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Death of a dreamer

Fantasy, westerns and superheroes – French comic book artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) had done it all. Following his surrender to cancer last Saturday, MaltaToday looks back at an illustrious, and influential, career

Teodor Reljic
14 March 2012, 12:00am
French comic book pioneer Jean Giraud – aka Moebius – died last Saturday at the age of 73

Despite their relatively young but vibrant history, comic books remain, to many people's eyes, the domain of children - actual or overgrown. To many, they are simply a vehicle for stunted, delusional fantasy fulfilment, where muscle-bound (and spandex-clad) superheroes predictably battle with predictable-looking villains and - surprise, surprise - emerge triumphant after every tedious tussle.

But this is only one part of the art form's colourful story.

And for the better half of a century, the other parts have been dominated by the figure - now, sadly, the spectre - of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius and 'Gir'), whose protean talents have not only influenced his own medium, but spread out into both animation and films.

Giraud - who died last Saturday at 73, after a long battle with cancer - was born in a Paris suburb on May 8, 1938.

His parents got divorced when he was just three years old, and the artist saw this as the source of his predilection for pen names - the 'rupture' between mother and father contributing to a split artistic identity.

But this wasn't just a psychological quirk. There truly seemed to be two artistic personalities battling for dominion of Giraud's consciousness.

First out of the stable (no pun intended) was Gir, who channelled the groundbreaking western bandes dessines Blueberry throughout the 60s - an early example of an anti-hero within the comic book realm. Giraud, who had been experimenting with western comics since he was a teenager, crafted stories that grew increasingly more gritty and adult as time went by.

Moebius, on the other hand, represented Giraud the visionary - an explorer of fantasy and science fiction that was however never shackled by the standard, restrictive tropes usually associated with either of the genres.

It was during this phase that Moebius began to grow into something of an icon, not least because - with the help of a number of collaborators operating under the banner of 'Les Humaoides Associès' - he established the comic book anthology magazine Metal Hurlant.

Still in print internationally - it's known as Heavy Metal in English markets - the magazine was a platform for a number of notable Moebius works, chief of which were The Airtight Garage (a surreal bit of hard-edged science fiction loosely inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock) and The Long Tomorrow, which is often cited as a pioneering 'cyberpunk' work - influencing the look of films such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

But perhaps the most enduring Moebius work to emerge from the Hurlant days was Arzach, a 'silent' comic book depicting the titular hero flying across a landscape that appears to mix both past and future.

Because of its innovative structure and Giraud's seemingly effortless attention to detail (even when depicting highly surreal scenes), Arzach was praised by many for its seemingly 'timeless', meditative quality.

In 1981, Moebius collaborated with the cult Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to create The Incal - a dystopian science fiction series which, in true Jodorowsky fashion, also encompassed Tarot imagery, along with a healthy dollop of brash (and often violent) satire.

Like Jodorowsky, Giraud - particularly in the 'Moebius' mode - was a product of his time, embracing New Age philosophies and even experimenting with mind-altering drugs in an attempt to enhance his creative process.

And because of his seemingly unfiltered access to strange, wondrous landscapes, Giraud had many equally talented fans.

The celebrated Italian director Federico Fellini compared him to Picasso and Matisse, and gushed in a fan letter to Giraud: 'What a great film director you would make... there is a wonderful phosphoric, limelight, lux perpetua, solar-rimmed light effect to your art', while also confessing that he named a character in his film Casanova Moebius as a tribute to him.

It is perhaps then no surprise that, while Giraud never did in fact direct his own films, he contributed storyboards to the Hollywood hits Alien, Tron and The Fifth Element - making him a hidden hand behind some of the most established science fiction iconography of our age.

Many rushed to express their grief on Saturday - including the best-selling writer Paolo Cohelo, who tweeted: 'your body died today, your work is more alive than ever'. French culture minister Frederic Mitterand saw the loss as double: "With the passing of Giraud and Moebius, France had lost two great artists."

His passing did not go unremarked in Malta, either. University lecturer and president of the National Book Council Gorg Mallia lamented that "there will not be another one like him".

"With his friends in Les Humaoides Associès he helped define bandes dessines and turn them into an art form. His Arzach is a classic of 'silent' comics, and his Blueberry redefined the western in comic books," Mallia said.

Long-time Giraud fan and online illustrator Marco Attard said that "entire theses could be written on Giraud's work," owing to his art being both "grounded, 'real', and light, delicate".

"Each panel of a Giraud strip is a joy to look at, sheer poetry in comics form. From a narrative sense, even his craziest of visuals make logical sense while still being delightfully surprising," Attard said.

Christopher Muscat, one of the organisers of the Malta Comics Convention, said that he had tried to bring the master over to our shores to participate in the annual convention held at St James Cavalier, Valletta.

"I contacted the French Embassy but nothing really came of it due to his ailing health... now, of course, it's too late."

Log on to Quenched Consciousness for a rich collection of Giraud's work.

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...