Monday, 2 April 2012


R.I.P. JEAN GIRAUD, MOEBIUS (1938 - 2012) 
Steve Balshaw looks at the life and work of the genius comic book artist.

March 10th 2012 was a national day of mourning in France. It should be a day of mourning for us all. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, better known as Moebius, finally lost his long battle with cancer. He was 73.

Giraud was one of the true greats. He revolutionised the comics medium not once, but several times. He won every single industry award there is - again, several times over. His design work was incomparable, his influence wide-reaching and profound. As a concept artist his visual style directly or indirectly influenced STAR WARS, TRON, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, DUNE, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, while his great friend and fellow visionary Hayo Miyazaki claims to have directed NAUSICAA entirely under his influence. Federico Fellini considered him “as great as Picasso or Matisse”. He was a master of his craft, a true original, oft-imitated, but impossible to equal. A philosopher, a poet, a wit, a master craftsman, a peerless draftsman. An artist in the truest sense of the word. 

You think I’m overstating the case? Then read on…

Jean Giraud began his professional career in 1956, with the solid but somewhat traditional Western strip “Frank and Jeremie”. As his style began to develop, however, moving away from the slick, clean linework favoured by his mentor, Joseph Gillain, towards something looser, scratchier, altogether grittier, so, too, did Giraud’s approach to storytelling. With writer Jean-Michel Charlier, he created his first really enduring creation, Lieutenant Blueberry, a far darker, more sophisticated work, influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the Spaghetti Westerns. With its complex characterisations and motivations, solid grounding of historical research, and sharp, tight, intelligent storytelling, Blueberry revolutionised the Western strip, and generally pushed the art of the bandes desinee in a more adult direction. It was hugely successful and established Giraud as a major talent.

Many artists would have been satisfied with this - creative and financial success, the respect of one’s peers, and a body of work that has caused a revolution within the medium. What makes Jean Giraud so remarkable, so unique, is that he never rested on his laurels for a moment. He kept on progressing, changing, evolving, trying new things.

In 1973, he left Blueberry in the capable hands of Colin Wilson and Michel Blanc and started out in a completely new direction. The result was THE DETOUR, published to great acclaim and no small bewilderment in PILOTE, the magazine that had been home to Lt. Blueberry. Though the strip was signed with the familiar “Gir”, the content was anything but familiar.

Enter Moebius, stage left. The pseudonym first appeared on work Giraud produced for the scurrilous satiric magazine Hari-Kiri in 1963 - 64, about the time he was first developing Lieutenant Blueberry. Intially, perhaps, he opted for a pseudonym to distance this loose, vulgar, throwaway satiric work from his more serious and respectable work. However, Moebius was about to make a spectacular comeback. Initially resurrected for the outrageous, bawdy, surreal fantasy THE HORNY GOOF (again, perhaps initially, to distance this strip from his work on Blueberry) Giraud clearly found the new identity liberating and from that point on it would start to become his dominant creative persona. Far from being a one-off, THE HORNY GOOF proved a springboard for his imagination to run riot. Ideas, concepts and characters introduced here would recur; developed, expanded, reimagined.

And in 1975, Moebius, as he now increasingly styled himself, developed a striking new platform for his increasingly radical visions. Together with fellow artists Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas, he founded "Les Humanoides Associes", and they launched the glossy magazine METAL HURLANT - literally “Screaming Metal”, though the American version, through which much of the English speaking world would discover their work, opted for the name HEAVY METAL.

And it was at this point that I first discovered it. It was 1978. I was thirteen. Reared on Marvel and to a lesser extent DC Comics: cheap paper, shoddy printing, bombastic superheroics. HEAVY METAL blew my adolescent mind. Slickly and stylishly produced in emulation of the French original (which at this stage it was content largely to reprint in translation), filled with outrageous ideas and incredible imagery from cover to cover. It was sexy, yes, and this appealed to my hormonally challenged teenaged self, but it was also STRANGE. It was challenging and thought-provoking. It made me see, for the first time, what the comics medium could really achieve. Here I first discovered Corben, Caza, Crepax and Druillet. But most important of all, I discovered Moebius, at the height of his powers.

In his work for METAL HURLANT / HEAVY METAL, Moebius went into creative overdrive, each new work more startling than the last. In ARZACH, he expanded on the imagery of THE DETOUR, mixing visions of the future and the past, to depict the title character’s wordless, mystical journey, by pterodactyl, across a stark, hostile landscape. He teamed with ALIEN writer Dan O’Bannon for futuristic Private Eye strip “The Long Tomorrow”, acknowledged by William Gibson as an influence on NEUROMANCER and by Ridley Scott as a major inspiration for BLADERUNNER. He offered a cynically minimalist answer to an eternal question in the troubling IS MAN GOOD?, and a disturbing portrait of the attitudes of the Far Right in WHITE NIGHTMARE.

