmatic, phatasmal tone. The Hunting Party is not a fantasy story in the traditional sense, but it's a highly fantasmatic story. It is crisscrossed by the fantasms that linger in every Kremlinologist's mind. And that is much more effective than showing Brenhnev with vampire teeth. You just have to let yourself go acording to all the dreams we may have about what's happening in the Kremlin.
POMERLEAU: It is a change of orientation that can be seen in all your works, separately or together, towards dreams and fantasms.
CHRISTIN:Maybe I am changing as I grow old. I believe that the environment around us is real, but also that the images in our heads are just as real. There is an interpenetration ofthe two. I also think that BD [bande dessinee, literally "designed strip (or band)-the French word for comics art] has become a more fluid medium than before and that many things can now be used, like stream of consciousness, that couldn't before except very unsubtley. Now it's possible to do all sorts of light-hearted things, then go imperceptibly into one character's head, changing the point of view. Suddenly, you go froma realimage to a mental image. Just as in modern cinema, the reader can readily see and understand the camera movements: it gives us a freedom in writing and drawing much greater than anything possible just15 years ago.
PoOMERLEAU: The Hunting Party can thus be called an album on memory, on historical memory.
POMERLEAU: When you started, you used the byline "Linus" on your scripts, Why the pen name?
CHRISTIN: There are a few reasons. I had worked as a journalist for a small magazine, with Mezieres among others. We were just three people who put out a whole magazine, and at one time I had almost 10 pen names since I was practically writing the whole thing. It became sort of a game. So when I started writing for comics, I very naturally chose a pen name. ALso, I was in the U.S. at the time and I discovered Peanuts, which was practically inknown in France in '65. I liked the character of Linus, and I was a university professor and it could have been ackward had it been known that I was writing that sort of thing. Now it would not make any differnce, or perhaps it still would; I don't know. I am not in favor of pseudonyms: if you write a book and stand behind it, sign it. I abandoned the pen name as soon as we went from short stories to full-lenght ones.
POMERLEAU: There were other similar references: a character named Schroeder, one named Sun Ra.
CHRISTIN:I believe that was when Mezieres and I had fulfilled our long-time ambition of coming to the States. It's a bit naive, but for Frenchmen if was sort of a necessity at the time. So we tipped our hats to all those things we liked: to Jerry Lewis, who was visual inspiration for the Schroeder character; and jazz in my case, with the Sun Ra character. We sort of paid our dues in America. We soon moved out of it.
POMERLEAU: There's a similar practice of quotatio\n in some of Bilal's short stories, with characters looking like Kissinger or Giscard d'Estaing [President of France before Mitterand].
BILAL:Well, that was a bit of a concession to the editor of the day. Current affairs were considered to be very important in the magazine, so when I said I wanted to do short fantasy and SF stories, I was told it might be nice if they contained some references to current events. I agreed to play that game because I really needed to do those stories, especially for gaining some experiance. It was a place for trying things because I was starting to test my direct-coloring technique. I did not take any risks with Pierre on La Croisieres Des Oublis, La Vaisseau De Pierre (The Vessel of Stone), La Ville Qui N'Existait Pas (The Town that Didn't Exist), nor Les Phalanges De L'Ordre Noir (The Phalanxes of the Black Order); I used the classical technique of line drawing with color being applied afterwards. In my short stories, I tried new things, especially direct painting. Also, I was trying to develop a personal narrative system, to come to a consice narrative logic. I wanted to learn, so I didn't mind making small concessions on those stories. There are indeed a number of stories in which Giscard appeared. It was nice; I was very happy because it made sense; it gained sort of a symbolic dimension. I still like the Kissinger story, although I don't like the art anymore. It was a purely fortuitous way of going about it.
VALERIAN, LEGENDS AND RUMORS
POMERLEAU:[to Christin] What was your concept of the Valerian and Laureline characters when you created them?
CHRISTIN: Very deliberately, I wanted to go against all those characters whe were dominating the market at the time. There were only two strong models: the Franco-Belgian boy-scout tradition, the fearless knight-in-shining-armor - like Tintin and even the Blueberry scripts Charlier was writing back then [for Jean Moebius Giraud]; the other great model was American super-heroes. I wanted to create a character that would be totally untraditional on that front. Valerian is a banal character; he doesn't have any extraordinary means of action. I also thought, and still do, that back then comics were politically very conformist, if not quite ractionary. The political context was Gaullism;May 1968 was coming, but it was still three years away. We have forgotten that bit; Enki for one was still in diapers. So, it was a society I didn't like, hence my symphaty for the United States. It was a very repressive society. TV was spewing morality lessons from morning to evening; our supposedly great-thinking mentors were people like Malraux, who was on TV every week. I dispised all those things and I yearned, like so many people from my generation, for change. I think that comics played a certain role in this renewal; Valerian was one of the strips which had something to do with it, but there were others like Reiser's strips or Cabu's Grand Duduche, characters who weren't heroes.
