Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Mœbius (Jean Giraud).
You know it’s the right time to talk about the Franco-Belgian comic tradition when Steven Spielberg is primed to release a multi-million dollar blockbuster tribute to its most emblematic naive hero. While Hergé’s Tintin embodies a certain tradition—typically the ligne claire drawing style and a kid-friendly francophone comedy barely popular in the U.S.—there was another, younger, and more sci-fi-inclined French comic book dynasty that reached high critical praise and attained a large readership, helping shape today’s global pop culture. And Enki Bilal and Jean Giraud were pretty much the Renaissance men of this glorious era.
Giraud, who soon replaced his deliciously French name with the pseudonym Mœbius, slowly gained a level of international fame that’s rather common in the traditionally underground comic profession. Namely, everyone has seen some of his works or at least can identify a certain style inspired by him (when it’s not being totally plagiarized), many know him by his pseudonym, very few are aware of the breadth of his artistic work (which spans comic books, animated movies, and live action film) and some hardcore comic fans revere him as a God-like figure who reigns over a sci-fi/fantasy/heavy metal hidden world you and I can barely fathom.
Like many young comic artists of his generation, Mœbius published his first strips in the French periodical Pilote, an iconic comic magazine of the 1960s and 1970s whose place in the heart of teenage babyboomers can only be compared to that of Playboy magazine. There, he invented one of his most identified and beloved characters, the ruthless Western cowboy Blueberry, whose stories were drawn by Giraud and written by his friend Jean-Michel Charlier.
The rabid popularity of this unconventional character helped Mœbius gain his seat in the comic world, and the 60s and 70s were years of active artistic production and collaborations with various writers and publications. He also used these years to polish his drawing style, which borrows certain features from the formal ligne claire tradition, along with a strong hyper-realism in character and setting depiction, typically found in Blueberry. The early 1980s saw a substantial change of scale in his popularity, mostly due to his venture into science fiction, and his collaborations with famous directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky and René Laloux.
Teaming up with Jodoworsky, a renown Chilean filmmaker, comic artist, writer, and psychedelic guru, Mœbius created his most notable comic series: L’incal. For the outsider, the L’incal series looks like a maze of symbols from ancient mythical cults thrown in a deep and suggestive primitive fog and set in the future… and in space. Describing the ins and outs, and even the basic plot of L’incal, would be like writing a bullet-point summary of The Holy Mountain on a napkin—for a contemporary equivalent, try to picture yourself explaining why you loved Infinite Jest to someone, but in a foreign language.
The stories of Jodorowsky—who had previously worked with French comic artist Roland Topor—perfectly matched Mœbius’ drawings, which somehow abandoned realism to embrace a more eloquent, exuberant imaginative style, which later became a landmark in science fiction.
“Les Maîtres du Temps” ; René Laloux / Mœbius ; 1982
In the same year, 1981, French director René Laloux—best known for his 1974 surreal cult sci-fi film La planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet)—released Les Maîtres du Temps (Time Masters), a collaboration with Roland Topor and drawn by Mœbius. The film revolves around a young boy lost on a desert planet inhabited by killer hornets. Once again, the universe deployed by Laloux can be the subject of various interpretations, and Mœbius helps fill it with typical psychedelic double-entendres.
Yet Mœbius’ most renowned venture into film remains the Canadian-American cinematographic adaptation of his comic Métal Hurlant. Launched in 1974, this collective sci-fi/horror series is the best example of those flourishing years in French comics, and more widely in the French underground subculture, where the typical style was both graphically eloquent and outrageously funny, imaginative and sarcastic, and filled with witty/gross references to heavy metal, drugs, erotic robots and mannered aliens.
Heavy Metal, Geral Potterton—1982
This 1982 movie co-produced by Ivan Reitman—who at the time was a burgeoning youth culture hero in his own right—came out in American theaters under the name Heavy Metal. It was a series of short autonomous sequences with distinct drawing styles, united by a rather loose plot, that paid homage to the humor and graphic content of the published sci-fi/fantasy magazine of the same name, with a well-deserved hard rock and heavy metal soundtrack. One of the scenes was recently parodied in a hilarious South Park episode.
One could mention at length Mœbius’ involvement with box-office hits like Alien, Tron, or The Fifth Element on which he served as a consultant, artistic director or stage/costume design adviser. Or his role in the development of the Silver Surfer series. Or the video games inspired by some of his characters. Or his ridiculously long list of distinctions and awards. The truth is that his career is so prolific, vast and varied it can melt your mind faster than a dragon ride above a desert planet with a Nazareth soundtrack playing in the background.
The influence of his 80s sci-fi years can still be felt in film, cartoons, comics, and even ads. The many tributes paid to his works, as well as the litigation over alleged plagiarism, attests to the role Mœbius has played within the ‘adult comic book’ world and in popular culture in general. The combination of high-art cred, consecrated earlier this year in a solo exhibition at the Paris Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, and youth/subculture stardom might also be the best type of fame a comic artist can hope for.