Perhaps most significant of all, he created THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE, which features the efforts of recurring Moebius character Major Grubert to build his own universe on an Asteroid named fleur. Originally titled THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE OF JERRY CORNELIUS, and featuring an idiosyncratic version of Michael Moorcock’s ambiguous assassin in a supporting role, this is nevertheless no work of simple homage. Indeed, Moebius later admitted that he had not actually read Moorcock’s stories at the time. In later versions, he renamed the Cornelius character Lewis Carnelian, describing him as his own “version” of Jerry. This is understandable. 

The world of THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE is entirely sui generis, a unique melange of science fiction, fantasy, absurdity, black humour, and comics iconography. There is a bizarre cameo by Lee Falk’s Phantom, and a page of superheroic action the layouts of which derive from an old George Tuska IRON MAN strip. There are lots of silly jokes, throwaway ideas and narrative dead ends. There is a truly joyous sense of an artist at the top of his game taking a line for a walk, winging it, making it up as he goes along. And yet it all comes together wonderfully. Expanding on characters and situations first introduced in THE HORNY GOOF, Moebius takes his freeform, non-linear, stream of consciousness approach to storytelling to new heights of abstraction and in the process begins to explore increasingly spiritual and philosophical issues.

At which point, another figure enters the mix. A fellow genius. A fellow visionary. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and SANTA SANGRE. A man who had tried to do with cinema what Moebius was now doing with the comic strip. No wonder they hit it off so well. Their initial collaboration was on a dark, disturbing, surrealist horror story THE EYES OF THE CAT, which every true Grimmlin should seek out. It will give even the hardiest of you nightmares. But it was with THE INCAL that the Jodorowsky / Moebius collaboration hit its stride. A dense, complex, philosophical science fiction epic, it chronicles the saga of the appropriately named John DiFool - a loser, a bum, a holy fool, whose journey to enlightenment does not end particularly well. It is a masterpiece of the form, filled with startling visuals, complex characters, brilliant, groundbreaking ideas. It couples an epic universe-spanning narrative sweep with an intimate, engaging human story of growth, and (failed) redemption, and has a truly heartbreaking, killer ending. And the art is beautiful.

If Lt. Blueberry is Jean Giraud’s most famous work, THE INCAL is Moebius’s. It is the piece in which all of his relentless experimentation, all of his restless pursuit of new storytelling approaches, his visual poetry and extraordinary design and draftsmanship, all of his philosophical and spiritual questing after truth, and all of his dark, earthy wit found total expression.

So it is rather surprising that he should opt then to collaborate with Stan “The Man” Lee on Marvel’s Silver Surfer. Perhaps he saw a kindred spirit in the cosmic philosophising of Galactus’s tormented former herald. Perhaps he wanted to try his and at superhero comics for the American market. Perhaps it was simply a way of saying thank you to the publisher who was at the time putting his work out in America. Whatever the reason, the result is, of course, unique. No matter what Denzil Washington might say to the contrary in CRIMSON TIDE, it’s a lovely piece of work. Minor for Moebius, yes, but deserving of the various awards it won.

And yet still Giraud continued to experiment, to try new things, to challenge and provoke with each new work, right till the end. Even in the midst of his final illness, he was creatively unbowed. From 2000 to 2010, he published Inside Moebius, an epic illustrated autobiographical fantasy in six hardcover volumes totalling 700 pages. It was both a reflection on his career and a revisiting of key moments within it. A kind of expanded version of THE DETOUR in which Moebius appears in cartoon form as both creator and protagonist trapped within the story alongside his younger self and several longtime characters such as Blueberry, Arzach, Major Grubert and others.

Perhaps, knowing he was ill, struggling against that illness, he was striving to produce some final testament. Something that would link all of his achievements together, but the result is typically, mischievously, digressive; self-deconstructing and post-modern, mixing autobiography, philosophy and self-analysis with jokes, puns and pratfalls. It looks back over the whole of his art, both as Jean Giraud and as Moebius, because it is only through the totality of what he achieved that we can understand how remarkable he was. And then, only partly.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand said that with the simultaneous deaths of Jean Giraud, France had lost “two great artists”. I would go further. It has lost multitudes. Giraud continually reinvented himself. His twin identities held within them whole worlds, whole universes of creativity. It is impossible to sum up what he was and what he achieved in his career. I cannot begin to even try. All I can do is recommend people unfamiliar with his work to seek it out, and join those who know and love it in raising a sorrowful glass in tribute. RIP, Jean Giraud, RIP Moebius. The world is a darker, sadder, dingier, more miserable place for your passing.

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