Moebius’ Grand Conversation
April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
Below is a post that originally appeared, in slightly different form, on The Panelists site on July 28, 2011. I’m proud of it.
On June 4, 2011, Ben Towle and I organized a panel for HeroesCon 2011 titled “The Master of Screaming Metal: A Tribute to Moebius,” and we began our panel by screening Moebius Redux (Hasko Baumann, 2007), a documentary that nimbly touches on all the key moments of Jean Giraud’s professional and personal life. Addressed are Giraud’s youth (he traces his love for drawing to the sense of abandonment he felt when his parents separated), his stint in art school, his work for Pilote and Métal Hurlant, and his collaborations with Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dan O’Bannon and Stan Lee. All three are interviewed in Moebius Redux, though Jodorowsky has the best line: “I shit on the United States.”
The documentary also devotes time to lesser-known incidents in Giraud’s life, such as his two trips to Mexico (in 1955 and 1965) that fueled his Blueberry mise-en-scene and contributed to his “great pleasure in drawing situations where people find themselves in the middle of the flat desert.” (During the 1965 Mexico trip, Giraud took mushrooms that threatened his psychic integrity, and opened to him “the world of the unconscious”; in the same year, another trailblazing cross-hatcher, Robert Crumb, dropped acid and channeled hallucinogenic imagery into his comics.) The gossipy part of me wishes that Moebius Redux dished more details about Giraud’s involvement in Jean-Paul Appel-Guéry’s Iso-Zen cult, mainly because Giraud’s own on-camera description of this period is so tantalizing:
My family and I stayed in the group for four to five years. It was not always easy. We were asked to do things that were difficult, sometimes physically, sometimes morally. Some things were at the limit. Of course, there is a limit that cannot be crossed–that of your human dignity.
How close Giraud came to this limit remains unsaid, though otherwise Moebius Redux is a fine survey of the man’s life and career. See the documentary if you can. While I was arranging the screening at HeroesCon, director Baumann told me that the movie had been publicly shown in the US only twice before, at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con and at the 2007 Fantastic Fest at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. (If you’d like to arrange a showing for an event, e-mail Dagmar Bogaslawski at Avanti Media [email@example.com], and thanks to Hasko and Dagmar for their help with the HeroesCon panel.)
One aesthetic disagreement I have with Moebius Redux, however, is that the film accepts the established wisdom that Giraud’s art and storytelling underwent a radical change when Giraud transitioned from his early style into his “Moebius”-signed work. The canonical story goes like this: in his early work–in the stories by “Gir” for the magazine Far West, and for the first Blueberry volumes–Giraud was a commercial artist, mining his audience’s interest in westerns without using the comics medium for personal (and idiosyncratic) expression. While drawing journeyman western art, however, Giraud the man was getting weirder, changing as a result of his mind-blowing Mexican hallucinations, his exposure to American underground comics and the broader ideas of the 1960s counter-culture. Eventually, his weirdness became manifest in his comics. Critics point to “La Déviation” (“The Detour”), a rambling, digressive, exposition-heavy, trippy story published in Pilote in 1973, as the birth of Moebius. Admittedly, it seems poetically apt that a “Detour” would provide Giraud with the escape he craved from the road of mainstream, genre-based comics illustration.
Moebius Redux reinforces both the notion of Giraud-as-chameleon and the idea of a radical division between the “Gir” and “Moebius” styles. At the beginning of the film, Jim Lee describes Giraud’s artistic versatility thusly: “As an artist, you’re always looking for your style. When you’re younger, you’re absorbing stuff, but then you go, ‘Wow, I’ve got to create my own identity. What style is me?’ And here was this guy who was awesome, and he’s goin’, ‘This is me, and tomorrow, this is me.’” Likewise marveling at Giraud’s diversity, Mike Mignola says, “How is this the same guy? It’s an amazing ability to almost become different people–you know, when he works in different styles.” Later in the film, Giraud talks about the dual consciousness he felt that led to the emergence of the Moebius persona:
I did a good job. I met my deadlines. I was presentable and got to the meetings at Pilote on time. But deep down I was in turmoil. I felt different. My mind was teeming with bizarre science fiction, avant-garde ideas, surrealism, sexuality…totally transgressive. Well, maybe not totally, but fairly subversive anyway. I was like a subversive secret agent infiltrating Pilote. It was exhilarating. I was a bit of a masked man.
Moebius is born, then, when Giraud finally rips off his mask, and decides to channel surrealism, sexuality and science fiction directly into his art.
I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this way of looking at Giraud’s evolution. Perhaps the reasons behind my skepticism are personal; I adore the Blueberry albums–Ballad of a Coffin may be my favorite Giraud work–so I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the Westerns represent Giraud marking time and meeting deadlines before Moebius arrives and summons “La Déviation” from his subconscious. Even putting aside my personal taste, though, I’d argue that there’s less disruption between the “Gir” and “Moebius” periods than Lee, Mignola and even Giraud himself believe. In fact, I see profound similarities that stretch across “Gir” and “Moebius” and Giraud’s entire career, and I’d like to discuss a few of these similarities in the rest of this post. (At the very least, this’ll provide a pretext for staring at some of Giraud’s ravishing drawings.)
First, I’d question the division between Gir’s Westerns and Moebius’ science fiction. Of course, one obvious fact about Giraud’s career is that he’s worked on parallel tracks since the 1970s–even while he’s furiously contributed to the Moebius oeuvre, he’s continued to draw Blueberry albums. (He’s also written all the Blueberry stories since writer Jean-Michel Charlier’s death in 1989.) What I mean to say, however, is that there’s a lot of Western elements in the Moebius work too. Many of Gir’s Westerns and Moebius’ science fiction comics address the same themes and include the same narrative elements, partially because the general boundaries between these two genres are highly permeable. Both the Western and the science fiction genres present characters who explore and/or colonize frontiers, and in the process meet “aliens” that inhabit that frontier; both genres are also vitally concerned with the roles technology plays in this clash of cultures. In the Western, white settlers interact with an Indian “Other,” while importing technologies into the West–guns, mining, deforestation, and the railroad–that terraform the wilderness.
Most of these genre conventions and East/West tensions appear in Blueberry. Mike Blueberry begins as a cultured gentleman, until circumstances cast him into both the West and disrepute. Like other Western heroes–such as Little Big Man‘s Jack Crabb and Dances with Wolves’ John Dunbar–he proves to be resourceful and empathetic enough to integrate fully into an Indian tribe (in The Long March ). In such early “Gir” Blueberry volumes as The Iron Horse (1970) and Steelfingers (1970), business corruption in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is at the center of the drama. In fact, the themes of East/West, white/Indian conflict and technological change combine in The Long March, where Blueberry comes up with a plan to save the Apaches by hijacking a train.
These themes and plot devices continue into much on Giraud’s science fiction. One particularly glaring example is the classic short story “Ballade,” which I remember reading in the US Heavy Metal in 1977. The title itself is evocative of Westerns–such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)–and the opening page introduces a protagonist riding an ostrich-like steed into the uncharted frontier of a “bio-forest.”
Clearly, this character is a hyper-erudite “Easterner” rather than a taciturn badass; if you’re looking for Clint Eastwood in Giraud’s science fiction work, Arzach’s your man.
On the next page, Giraud introduces ”Ballade”‘s Indian surrogate, a horned forest faun (named “Loona” later in the story), who notes that the adventurer, whom she calls a “mountain pooh,” is reading the poetry of Rimbaud–the perfect literary choice for an emissary from an aestheticized, declining civilization.
As “Ballade” proceeds, Pooh settles down for the night, only to be attacked by an armored monster. Luckily, though, Loona steps in and saves Pooh, through her superior knowledge of the bio-forest environment. This is another narrative element appropriated from Westerns, where Indians are almost always much more knowledgeable about, and thus more capable of surviving, the barren environmental conditions of the American Southwest than Eastern settlers. On page six, Loona chases away the monster by doing what is essentially a raindance:
Despite their differences, Pooh and Loona become friends, and travel across a savannah together. “Ballade” ends on a tragic, surreal note, however, as the two are abruptly gunned down by an advancing phalanx of soldiers.
