Those colors. Spread across the pages, Enki Bilal’s artwork drops us into his colors: they have a rich, chalky texture that create incredible atmosphere in each panel. In the opening sequence of The Dormant Beast (English edition, 2000) a flying taxi trails modified pigments against a graphite cityscape, like he’s working with fine charcoal & designer eye shadow.
There is a believable gravity & grime to Bilal’s world here too. That flying taxi is clearly left over from the glory days of four tires & bad gas mileage. No niceties have been made with the upgrade. The wheels are gone, leaving industrial gashes beneath the curved wheel wells & the artful trails streaming behind are as likely untethered cords as streams of smoking oil.
Nike Hatzfeld, seated in the back of that flying taxi, can remember everything, which places him in the center of an increasingly & satisfyingly dense narrative based almost entirely around history. Personal history: Nike was born in war ravaged Sarajevo & placed as an orphan next to two other orphans, Amir & Leyla whom he has sworn to protect. Global history: the reduction of all thought, science, & culture into one Obscurantist Order, erasing the identity that history gives. The story crosses, crisses, & stacks the characters with & against each other due, largely, to the machinations of Dr. Warhole, a devious plotter sporting a blue, metallic nose & the turgid visage of an alcoholic corpse. (Dr. Warhole reminded me quite a lot of the villains that stalk Tsutomu Nihei’s comics with their malformed, almost fungal faces, & I could easily image the one inspiring the other.)
Flies, duplicate bodies, & buried back in the story, signals from space, all churn the pages among human moments; Leyla & her father on his birthday, Amir & his girlfriend Sacha trying to enjoy a bit of goodness before things go horribly wrong, & throughout, Nike’s perfect memory punctuates the plot, walking us back to the day he was born & his first thoughts.
It’s those passages of Nike’s memories, & those pages where a portion of the dialogue becomes a panel to itself – those blocks of text, laid next to the rich artwork that really make The Dormant Beast succeed. Between the art & the mental images the text creates, the story & world of The Dormant Beast opens up in a way a lesser written comic would not. It creates a pace, slower than many, that lets us poor over the details & – here’s the thing that really impressed me – by detailing parts in text that were not, or scarcely illustrated, we actually have more room to wonder & imagine as we read than if those blocks of text had all been shown as art. This isn’t unique to The Dormant Beast, & really, that alchemy of words & pictures is what comics are for. It’s what they do that other mediums can’t. It feels like a rarer style though & here, in The Dormant Beast, it works beautifully.
The Dormant Beast, first published in France in 1998, is the opening part of the “Hatzfeld Tetralogy”, the second chapter of which, December 32nd, is also available in English. Parts three & four, Rendez-vous a Paris & Quatre? respectively, remain untranslated.
As a bit of an addendum, i came across the video below of Bilal at work on The Dormant Beast: