The Nikopol Trilogy - A Critique
23 Mar 2017
So this was originally an assignment for a clasx I had, only published there after I actually submitted the homework. Not entirely my work, but I was definitely a major contributor (possibly even wrote the majority of it). The entire group is mentioned at the bottom (in alphabetical order :D)
The Nikopol Trilogy: A Critique
Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy is a series of Sci-Fi Comic Books which sets off in Paris in 2023, and moves on to other places in the sequels. The first book is set in a rigidly hierarchical dystopian society, Paris, as an autonomous city state, is ruled by a pseudo-aristocratic society, even though there are elections and other pretenses of ‘democracy’.
Genre and Setting
First we need to get into the details of the setting and consider the basic style. Much like George Orwell’s 1984, the date the book is set in, 2023, isn’t chosen as a specific date, but as a date ‘set in the not too distant future’ (for the date the book was written). It is safe to assume that the strict hierarchical caste-like system is probably inspired by situations that arose in the past societies, both in Europe and in Asia. If we judge by the style of the setting; it’s not exactly a Cyberpunk/Steampunk style, but it’s going for a similar aesthetic with a very stylized architecture/clothing, a dystopian society etc.
The realism/credibility of the setting is fairly low, and the existence of supernatural entities in the universe firmly places the work in Soft Science Fiction territory . The panels are drawn with a style that is not very abstract and fairly realistic, which by itself doesn’t say much as it is a very common style. The dialog in the panels are unusually long for comic book standards, but we’re not sure if this is actually intended by the author or just a byproduct of translation from French.
About the supernatural entities; they are very obviously gods from ancient Egyptian writings and their names and looks aren’t different from what we understand at all. Also the spaceship they come to the earth via is pyramid-shaped, and there is that. It seems that the common but far-fetched explanation to the question ‘How did the Egyptians even built the pyramids’ turned out to be true in that universe. The fact that Bilal used such thinly (or nonexistent-ly) veiled references to the Egyptian gods looks like he actually intended this to be a parody of what some conspiracy theorists actually believe. That seems to be a common theme in the work as we’ll discuss another example later.
Possible Influences on Naming Characters
Bilal was born in Yugoslavia and although most of his upbringing was in France, his origins might have had some influences of the story. Mainly the name of the main character, Alcide Nikopol , and thus, the name of the trilogy itself. The original political system in Paris is strongly rooted in Fascistic ideals, doesn’t have anything to do with a dictatorship with Communistic ideals, so it is doubtful that Tito’s dictatorship the author had some close exposure to in his very early childhood, had any impact of it.
While on the topic of names, and generally talking about the political ideology of the fascist dictatorship of Paris, let us discuss the name ‘Choublanc’, the surname of the current dictator in the first book. While it may sound fancy to foreigners, in French it actually only means “white cabbage”. However, Bilal is being clever about this usage: he uses it, when he wishes, as Choublanquism, changing the ‘c’ to ‘q’ in the process (as expected). Readers who are informed about the early history of socialism would see that this usage is meant to evoke Louis-Auguste Blanqui, a French political thinker in the 19th century. Blanqui is in fact the namesake of Blanquism, “which holds that socialist revolution should be carried out by a relatively small group of highly organised and secretive conspirators” . This, minus perhaps the socialism, is exactly what happens in the first book. The protagonists Nikopol and Horus, as highly organised and secretive conspirators, carry out a revolution. Bravo, Bilal.
Having just mentioned him… The main character of the series, Alcide Nikopol is a soldier who, because of his desertion, was ‘hibernated’ 30 years ago, and has now returned back to Earth. He has a past, but much of it is gone and besides his son, we don’t see his past influencing his behaviour much. In addition, he is the ultimate outsider because he has no recollection of what happened in the last 30 years, obviously. That “outsider with no past” main character is a fairly commonly used trope in subgenres with a non-obvious setting such as Fantasy, Science Fiction or Historical Fiction set in a not-commonly-known time/location so that the reader can easily identify with the main character in the work as the reader is also assumed to be an ‘outsider’ to the setting, having no idea about the setting prior to reading. This may also fulfill the role of exposition. Besides that specific trope, a similar one involving a main character cast aside from their homeland to somewhere else where they’re an ‘outsider’ for similar purposes .
Politics of Paris
Fascism is a world-wide known word especially after World War II. Enki Bilal was also born in Yugoslavia and published The Carnival of Immortals in 1980 which was also the year that Josip Broz Tito died and ethnic tensions grew in Yugoslavia. Even though he moved to France when he was just a kid, we can easily say that Enki Bilal was aware of the Fascism. Just by looking at the first page, we can relate the drawings with previous fascist movements. For instance, in first panel the guy speaking has an armband which makes him look like a Nazi Germany’s soldier. Also they have a symbol on arm band looks like the cross… Most of the well-known fascist movements have their own symbol which used in arm bands like Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, British Union of Fascists etc. Moreover it’s noted by the titular character that his speeches were almost verbatim copies of well known speeches by Mussolini. The socially conservative and strictly hierarchical aspects of that regime were also in accordance with previous explicitly Fascist regimes in the past. The economic policies weren’t discussed in detail, though.