As for Laureline, that's something else. She came in by chance during our first story and Jean-Claude and I sort of fell for her.You see, at the time most female characters in comics were either utterly of the dumb type except Barbarella, but she made use of her bodily charms somewhat.And I think that Laureline was one of the first interesting and rounded-out females, who sort of satisfied a diffuse need of the readership, although that was totally unconscious on our part. There were readers who wanted to see something else than big-breasted females, and we got many letters saying that she was nice and interesting, so we decided to keep her. It must have been the feminine part in Jean-Claude and I that made her become very quickly the real driving force in the series. She's the one who keeps things moving; she thinks faster than Valerian.
POMERLEAU: Whereas Valerian is becoming stupider all the time, although in Les Spectres D'Inverloch(The Spectres of Inverloch) there is for the first time a moment of tenderness between the two.
CHRISTIN:Yes, Valerian kept going downhill. What you mention will be even stronger in the second half of Les Foudres D'Hypsis(The Thunderbolts of Hypsis). Laureline had almost taken too much room. I said that Valerian had become too pitifull and that I wished that the reader's tenderness for the character would respond to what Jean-Claude and I feel for him. There are guys who break their neck falling down; it's when they are on the ground that you have to help them. The time has come to like Valerian. No problem for Laureline, we know she's secure.
POMERLEAU: The "Legendes d'Aujourd'hui" (Contemporary Legends) series was begun with Tardi in Rumeurs Sur Le Rouergue (Rumors on the Rouergue). Were there any specific intentions when you started the series?
CHRISTIN: Yes, and it relates to what I was saying earlier. I thought that most European comics were extremely stereotyped, especially in the way they were representing reality. In Rumors on the Rouergue., for example, we took a different track from the usual representation of country houses. In other comics, they weren't country houses observed by the artists themselves, they were houses that had been drawn before by Herge, Franquin or Bob de Moor. It was not the result of a realistic perception of the French countryside. I love France, I love to travel and I knew many regions about which we didn't hear nearly enough, although they had a great wealth of folklore and stories. So there was in part an ethnological impulse on my part. TV was as silent on the matter; same for cinema except for a few marginals like Jean-Pierre Mockly, who was shooting his odd little films away from the capital, in the middle of the Massif Central.
I really wanted to do it, and the first artist I saw whom I felt was technically proficient enough was Tardi; he was young, but his art was already very strong defined. Moreover, he hadn't drawn any longer stories and wanted to do some. So I worked with him, even if his art never enthused me as Enki's did; it's magnificent from a technical point of view, but I don't think this post-Belgian School art, which I found beautiful, is very self-defined or would have allowed us to go very far. The first story allowed me to learn the ropes: I was still learning and, although the script is fun, it is really over-rich. The real clincher was Enki's art: it satisfied me completely and I could see in it all the directions we would be able to take. Also, I think I was ready for longer, more elaborate and novelstic scripts.
BILAL: I've already descibed the reticences I had; at the same time, the subject matter was interesting. And working with Pierre was a fascinating prospect. The first three albums were a process of adaptation to a universe I tended to reject at first, especially the first one, The Voyage of Those Forgotten, which I don't like very much today. I can read it only with great unease. Graphically, it's totally outdated; i have gone beyond that. But what was interesting was the evolution of my art throughout those first albums. I think The Vessel of Stone was my graphic showpiece, my bursting out phase, and I never went back to that sort of thing. I explored every possibility in a perticular system of expression, those very spectacular pages, although I did not expolre everything I was capable of doing in larger sense. It's a bit naive in a certain way: I wanted to show I was capable of drawing. Everyone was doing it at the time. The graphic effervescence in Metal Hurlant and Pilote, the bawdy humor in L'Echo Des Savanes, and the apperance of SF, fantasy, and dreams in Metal.
While that was happening all over the place, we probably were still a bit ahead of the pack. The favored direction at the time was to go further graphiclly than the other guy did the week before; that resulted in three-page stories where nothing was told but you had three enormous and supurb drawings. We were saying, "Yes, that's very nice, but..." I was starting to realize that is was more interesting to tell stories than to go for those big spectaculair pages. So, The Town that Didn't Exist appeared when Metal was flourishing and starting to make inroads in the States. It was one of our more modest and calm albums visually. It was a turning point for me. I was starting to understand thing that were to become crusial elements of my art - that is, an inherent mystery in the colors, but also the coldness, with those greyish colors, a bit bland. I felt things inside me while doing that story. Also, I was rejecting almost totally all classical fantasy trappings, which brought us to an almost total break with what had gone on before. Pierre's writing and my art evolved along the same lines he was talking about earlier.
In The Phalanxes of the Black Order, there is not the smallest hint of fantasy except here and there from a certain use of colors - in the skies, for example, which have a certain ominous character. But it's only in passing. It was an exciting but difficult experience because I was suddenly becoming a realistic artist who had to be at the service of a very exact script, and here I was doing it. It's probably one of the stories to which I brought the least plot elements. I could only concentrate on the director's work: I couldn't allow myself any error of mis-en-scene. That story would not have allowed any. I think I was extremely efficient. It's a very important story. I'm not saying it's my favorite story, but we had to do it a certain way and it was an important achievement.
POMERLEAU: It's with that album that politics and history took center stage in the series.
BILAL: I wouldn't say politics and history, but coming to grips with the conscience of our times. We decided we had had enough of talking about the regions of France with their political, union, and social problems. The really interesting things that needed to be addressed were not confined to a single country but had to be related to a European or world situation.
CHRISTIN: I think that it's with this album that we found our true public, oddly both in what we do together and separatly. The usual comics public may have liked it or not, but was very surpriced when it apeared. On the other hand, another public who did not read comics before suddenly took notice of it, whether because of the beautiful art, the precise documentation, a sort of novelistic feel that might remind them of cinema. I think it was a very important moment of our careers that allowed us greater liberty afterward; it allowed us to de, together and separatly, things we couldn't do before.
BILAL: I would agree completely with that and add that now we could almost come back to out original brand of fantasy-SF, keeping our present narrative feel, and bringing with us our new readers, who would not have accepted us when we started the series. We proposed things to themtaht they could directly relate to - or that were directly inscribed in - our times. Now I think we could bring in flights of imagination - something we did in part in The Hunting Party - and we could go much further, with our readers saying we are going through an evolution when in fact we would be coming back to our first loves.
STRUCTURE: DESTINY CHOSEN AND FATED
POMERLEAU: Christin's scripts have a strong sociological bent: more than others, they mark clearly the city, the society, the individual, something that is also true in Valerian.
CHRISTIN: In part, it's a result of my education. I studied in sociology and I worked as a journalist. But it's not a conscious process. Simply, I have a tendency to place everything in a broader context, whether it be individuals or events. It may also be due in part to my being a teacher, always saying. "Carefull, we can't explain that thing by simple personal trajectory, there are a lot of other factors involved." I got that from those thinkers I look up to and from my interest for ethnology. A sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu, for example, tries constantly to determine what is the part of liberty and part of predetermination to the life of individuals; that is, we are not entirely programmed - we can decide to some extent if we want to be a good guy or a crook - but we will not do the same thing if we come from different background or place. So I work that way, in partIt's one of my qualities, but I'm wary of it because it can produce very mechanistic scripts; it can become heavily didactic. FOr two of three years now, I have been leaning towards more whimsical scripts. I do not let myself be guided by the analitical elements.
For example, and I think it is very revealing, I have completely changed my method with the last two Valerian albums. For once, I did not write a synopsis. I just went blindly into it and PFFIIIT! I lied through my theeth to Mezieres: I never told him the ending. I did not want to be too demonstrative. I think I have become skillful enough taht I can let myself be carried with the pleasure of telling the story, the anecdote, the gag.
POMERLEAU: However, reading The Spectres of Inverloch, it seems a very structured story.
CHRISTIN: No, it was scripted very quickly, as it came, and I was having fun with it.
POMERLEAU: [to Christin] You once said in an interview for Horizons Du Fantastique that you liked scripts that were well constructed, well put together.
CHRISTIN: It's true. I'm still convinced that whimsy is not compatible with construction. One of the great failures of comics and one of the great disappointments one can feel reading comics for the last four or five years, is how relatively inept many stories are. There are good artists, very inventive people whien it comes to art, but you have really put yourself to the task when it comes to reading them. I still think that we must not fall in the trap of straight preaching, we must let ourselfs be carried away so we may find amusing things. In my case, I don't want to be seen as a sort of greay guru of scriptwriting, saying a story has to be constructed that way, in these three specific stages. I love constructs; it's one of my constant preoccupations to build stories in the form of a square, a trapeze, etc. I love formalism and I feel very close to the formalist schools of writing, but that shouldn't take over everything else.
POMERLEAU: One of the best examples of well constructed scripts is your Ambassador of Shadows, where all kinds of structures finally get together in the end.
CHRISITN: Yes, I liked convoluted stories at the time. I'm trying to get away from that. It's interesting that we are influencing each other: the strong irrationlity in Enki's art has modified my writing system, and I brought him toward realism. But on the other hand, I saw in his art some things that were possible in comics art and now I tend to put more irrationality in my stories. For example, in a recent script for [Annie] Goetzinger, there are things that I wouldn't have used before The Hunting Party, which opened doors I wasn't using before even though I was aware of their existence.
GODS IN CHAOS
POMERLEAU: Another important albums was La FOIRE Aux Immortals(Gods in Chaos, Bilal's first solo album. It brings together some very disparate elements in the story and the thematic construction. It is a very baroque album.
BILAL:What led me to that album was perhaps that I held myself back for so long. I had been waiting for a long time to do a longer solo story. All my experiments and research were done with that in mind: I wanted to develop a new form of art, with my way of working with color. The introduction of direct color had already been a very important thing for me and i wanted to use it. All the short stories we talked about earlier were directed toward that. At the same time, when doing those seven- or eight-page stories, I was trying to learn how to tell stories since the short form is more difficult. Then came The Phalanxes of the Black Order I was excited by the subject - I may or may not have been ready for it, that's not important. We knew the time had come to do it. All through our work on that album, the extremely realistic aspect of the enterprise was influencing my way of thinking in my solo works, although I was starting to map out a story that was supposed to be in my mind the exact reverse of The Phalanxes.
The work on the album was going very well, was very nourishing for me. I was telling myself I was going to do something else. And after it was completed, I told Pierre that things had finally clicked in my head and I thought I was ready to do my own story. So I had to build it. I asked myself how I could proceed with that. I knew that Tardi wrote out the plot then did a preliminary layout in a notebook with quick sketches of the action, a sort of storyboard of his story. I knew how Pierre worked, and a synopsis seemed essential soI wrote one - I wrote down too many things as a matter of fact, since I added all sorts of psychological considerations that couldn't go into the album but were usefull to know, like those movie directors who wrote out biographies of their characters to know them better. So I worked very hard on that and decided to do a preliminary layout, but I stopped on page five because I couldn't stand the method, putting ideas on paper and then coming back to them; I felt I was repeating myself. So I decided to determine some very definite markers in the plot and started to writing and drawing directly. It went very, well in the first pages, but I departed completely from the original plot. Suddenlu, a character would appear and I liked him, like Gogol the cat, for example. As I went along, the story was nourishing itself and had nothing to do any more with the original script. That's probably what explains the game of one-upmanship I seemed to be playing with myself in the album. I say it's a hodgepodge type of story, but I had great fun bringing everything together at the end. It's extremely convoluted, but I believe it had to come forth. There probably are too many elements in the story, but it is an important stage of my career. As a matter of fact, the album was a big success, something essential that helped when the time to tackle The Hunting Party because I used the same technique of direct coloring and probably introduced some elements I had already usedin Gods of Chaos. What's interesting to me now is seeing how I will use all those elements in The Woman Trap. I want to go against what I did in the first album. It's been five years and meanwhile The Hunting Party happened, and lots of other things, like my graphic evolution, changes in the world, and all sorts of events in my private life. All that will invariable influence my story, which will be less dense, deliberatly less carefree.
POMERLEAU: Will the story deal mainly with one character, the astronaut for example?
BILAL: Not with Nikkopol. It's hard to go back to a story five years after the fact, so I deliberately take up the story were I left it. Nikkopol will be on the sidelines a bit, in his asylum. At the same time, however, he has a certain importance in the story. I also think I will bring back the god Horus. It seems a natural thing to do.
but the center of the album will be a female character who wasn't in Gods in Chaos. I very much want to do a story with a female character. Pierre has also started to do so since he's started writing scripts for Annie Goetzinger, and that's were I am now. I very much want to talk about a woman with whom I sort of fell in love. I believe an author establishes relationships with his characters. I was never in love with my male characters, but now I'm a bit in love with that female character.
POMERLEAU: Will it be the reverse of the first album both structurally and thematically?
BILAL: I thinks so. The political background will remain, but I won't really insist on it. In fact, this album will reflect my state of mind today: I am somewhat perplexed by our world, but I simply realize that our enviromnt is quite hard, rather incertain, while in Gods in Chaos everything seemed so simple: left wing and right wing, socialism and capitalism; everything came down to rather simple formulas. But the main question is not there any more - it's where the character finds himself.
POMERLEAU: One amusing element for us North Americans in Gods in Chaos was the use of hockey as the sport to which all the jet set and the politicos flock to.
BILAL: I got to know hockey in Yugoslavia and it's very popular in the Eastern block countries and in the Sovjet Union, were there are epic matches between the Canadian and Soviet teams. I wanted a spectacular sport. Also, I knew it wasn't very well known in France. As occer match didn't seem interesting, while hockey has quite a ceremony to it. And I was able to twist some elements, to push farther the violence that is integral to the sport: the stick, the goalie, the masks, that's a whole weaponry. You only have to go a little further to get the almost physical violence you find in the album. At the same time, I established a relationship between how totalitarian states use sports, and all the related symbolism.
VIOLENCE, RELIGION, and COLLABORATION
POMERLEAU: That was in keeping with the rather strong violence one finds in the "Contemporary Legends" series.
BILAL: Pierre said something the other day that is quite true for both of us: we dispise violence. I draw quite a lot of blood, and that worries some people who wonder about what's inside my head - they think I must be quite a sicko to draw those things - but i am hypersensitive when it comes to blood, i can faint just seeing a little of it. I can't bear seeing a car accident; I get sick. It must be a way to exorcise my fear of violence.
CHRISTIN: It's very similar for me. Even simple aggressive incidents in the subway get to me. I also hate terrorism, weapons, every form of constraining power. I think I still come from the old anarcho-liberal-liberatian scheme. So it's sort of an exorcism when we show violence. Like the Greek tragedies whose goal was to flush out the passions, I have this almost naive belief that by telling horrible tales reality will always contradict what we predict and it will not happen.
BILAL: Unfortunately, it does happen.
CHRISTIN: Yes, we haven't been very lucky on that front. But it really comes down to a flushing out of the passions.
POMERLEAU: That violence is often associated with religion, especially with Bilal.