Giraud’s clinically specific identification of the ammo the soldiers use to murder Pooh and Loona (“Kleer Tak 59″) is another of “Ballade”‘s Western allusions. Guns are the key instruments the white man uses to “tame” the West, and many Western narratives center on the social and spiritual effects of advances in gun technology. Consider Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), where the film’s climactic bloodbath emphasizes the contrast between old-time handguns and rifles (and the old-timers who wield them) and a machine gun capable of Taylorized slaughter. (Though it’s not a Western, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo  has much in common with the genre, including a similar technological gap between Toshiro Mifune’s sword and a pistol used by one of the bad guys.) So “Ballade” ends with the tank rolling on, ready to raze the bio-forest, poised to decimate indigenous peoples and cultures. History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep…!
I’m arguing that Giraud is a genre-splicer, and that’s not news; it’s hard to miss how film noir is imported into a science fiction framework in “The Long Tomorrow” (written by O’Bannon) and The Incal (written by Jodorowsky)–even though in the latter, John DiFool’s status as “a class ‘R’ licensed private investigator” becomes unimportant as the story spirals out into Jungian fantasy. Sometimes Giraud’s collision of science fiction and Western tropes is just as obvious, as in “Major Fatal,” the strange little improvised short story that opens Marvel/Epic’s 1987 edition of The Airtight Garage:
The last panel of the above page, which is the first page of “Major Fatal,” cracks me up: Houm lives in a future civilization that’s bred creatures to look like ancient horses simply because horses and Westerns are cool. This obsession with appearances–with iconography purloined from genres for their beauty and style–goes a long way towards defining Giraud as an artist. Giraud’s indisputable greatness lies less in his storytelling than in his ability to delineate dense, fully-realized, and unutterably cool environments. For me, it’s his hyper-detailed evocations of locale that place him in the canon of great cartoonists.
Blueberry lovingly depicts such clichéd western locales as graveyards and saloons with an authority no other Western cartoonist can match, and Giraud’s self-proclaimed love for Mexican desert landscapes is present in every outdoor scene. Jack Jackson, a man who knew his Tex-Mex culture, described Giraud’s Blueberry art in understandably glowing terms:
No one has created as real a desert environment in comics. In it, you expect everything to either “stick, sting or stink,” as we say in Texas. Just as John Ford’s films left us in awe of Monument Valley’s harsh majesty, Giraud’s pen and ink rock formations and vistas convey the ruggedness of the Southwest in comparable fashion. We never lose our sense of place as Charlier’s tales unfold, nor our sense of time. (Comics Journal #144 [September 1991], page 61.)
This authority, this confidence, carries over to his renderings of the science-fiction cities of “The Long Tomorrow” and The Incal in particular, whose structure is bookended around John DiFool’s enlightened return to the dense, multi-layered environment of the series’ beginning. The end of The Incal reminds me of famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
John DiFool remembers: we see the stunned look on his face, we understand that he now knows the place for the first time, and we realize that we’re reading a narrative as concerned with the spirituality of human evolution and environments as Alan Moore and J.H. Williams’ Promethea. And of course, it’s Moebius’ work as a creator of environments that might be his splashiest contribution to popular culture. As Moebius Redux makes clear, “The Long Tomorrow” set the visual template for Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and audio-visual cyberpunk, and Giraud contributed costume and mise-en-scene designs to such films as Alien (Scott, 1979), Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) and The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997).