The Fascist inspirations of the system are not really covert. They explicitly mention that they are bona fide Fascists, and nobody seems to mind much. That fact alone would pretty much be unthinkable in today’s world (or 1980’s one for that matter). So we gather that the two nuclear wars that were just casually mentioned in the book must have shifted the political climate enough that Fascism itself is a fairly viable, or even dominant, political position to hold in France. Who’s to say that a nuclear war wouldn’t alter the politics that much? In fact, it’s quite surprising that a somewhat-functioning human society survived two nuclear wars, first of which happened in the early nineties. It’s also worth noting that the technology the world had had significantly advanced by the nineties to the point where ‘hibernating’ deserters is a viable punishment for desertion.
We also see first-hand about the possible dangers of a one-man iron fist government. Although like many iron-fisted rulers, Choublanc doesn’t think much of his fall from power, even trying to achieve immortality by deals with supernatural beings, he eventually falls from power at the end of the first installment, in an almost ‘caricaturized’ fashion, by being subjected to a literal supernatural mind control and abdicating his position willingly while under control. The efforts of all his subordinates are in vain, and Alcide Nikopol ends up in control of Paris. We can somewhat deduce from it that Enki Bilal was firmly against one-man rules, from personal experience or otherwise so that he put a major weakness of such a system that it very plainly demonstrates such a weakness.
The Parisian Society depicted in the graphic novel series is highly stratified and deeply hierarchical, where people living in the center live significantly different lifestyles with the ones living in the outskirts . There’s very little interaction between them and whatever there is, it’s generally one-sided from the upper stratum to the lower one. There’s also a stylistic (fashion-wise, not drawing-wise) difference between the groups as well. The clothing style differ between them and there’s a very common face paint style prevalent in the upper stratum which is practically nonexistent in the lower one. However, we don’t learn if this system is hereditary, like the caste system of India, or simply a matter of classes in society.
There’s also a significant amount of diglossia in different strata of the Parisian society. The society is not only divided by place of inhabitation, but by language as well. Although the lower stratum know the ‘high’ language as well, all their daily conversations are in a vernacular. We get to know that they know the ‘high’ language because the official speeches are in the ‘high’ language and so are the excerpts we see from ‘official’ newspapers . In the English translation, the ‘high’ language is rendered as the standard language while the ‘lower’ one is rendered as a somewhat ‘broken’ dialect with a bunch of simplified spellings. It is mostly intelligible with standard English but both the intended reader and the titular character Alcide Nikopol occasionally has difficulty understanding the speech.
Effects of Style on Narrative
A stylistic aspect of the graphic novel where we see the aforementioned differences (and one that differs from conventional comic books) is the ‘newspaper excerpts’ style. They play a role in the narration of the events so that they represent longer ‘jumps’ in time, like switches in scenes. The transitions before and after such excerpts can also be considered ‘different’ from the ones presented in our textbook. Besides, they also present us a way to witness the stark contrast between the two different ‘sections’ of the Parisian society. They’re a prime way to observe the linguistic contrast between the two and present us a way to witness the one-sided communication between the two different groups. The newspaper excerpts also help us better realize how ‘distant’ the government and the people are, due to the contrast (both in language and in content) between the excerpts from the ‘official’ newspapers and from the ‘underground’ ones.
In contrast to Paris, as discussed earlier, we learn very little information about the other cities the sequels take us to. As opposed to the society of Paris being on the foreground in the first book, the latter two books put the cities in the background, and use them only to bring the characters to the foreground. In The Woman Trap, we visit London, Berlin and Cairo, but none of them are explored as deeply as Paris, and the same thing can be said about Equator City of Cold Equator as well.
The artwork of Enki Bilal in the series is nothing really out of the ordinary. Although it is of notable quality, the art doesn’t look too different from other comic artists from the same time and doesn’t seem to contribute to the story much. This includes his use of different styles of transition as well. The art generally seems like it has been spent more time on, expected from something intended to be published as a book, as opposed to strips on a newspaper. Another notable thing is that Bilal’s style is generally clearer than his American contemporaries, which might have been because of various influences by many ‘European’ artists before his generation where they seemed to opt for a simpler, line-art like style.
To conclude; although this work is a pretty easy read and flows fairly quickly, as is fairly common in other science fiction works, analyzing the setting in which the story takes place yields more results that are more ‘interesting’ to discuss. The finer points on Bilal’s language are also fairly noteworthy. We also find out that this work is one that clearly reflects Enki Bilal’s views on certain topics.
- Seyda Asarkaya
- Arda Cinar
- Alican Safak Ozdek
- Cemre Serpal
- Cagatay Usta