BILAL: I never had any religious education. It seemed to me like a totally alien planet, totally illogical.I saw my friends go to church on Sunday: Mass, communion. I was trying to understand all that, very naively, asking the kind of questions we ask when we are kids: "God, you say? Did you meet him in person?" All the decorum, the ceremony of the Church, is rather fascinating and funny - at least it's funny to me. So that's where I get a certain anticlericalism from: I think it is an enourmous misappropriation, a totally rediculous con game. But the main problem is not there any more although some things still frighten me, like the surge of Islamic fundamentalsim, for example. Those forms of religion frighten me, compared to those, Catholicism is really a choirboy religion.
CHRISTIN: I think we both hate any kind of priest, be they in cassock or not.
POMERLEAU: In Gods in Chaos, you used an obsolte mythology, that of the Egyptian Gods.
BILAL: Yes, I needed a lot of things. I wanted to draw profusely, and I have to admit that there had been the revelationof a magnificent novel by Roger Zelazny - Creatures of Light and Darkness - where gods from Greek mythology are all running around. It clicked in my head: I saw there a good number of graphic possibilities, of things to show. And I liked what Zelazny was doing at the time. It rerally was a catalyst, and I found it amusing to confront, albeit indirectly, a monotheist Pope with the manifestations of a multitude of gods. THat was my amusemnet. In the final analysis, Gods in Chaos was an amusement for me there is some humor in the album.
POMERLEAU: What is the process of your collaboration?
CHRISTIN: It is a totally harmonious process: we play a lot of tennis together; we talk about films; we often go on holidays together; we play ping-pong. The only activity we don't have in common is soccer [Bilal is the soccer player of the two]. It's a process of permanent exchanges where we don't really talk about what we are doing. It's mostly discussions on what we have read, what we have seen, what we find funny, what shocks us. And little by little it build a common ground from which generally a story is ready to emerge. And when it happens, we very rarely have any dissension since it has been nourished by all sorts of things we went through together during a year or two.
And then we come to the technical process proper, which is important but not very interesting. Roughly speaking, when we agree on how the story goes, I write out a plot synopsis, then very detailed breakdowns with dialogue, but that stil is subject to an extensive process of mise-en-scene and interpretations by Enki. What I try to do is propose to Enki a story taht will leave him free to let his imagination roam, to allow the eruption of unexpected elements, and that's the role of a scriptwriter. That means the script has to be solid - it must be a well-built car with good steering, good brakes - but it must be able to flash left or right when we want to take a sudden turn. That is the job of the artist; I don't want to impede his work of directing the action. And sometimes I have to modify the dialogue after Enki has finished the art since some character has taken an unexpected importance.
BILAL: In summary. I would say we are both at the service of eachother, and we are at the service of the story. We never feel any frustration working together because each one can find his own satisfactions, his own pleasure, because we are also at the service of our own personal universes. Everything is directed toward the story, so we can attain a sort of balance - not by miracle, but because we know each other so well. I think that can be possible only after a few years of common evolution and work together.
POMERLEAU: Do you have to use a lot of documentation for the Legends series?
BILAL: Yes and no. In the last two albums - The Phalanxes, for example - I needed lots of reference material because I couldn't afford all the trips our characters were taling. I knew Barcelona, Germany only a little. I went to the Netherlands after doing the album; I knew Italy, but not Rome. I had to gather many documents: some I had brought back from Barcelona, and then I had to make do with books and Pierre's photographs, but tha's quite another thing...
CHRISTIN: For a while there I thought you weren't going to mention my photographs; I came close to being insulted.
BILAL: Pierre is very ill-equiped; his equipment goes back to prehistoric times, upper-Paleolithic stuff. It did help me a bit...
CHRISTIN: I have equipment even a baboon can operate.
BILAL: And you get those very small photos with the smallest detail possible.
CHRISTIN: With my finger in the way, quite often.
BILAL: So that's how it went with The Phalanxes. On the other hand, The Hunting Party was something else entirely because the fantasmatic aspects liberated me. I started with historical documents, photos, and added to that what I gor from my trip in the Eastern Block countries, in the Soviet Union; but I wnet there before we wrote the story, so I didn't really have any really definite markers. Documentation is an important part of the work, but it's often secondary. What's really crucial is the assimilation of all the reference material and the result is totally fantasmatic.
POMERLEAU: I believe the genesis of The Phalanxes was a trip to Spain?
CHRISTIN: Yes, it was a very personal thing; it clicked inside me. I would say that I alsways click on the same things. I like to quote Stanley Kubrick on the matter - not only is he one of the greatest visual artists in cinema, but he also has a very impressive intellectual background. He says that to make a film, you need two things inside of you: first, a fable, otherwise you are just an imbicile - which means that one always wants to make a point, a demonstration, even if it's not in the "Comrades, you have to work for this or that party" style. There's always a need to explain something with every artist or writer. Also, the fable alone is nothing without one's sensitivity, one's sensuality. For example, I was toying with the idea of a story on terrorism because I felt it was important, but that was only an idea, a potential story.
