Le Batman de Clichy-sous-Bois

Posted: 11/07/2010 in Uncategorized

In France, David Belle is Batman. Seriously. Through what I’m thinking might actually be a controlled leak, Trevor McCarthy posted the character design of the French member of Batman Inc on his deviantART page (since removed):

Reportedly, his name is Bilal and he’s a Franco-Algerian Muslim Traceur who lives in Clichy-sous-Bois which is where the rioting in 2005 began and has been the focus of film producer and screenwriter Luc Besson since 2004’s Banlieue 13 which- for a full throttle action film- was a lacerating indictment of how the government (and presumably the more privileged classes) view the embattled suburbs of Paris colloquially referred to as “Banlieues.” Essentially the French equivalent of American housing projects or England’s Council Estates.

Banlieue 13 takes place in a near future France that first transformed itself into Apartheid era Johannesburg by walling off and abandoning the banlieues, then attempted to murder the inhabitants of the most violent of the walled off areas with an experimental neutron bomb. Extreme perhaps, but no less evocative of contemporary right wing views (most notably Front Nationale leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) than V for Vendetta was of Margaret Thatcher’s England in it’s day. More immediately relevant is one of the film’s pair of protagonists Leito. Played by one of the founders of Parkour- David Belle- Leito is a young and angry vigilante born after the walls went up who fights a very lonely crusade against the drug gangs who run the Banlieue in the literal absence of the police. Clearly Leito is, religion aside, the sum total of the inspiration for Bilal (whose name is a nod to notable French comic book artist Enki Bilial).

Here we are then, in 2010 with a Muslim member of the extended Batfamily inspired by a Luc Besson film. It really is a testament to the ability that comics have to get away with almost anything relatively unnoticed and unscathed that DC is about to add a character from one of the most controversial and marginalized groups in Western Europe to it’s highest profile family. Of course actual market penetration into France and Clichy-sous-Bois specifically is unlikely given that only one of my queer friends was aware of Batwoman before I started my campaign slash rampage of awareness, but it goes a very long way towards re-framing the narrative of the street level vigilante superhero and further codifies Morrison’s vision of how the bat functions as a mythic symbol in the DCU (and perhaps our daily lives).

There’s been a sort of discourse about realism in superhero comics since about 1986 that you must have run into at some point to be reading this. (otherwise hello, who are you magnificent person and how did you stumble upon my blog?) This usually involves a song and dance about how amazing The Watchmen is and begins to falter after the concepts of depth, grit, sex (usually rape), violence, and mental illness are introduced. The ideas that a; those concepts are not what made The Watchmen ground breaking and that b; there’s more to realism in storytelling than the wanton application of those concepts are not widely understood. Call me cynical, but the major trends in superhero comics from 1986 to 1996 are evidence enough. What The Watchmen and other notable comics from the era accomplished in that respect was create a bit of a deeper and better realized political framework for superhero stories to work in.

While there were numerous stories, some better than others, that sought to reconcile superheroes with the political realities of the time and place they were published there was never a serious undertaking to explore or alter DC’s fundamental creation myth; that it was mostly the idle rich, scientists, and soldiers who were the first generation of superheroes with perhaps the final word on the subject being Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier. Now that I’m older and vaguely wiser, it occurs to me that a more fundamental revision of the accepted history of the DCU (and to a lesser extent the MU) could have been accomplished that probably wouldn’t have occurred to enough of the creators and editors to enact until the late 1990s, at which point it was moot.

In Kick-Ass, Mark Millar presented a contemporary world in which superheroes hadn’t manifested outside fiction and put forward an awkward white middle class teenage New Yorker as the first publicly operating superhero. While it was meant more as an exercise in imagination than a serious piece of speculative fiction, it made me think about and start questioning what a superhero big bang would look like in a world that took the realities of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender into account with the same level of seriousness as sex, violence, and the fourth amendment.

