Emma Peel Sessions 48 – “… cold cities with their wounds and blue tears”

The Woman Trap, part two of the Nikopol Trilogy

by Enki Bilal, , published 1986

So when Rutger Hauer showed up to meet Ridley Scott for the first time before auditioning for Blade Runner, he asked what the film would look like. Scott offhandedly said “oh this comic artist Bilal”, and Rutger Hauer says he knew he was going to do the movie right then. Because Ridley Scott dropped the name Bilal. True story.

Or Rutger Hauer is lying.

The Woman Trap is without a doubt, the best piece of science fiction anyone has ever made into a comic.

And the first time I read the Nikopol Trilogy, I fucking hated it. Absolutely despised it. I couldn’t understand why this was known as suc a masterpiece and I didn’t really like the way it couldn’t care less about it’s own plot for long stretches. I really liked certain parts of the art but there were other elements I couldn’t stand. I put it down, I don’t even know if I made it all the way through Cold Equator. A couple weeks later I picked it up again, and then quickly again after that. I don’t know that my opinion changed that much on each successive reading, the thing is I kept finding myself reading this book. I think it was because no matter how I felt about what I was reading, the images in the book were indelible. The above image especially, of Horus waking up, is burnt onto the inside of my skull. It’s not that I’d never seen any artist that drew like Bilal at the time – it’s that in the years since I have yet to see anyone at all who draws like Bilal. Like After Hours, a movie I had to watch at least ten times before I realized that I loved it, this is a work of art that actually troubled me, that followed me around. It made me wonder about science fiction, about comics, about storytelling in general.

And that doesn’t happen very often, honestly? Whens the last time you hated something but went back to it over and over again because it just wouldn’t let you ignore it? For me I remember I felt that way about After Hours, which I originally thought was Scorsese’s weakest work and eventually became something I love more than Goodfellas. But not much else really. Your position on a band or a work of art might change over the course of time but normally something will force you to reassess the work, like a friend’s opinion or a piece of writing. But almost never does the work itself lodge in your mind that way. That’s special.

I wanted to talk about how this comic specifically worked on me before I actually talk about the comic itself. Well, because this isn’t an easy comic to talk about. For a stone cold universal classic, no one ever talks about it. It’s not an easy explanation like it’s closest peer, Incal, is. The Nikopol Trilogy is something else entirely – not the huge epic scifi/fantasy you expect from the Metal Hurlant guys or the street-level cyberpunk it’s inspired since, not really an adventure story in any way. It’s hard to quantify, hard to reduce down into easy concepts. Bilal isn’t really a visual reference point in english language comics either – film, yes, comics, not really. At least not the way that almost the full roster of bande desinee artists are – I see Moebius everywhere, but Bilal? You’ve got to wait until someone draws a tribute. Tucker was spot on when he talked about it, there’s a cultural learning curve, a management of expectations completely alien to english language comics, and really most of the euro stuff we get to see. When people talk about some truly great comics – American Flagg for example never feeds you any easy answers you just have to catch up with it – this isn’t even like that. This isn’t a “read twice to pick it all up” thing.

As Tucker points out in his post – - Bilal wasn’t spending a lot of time worrying about the thematic nature of his story. Like a lot of great artists, Bilal is improvising as he works. At least thats what he’s said. When I write about comics, movies, whatever, I spend a lot of time talking about what this artist is SAYING and what this comic is ABOUT and what stuff MEANS. Really whenever I do that, I worry that I’m ascribing intention to people that don’t have that, but really like the writing/art who-did-what constant debate, if you want to write about anything you’ve got to jump to conclusions. So whenever I say stuff like that, I’m ultimately talking about what I can see in this thing I read/watched. Bilal, he was a lot more interested in creating visuals than he was about perfecting story structure. He’s said that in interviews, and it depends on how much you want to believe him. The bullshit that Alan Moore and Quentin Tarantino have long been feeding us, that they’ve internalized things like subtext and story structure – it just happens while they’re writing – well as much as that seems like a line, it has to be true to at least some extent, just maybe not for them. So when you look at things like the red cloud that Jill flies into as she heads to Berlin and deeper into her psychosis and the divine schemes on her and the weird drug-induced confessional that her journalism becomes, well you’ve got to come down that either Bilal is a genius or a liar. But then again, you don’t because it’s probably neither.