Things suddenly fell into place. What made me realize how I could tell the story was when I visited Goya's native village, a rather seedy place, very poor, with a crummy plaque. I have always admired Goya's engravings, much more than his paintings, and I ammediately said to myself, "Let's talk about The Disasters of War in the 1980's." It was a sort of an echo of the emotional shock I felt watching Goya's engravings. Same thing for The Hunting Party: I wanted to talk about Marxism, about everything I find disgusting in the Soviet system which squeezes its satellite countries. That was only an idea, a theme; I didn't have a really intimate and living fable to tell; I couldn't find it. Then one day I was told about how Soviet high bureaucrats organized hunting parties in official dachas. Immediately, I saw brids, bears, big animals, and the presence of blood; it allowed me instantly to create a living and breathing story, not something disincarnate. To have only the idea is nothing; you need to know how to realize it, how to visualize it, how to touch people with it. We have to educate and touch; the two are not incompatoble at all.
HUMOR? and AMERICA
POMERLEAU: In the stories you do separately, there are amny funny touches, whereas in your albums in collaboration there isn't much humor.
CHRISTIN: The humor is a bit warped.
BILAL: I find that in The Palanxes, for example, even if the story is not very funny and that aspect is only a small part of the album, those old timers with rheumatisms going on a Senior Citizens' high adventure can appear a bit funny. We didn't realy insist on that point, but there is a rather touching, sympathetic, and funny side to it. In The Hunting Party, the humor is much less evidence.
CHRISTIN: It is the Eastern European humor, where the funny stories are generally rather sad. They are funny, yet one doesn't really feel like laughing. Also, we have to spread our stuff. I like writing in a humorous vein and I would probably like to develop it further, but I tend to use it mainly in Valerian. It seems at home there, Jean-Claude's art is better suited to it, and that's where my funny ideas tend to work better.
POMERLEAU: Is your album Los Angeles an attempt to go back to the myth of America that Europeans seem to favor?
CHRISTIN: Yes, I think America is in all our heads, whether we are French or of Yugoslavian origin.
BILAL: America is very present in the minds of people in Eastern Europe, maybe more than in the minds of Frenchmen.
CHRISTIN: I believe it somewhat belongs to everyone, even if Americans deny it to us. Enki, you mey have seen how [film director] Wim Wenders was totally panned in the U.S. for his film Paris, Texas, and how Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America was also roundly trounced. It might be better if Los Angeles is not published in English.
BILAL: It's kind of an aberration: Americans are flooding us with their TV shows, their films, their magazines, their fashions, yet they can't accept us showing them a mirror of what they appear to like.
CHRISTIN: As for me, there is a sort of love-hate relationship with the U.S., a constant back and forth movement of the pendulum. I love many aspects of that country, I go there often, but I am at the same time shocked by the injustice it generates from the inside. There is such an intolerable level of poverty in the U.S., and it is more intolerable than in underdeveloped countries because the U.S. could try and remedy it. Injustice also toward other countries because the U.S. imposes so many things on us. At the same time, it's true we live in the narrative structures of American films, in American music, and that as a country it is an essential factor to the advances of the 20th century. Also, I wnated to settle some accounts, with affection and certain distance.
POMERLEAU: Did you work in tandem or were you doing it separately?
CHRISTIN: It was done totally together.
BILAL: We couldn't do otherwise.
POMERLEAU: And your New York trip?
BILAL: That will be very different, quite short. We'll be together to scout some locations; we'll go through the town. I'll take photos. i won't tell him anything about what I'm drawing. We still have to talk about it, but the idea is that I give him six or seven big illustrations with some possible options, and a few things added. I would like to put in a few elements just a bit displaced from reality, so that our approach wil be a bit more personal.
CHRISTIN: In Los Angeles, we showed each other everything. Here, we are hiding things from each other. I have some ideas, too. It's the "Astonish Me" principle.
POMERLEAU: Bila's art has gone through a rather remarkable evolution, from the initial line drawings with lots of cross-hatching: people mention Moebius as an influence, but he wasn't the first to draw that way.
BILAL: Quite a lot of engravers were using the technique befoer him.
POMERLEAU: How would you sum up the evolution of your art?
BILAL: It was an inescapable evolution: one doesn't realize it and it evolves little by little. I never made any choices - I never told myself I was going to do a certain kind of style because it was selling well, it was in voque, or was about to become in voque. I think one of my qualities is that I only ever listen to myself, or rather my feelings. When I started, I didn't want to do simple line drawings only in black and white, and I did very little of it. It's there in the first stories, but I'd already done non-standard things to it. Very quickly, I got interested by what exists between two lines: the ligne claire school [literally, "clean line," the type of drawings practiced by Tintin creator Herge and his colleagues and disciples] is fascinating when it's well done, but doesn't interest me. What fascinates me is what is between the lines. At first I used cross-hatching to try to suggest volume and textures. It's a very tiresome system and one gets tired of it very quickly. Then i hit upon doing it with color. My coloring method allows me to fill completely the spaces betwen the lines and I can even erase the line; it tends to disappear at times. Color does the talking.
I perfeted the system gradually because I needed it. I don't know where it will take me, but for now I wish to do, in The Woman Trap, something else than in The Hunting Party. That something else might be working with photographs as I did in Los Angeles. There is always the will to bring something new.
POMERLEAU: In the first Legends of Today, color was still applied according to the classical three-color process wasn't it?