While I could accept the idea of the progenitor, or at least the first highly visible superhero to make a wide scale media impact, being a member of the idle rich who suffered a personal tragedy (like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark), it doesn’t seem probable that the following wave would be mostly white, which is especially true of street level (non-powered) vigilantes. The people most likely to rise up and follow in that progenitor’s wake are the disenfranchised and marginalized. The people who perceive the widest gap between where the mechanisms of society (law enforcement, medicine, legal representation, etc) are needed and where they’re available. Bruce Wayne ought to be the exception rather than the rule, but it’s far too late to correct that from a historical perspective as far as the United States (within the DCU) goes but Batman Inc is providing a fresh and unique opportunity to revise it elsewhere.

When we last saw the international array of Batmen in Morrison’s Batman, they were mostly among the idle rich (which is apparently a favourite phrase of mine this morning) and well past their glory days. Instead of populating the globe with variations on Bruce Wayne, Morrison (if as I’m assuming he created Bilal and not David Hine) is more interested in where in each country a Batman is either most needed or likely to emerge. In France, the answer is almost certainly Clichy-sous-Bois, the most violent part of the country and widely used media scapegoat. Who better than Nicholas Sarcozy’s own racaille, and what more suitable skill for a Batfamily member than parkour? It’s a concept so obvious and elegant that it probably writes itself, and yet a relatively rare instance of organic character design given that international variations on American legacy heroes tend to be imbued with little more than kitsch and vague stereotypes like Bilal’s predecessor, Musketeer.

My only lament is that for all the tremendous promise that Bilal offers, he’s currently been solicited for nothing more than a two part origin back up story which suggests that he’ll be a player in Batman Inc but nothing concrete beyond that which is a fate that most of Morrison’s additions to the DCU seem to suffer; lapse into obscurity or get killed off gratuitously. I’ll try not to look too far ahead for now, but it’s 2010 and the new Muslim member of the extended Batfamily is making his first appearance the same month as everyone’s favourite Jewish lesbian Batwoman debuts her ongoing series. That has to mean something. You know, other than the fact that the Batfamily are the greatest heroes ever, because you already knew that.

  1. David Hine says:

    Hi Emma,

    interesting piece. For the sake of accuracy, Bilal’s character wasn’t actually inspired by Banlieue 13. My brief was to take Batman to another country as Bruce Wayne sets up the global franchise of Batman Incorporated. I chose France because I know the country and the culture fairly well, (but maybe not as well as you). Rather than use the obvious choice of The Musketeer as the new French Batman, I wanted to come up with the kind of hero I would want to see in a comic book if I were French. The process of developing a story is complex and there are all kinds of things I looked at. The urban unrest and problems of the ethnic minorities under Sarkozy’s government dominate the news from France and it became inevitable that the hero should come from a French Algerian background. The Parkour element was maybe a little obvious, but it fitted very well with the concept of a hero from the streets. Clichy-Sous-Bois, as you point out, is the flashpoint for rioting in Paris, so again was the obvious location for Bilal. When I was searching for images of Parkour runners to send to the artists on these annuals, David Belle came up of course. And I did find clips from Banlieue 13 online. That’s the first time I came across the film and I’ve only seen a couple of clips. So that film has fed back into Bilal and Nightrunner but wasn’t the inspiration. Zeitgeist perhaps but not a blatant ripoff.

    • emmahouxbois says:

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing some insight into his creation, I can’t wait to see Bilal in action! Sorry about that, the first thing that leaped to mind when I saw the design was the Leito character but that’s where jumping to conclusions in the middle of the night gets me. Taking the extra step in creating Bilal out of what Paris is now instead of falling back to the Musketeer is exactly the kind of thing that DC needs right now and will resonate with fans. I’m already hearing people talk about wanting to write fan fiction about him based on just the two pictures and blurb released so far!

  2. David Hine says:

    No worries. It was an obvious connection to make. It’s cool that you get all the connections, all the way down to the nod to Enki Bilal.

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