So the plot of The Woman Trap is a journalist, Jill Bioskop, is writing about the conflicts of the present day (2025) and sending them back to the past to be published in 1993. Jill’s in London when the story strarts, then Berlin, then Egypt. On the way, she goes insane and she becomes the romantic interest of a renegade egyptian god. Aside from the subplot of Alcide Nikopol chasing after Horus for the most part The Woman Trap is Jill’s own writing – even then we are only given it in fragments, with important pieces missing.

The Woman Trap is pretty harrowing in places, and so much of what is happening is unexplained. Why is Horus after Jill? I don’t know? The way the book ends it seems that Nikopol is more interested than he is. If the pills Jill is taking are making her forget the men she’s killing – well its clear that they don’t so what are they for? What the hell is John?

Jill’s writing has hints of the topics she covers – war, dirty dealings, she’s a legitimate political journalist. But John’s “death” throws her – she starts taking John’s pills in order to forget, and then kills 3 men – each one of them dying as they are attempting to have sex with her. The one thing you’ll take with you on first read of The Woman Trap – the image of the blood staining Jill’s porcelain skin, and just growing and growing until she can’t wear a glove over it anymore, getting worse each time she kills someone. The guilt she feels should maybe be more subtle but Bilal really commits to this delivery, and the way he does it with the sudden jump into “oh god this can’t be real” nature of her in the tub, rattle off gibberish, you really feel how bad this is. Everything has gone bad and now she’s broken, so broken that the script-walker, the machine she uses to write is broken too. After Horus, John, and Nikopol stand around and decide her fate – because clearly someone has to (that’s something you can really dig into too – when Bilal made the Nikopol movie he went pretty misogynistic with Jill’s character but in the comic there’s a palpable unease with the fact that these men all have designs on the only woman in the story) – after they do, we see Jill’s handwriting in her diary, and learn that the only men that are dead are John and the ones Horus killed. It’s not a big deal, but to Jill, something big has changed. Bilal even draws her body language diferently – its less compressed, more open.

But this isn’t a comic that can easily be quantified, no matter how many assumptions I want to make. This is a comic of images that won’t ever be anything more or less that what you see on the page. The egg bouncing off the building. Horus, being awakened by astronauts, screaming and killing his way through everyone he meets. Nikopol making a move on his nurse. The red cloud. The shot of Jill screaming. John bleeing white. Horus standing on the pyramid. The blood running up Jill’s arm as she screams against the roar of the space shuttle. This is comics at its most complex, in that the ambiguities are illustrated perfectly but are entirely impossible to put into any other words.

It’s Bilal’s images. That’s all.

- Sean Witzke October 2010

(Hey it turns out it’s Bilal’s 59th birthday today!)

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About sean witzke

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4 Responses to Emma Peel Sessions 48 – “… cold cities with their wounds and blue tears”

  1. Martin says:

    “it’s that in the years since I have yet to see anyone at all who draws like Bilal. ”

    I just realized his characters look a bit stiff and unnatural in almost precisely the same way as Steve Dillons. To me, the Nikopol Trilogy looks like it’s drawn by a Steve Dillon with better design skills (and with more organic coloring).

  2. Chad Nevett says:

    Nicely done, sir.

    But, remember: the artist’s intent is irrelevent. What matters is what’s there. (With the caveat that the artist’s intent isn’t actually irrelevent and can be useful, but only to a point, of course…)

  3. I’ve really been enjoying your writing on comics Mr Witzke.

    I’m with you on the Woman trap, the unexplained parts of the story remind me of a thing I’d read Moebius talk about, how not giving up everything and making the reader work a little bit it makes their role less passive –plus I think it helps it stick in your brain more.

    I’ve been thinking about that egg war for like 15 years now.
    Also–the line “JIVE NECK AN IFFAN”

    Also I’d just watched a Tarantino interview and had the same reaction to his –it just flows out of me , the characters speak for themselves–bullshit.

  4. sean witzke says:

    Well thanks,man!

    Yeah, he never explains egg war, he just shows it to you – and then it’s like 4 or 5 panels, so it’s hard to shake. It makes sense Moebius is about getting the reader involved – with Bilal I think he’s approaching it more cinematically and accidentally making it more of a just-comics thing, which is always cool. I don’t think that Jill’s writing would work as voiceover, y’know?

    And Tarantino – total bullshit, he’s crafting that stuff probably too closely. There’s no way anyone writes those 16 minute conversations in Inglourious just off the top of his head. No way in hell.

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