BILAL: No, it was already four-color, but in the usual method of working on stats, with the black lines super-imposed over the color. Something I found very interesting is to be able to draw and paint at the same time, to do both. When I work, I like to have the color right there at my fingertips since what's really important is when it all comes out creativily. It's difficult to imagine adding color three months after filming a sequence. That's what happens with the usual method of coloring. After a while, you have lost the feeling you had for the atmosphere you wanted to create.
POMERLEAU: Isn't the last page of The Phalanxes already a combination of the two techniques
CHRISTIN: Absolutely. The last part was done directly in color.
POMERLEAU: And in The Hunting Party it looks as though the coloring of the five or six first pages is slightly different from the rest of the album.
BILAL: Exactly. It may not have been a good idea: what I wanted to do was to use the classical coloring method for the realistic sequences, those that happened in Poland, in the train, in reality. And then as soon as we get inthe fantasmatic sequences, I planned to use the direct coloring method, to create a sort of dislocation, to insist on the difference. I started on that track and was plaqued by numerous production problems: production costs practically doubled because we had to shoot all sorts of different combinations, then assemble them. It was extremely complex. I had to come to a decision sometime, and I chose to do the story as I did Gods in Chaos. And now I can't think of going back to drawing in black and white.
POMERLEAU: Your color scheme seems very personal, with all those whites and greys mixing together.
BILAL: The colors I use are very banal, quite ordinairy. It's true there are quite a few colors I never buy: I build my color scheme around the greys; those are the tones that interest me. I like to create a monochromatic feeling, and then to introduce a few strong colored patches in it.
POMERLEAU: The last two Valerian stories were spread over two albums. Are you at a point where it is impossible for you to tell everything in the usual 46-page format?
CHRISTIN: Yes, I think that in general what I am looking for, and what most authors are looking for, is finding a format that is adepted to the nature of the story. I don't favor doing long stories just for length's sake, but you need breathing space, just as in the classical novel. Since the last two Valerians deal with rather complicated plots, the psychology of the characters is more important than in the past. We needed to take our time to do it. I also believe that Jean-Claude wanted to develop his art more serenely. It allowed us, for now, to work in much better conditions.
SCIENCE FICTION and FANTASY, and CINEMA
POMERLEAU: In your SF scripts, you often use parts of the traditional apparatus of Science Fiction, like the hollow planet, the galactic empire, the martiarchial society. Did you want to sort of turn those old cliches around, to use them for your own purpuses, to teach a lesson?
CHRISTIN: I believe that as it grew, SF built a kind of public domain, in the sense that everyone has used some very odd civilizations, the hollow planet theme has been used often, same thing for intergalactic trips. For me, that's a universe that belongs to all of us, exactly as when we go to New York: we are neither the first not he last to do it and everyone has the right to write about New York. So, I think that in SF Jean-Claude and I brought a number of new things that hadn't been done before, and for other things we took from the common pool - things that had already been done, but we had fun in borrowing them and using them in our own way. There are no restricted grounds in Science Fiction.
POMERLEAU:[to Bilal] You had some ecperience in cinema since you designed the creature in Michael Mann's The Keep, and also worked for Alain Resnais' La Vie Est Un Roman (Life is a Novel). Can you tell us a bit about that?
BILAL: The most gratifying experience was working with Resnais. It was fabulous to use a technique [glass painting] that no one knew on the set. So I didn't have the impression of coming into a hostile crowd. We were all on the same footing; we werea ll looking for solutions. And that work took me quite a long time, so it allowed me to gauge the scale of the work needed in cinema, how necessary it is to integrate oneself in the team. It remains a wonderful experience. Iwon't go into technical details; it's a bit involved.
POMERLEAU: And Dargaud had published a book on the film called Images Pour Un Film (Images for a Film)?
BILAL: Yes. So, that was a great experience that may very well never happen again since an artist never gets as much freedom as in those specific circumstances.
However, the case was quite different with The Keep: my work was more episodic. I came in while filming was already in progress. Moreover, everything was taking place in London, so I had to go back and forth between there and Paris. I was staying in London at most two days, and I tried to adapet myself to a rhythm that was quite different from the one on Resnais' film: there were three or four sets, several units. They expained the plot briefly - it wasn't an easy story to tell, despite the impression the finished film may have given. And I would defend Michael Mann on that point. He made a very good impression on me. I am convinced that he is a very good director, that could do extraordinairy things, even if I have not seen his previous films.
POMERLEAU: Some parts of the film show great potential, but editing seems quite awkward.
BILAL: Exactly, that's what I was going to say. The film was very costly, the shooting lasted very long. I saw many sequences being shot that were not included in the final print. Obviously, there were a few post-production problems in Los Angeles: part of the production team didn't like it and Mann was told to cut it down to an hour and a half, whereas he has envisioned a film of about two hours. The subject was fascinating: it's interesting for an American to shoot a horror subject set in an European context without retreading the old tried-and-true themes. And the cinematography was excellent; so were the sets. I found it rather ambitious. What I had seen of Mann at work led me to expect a good film: I found the quality in the images only. As for my creature, what can I say? I did it, of course, but there were so many conditions imposed on me that I can't really say it was a personal creation. And I think we see it to much. Because of a lot of small details, the film became rather simplistic, whereas it shouldn't have been.