Giraud’s abiding interests in Western conventions and complex environments connect the Gir and Moebius phases of his career, but I’d argue that Giraud has deliberately blurred the boundaries between his two primary artistic personas in other ways too. Although he disingenuously claims, in Moebius Redux, that he’s three people—Giraud, “Gir” and “Moebius”—Giraud has brought Gir and Moebius together by importing the Moebius visual style into the later Blueberry albums. Earlier Blueberry adventures are comprised of the heavy brush lines and spot blacks Giraud inherited from European adventure cartoonists like Hugo Pratt, as in this page from The Lost Dutchman’s Mine (1972):
In the above example, Giraud drew Blueberry’s hair, clothing folds and rock patterns with an ink-clotted brush, but in later Blueberry volumes, Moebius goes West. Giraud uses less brush and more pen–à la Moebius–and the result is a thinner, sleeker, more controlled line, maybe influenced by ligne claire, combined with sparser, more open backgrounds. A page from The Last Card (1983):
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this visual shift. One mentioned by Jack Jackson in his Comics Journal article is that Giraud began to draw bigger, moving from original art sized at 12″ x 16″ to a more expansive 20″ x “26 in later Blueberry books. (It’s easier to include more negative space in your pictures when you have more space to begin with.) Still, I’d agree with Jackson that more recent Blueberry art “shows the giant strides Giraud made during his experimentations with the medium of sequential art as ‘Moebius’” (61).
In addition, it’s not just in Giraud’s art where “Gir” and “Moebius” share ideas and styles. In what is perhaps the best article on Giraud in English, a terrific appreciation of The Airtight (or Hermetic) Garage, Matthias Wivel argues that during the 1990s some of the textual playfulness typically associated with Moebius leaks into the Blueberry saga. Here’s Matthias at length:
Through the second half of the ’90s and the first years of the present decade Giraud was on the ascendant. His major work of this period was his first independent Blueberry story after Charlier’s death in 1989, “Mr. Blueberry” (1995-2005). Our hero arrives at the town of Tombstone in the days leading up to the showdown at the OK Corral, only to be shot in the back immediately and spend the rest of the story bedridden in a room at the town saloon, reading Moby-Dick. Here he reminisces about his first meeting, as a youth, with the Apache chief Geronimo. Interviewed by a hack writer from the East Coast, who has come in search of the Wild West, he describes the legendary Apache as his “red whale,” while a myth is in the making outside their windows. In other words, an elaborate conglomeration of clichés in service of what essentially is a rather flimsy story offering little insight into the myths it purports to probe. Sumptuously executed and packed to the gills with playful intertextual references, its very life on the page becomes its point. A delightful folly. Very “Moebius.” (263)
Matthias goes on to observe that the “work actually signed ‘Moebius’” during this period is less quintessentially Moebius than the metafictional play of “Mr. Blueberry.” At least in this one instance, “Gir” is more Moebius than Moebius.
Giraud doesn’t bother to keep his “Gir” and “Moebius” personas separate, and it might be worth noting that audiences seemingly had no problem with this intermingling of styles either. It’s telling that in 1979, two Charlier / Giraud Western comics were serialized in Métal Hurlant. The Blueberry story Broken Nose ran in Métal Hurlant #38-40 (February-April 1979) and later in the year, in the midst of a contractual dispute with their Blueberry publisher Dargaud, Charlier and Giraud created a new western hero, the luckless Reconstruction soldier Jim Cutlass, to continue their collaboration without Dargaud’s help. The dispute was eventually settled, and Charlier and Giraud returned to Dargaud and Blueberry, but only after album’s worth of Cutlass material was also serialized in Métal Hurlant (issues #44-46, August-October 1979). The fact that the Cutlass story, Mississippi River, appeared in the magazine most associated with the Moebius persona indicates that publishers and readers didn’t fret over the distinctions between the science fiction of Métal Hurlant and the Westerns published by Dargaud.
My quibble with Moebius Redux and other examples of Giraud criticism, then, is with the tendency to overstate the degree to which “Gir” and “Moebius” are “different people,” with radically different artistic styles. Perhaps we need a new metaphor to describe Giraud’s particular brand of aesthetic schizophrenia; maybe we should think of Giraud, Gir and Moebius in conversation with one another, sharing ideas and swapping concepts, in a perpetual dialogue that enriches the work of one of the most singular, mercurial and accomplished comics creators ever.
I delivered an earlier version of this post at HeroesCon 2011. Thanks to Shawn Daughhetee and Andy Mansell for letting me to play in their sandbox. Thanks also to Erin Guffey.
In addition to Matthias Wivel’s article on The Hermetic Garage, I’d recommend all of Jog’s incredible coverage of Jodorowsky, Moebius, and post-Métal Hurlant French comics, including his commentary on The Incal.