POMERLEAU: One director you like very much is Andrei Tarkovsky - can you similarities between his films and what you do?
BILAL: I'd say there is the same feeling for textures and masses.
CHRISTIN: It is difficult if you want to imagine Tarkovsky filming in black and white lines - he's interested by what's between the masses, a bit of water mixed with rocks, metal, rust, a series of very rich masses and textures - and you have to be attentive, which is what anoys so many people. When I recimmend one of his films, people say that it's very beautifull, but to spend three quarters of an hour listening to the rustling of a brook - no thanks. But there is moreto it than that. I am not as close to his themes - metaphusics play an important role in his films. His images have a very fantasmatic effect on me.
POMERLEAU: Have you seen the photos from Zulawski's unreleased film Le Globe D'Argent (The Silver Globe), published in Zoom magazine? The costumes have a very Bilalian flavor.
BILAL: Yes, true. We talked about it with Zulawski. When his wife saw Gods in Chaos - especially the cosmonaut coming down - she found very similar images. We didn't know each other at the time. He shot the film in '77 and the fiirst photos were seen in '83. I had already done the album.
POMERLEAU: And what about Christin's filmic affinities? You mentioned Nunuel earlier.
CHRISTIN: I believe I have a few things in common with Enki...
BILAL: Except Zulawsky, about whom we totally disagree.
CHRISTIN: True, I don't share Enki's opinion about that director. There is a sort of exacerbated baroquism that annoys me, a theatricality that I absolutely don't like. Howerver, my idol is Skolimosky - I feel that The Shout, for example, is one of those rare admirable fantasy films of recent years because of its economy of means, its simplicity, and at the same time it is very scary; it deals with very deep feelings inside us. I have seen everything he has done and I like it al. I could also mention Orson Welles and so many other names.
OF SENSIBILITY AND SENSITIVITES
POMERLEAU: Do you feel that your art may reflect in some way a certain Slavonic sensitivity?
BILAL: Certainly, but it's not deliberate.It may simply be there because I think I am not inclined to fall into fads. I accept a whole slew of influences, but not fads, so I have developed an approach that may reach into things that come from very far into my past.
POMERLEAU: The depiction of the human body is very prominent in your work, more often then in other strips - you even draw a naked male body on the cover of Gods in Chaos.
CHRISTIN: Enki is one of the very few contemporary comics artists who never draw a single pornographic picture.Unless there is an unknown cache for such drawings.
BILAL: I think a body is a magnificent thing, a femeale even more than a male body. The renewal that happened in the '70s gave birth to a whole series of relatively pornographic strips in many publications; many people drew naked bodies before me. O.K., I showed a naked male body 'at rest' - that's something we've been seeing for quite a while in film. But I have to admit it is amusing to show a naked character with a falcon's head. My next story will be a love story, but I won't include any porno sequences because it doesn't fit at all in the story. I have always refused to do pornography because I don't feel it fits into my stories. I don't see any point to it. I don't want to publish a porno drawing simply to say, "Look, I can do it, too."
POMERLEAU: [to Christin] You have also published SF stories and a novel. DO you think there are things one can do in comic art but not in literature and vice-versa?
CHRISTIN: I see the border quite clear. A good idea for a novel or a story is, or should be, a priori a bad idea for a comic strip, and vica-versa. As fas as I am concerned, I don't believe I ever had an idea that could be used indifferently in either form. One must never forget that a comics art srcipt is intended to be visual. I don't have a reputation as an action writer, but basically comics art is action. There is a certain "behaviorist" point of view - we see things happening - whereas the process is much more internalized with written fiction. And when the media are confused, the results are generally rather bad. For example, it is very difficult to adept an SF novel in comics; it is usually a bad idea.It's much better to go for original scripts.
POMERLEAU: And what is the place of science in SF?
CHRISTIN: That question has always been very alien to me. I'd say that if SF ever did anything - and I', not quite sure it is still doing it - it was to question the scientific positivism according to which our society had been working since about the second halve of the 19th century, it show its greatness and its risks. So the literature of SF has quite a few good questions. At the same time, in the space of 10 years, modern science has caught up with SF and it is possible to say that we live in a kind of SF world at present. The old rural, agricultural, traditional society has disappeared in just 20 years. In countries like yours, like mine, we are the last to have seen that old world; we now live in a scientific world. Perhaps that explains why I am less interested in sF and much more by... let's say, how a big modern building in Montreal works, as a scientific construction. From that point of view, science is experienced in every aspect of our lives, whereas 15 to 20 years ago we were still projecting.
BILAL I would say that science in SF can be an obstacle. If one wants to deal with science, one can block one's imagination because then you don't want to go too far. And as for me, I have shown how interested I am in science by drawing machines that couldn't in all logic fly or run, and by showing surgical operations that would make any surgeon recoil in horror. Gradting a subway rail on a man and making a leg out of it - that's an indication of how I am preoccupied with science. It is a normal and necessary thing, but it is not important in my stories.
This interview was printed in the American magazine "The Comics JOURNAL - The magazine of news & criticism", number 129, May 1989.
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