The French Connection is back after a long hiatus with the same purpose it had two years ago, to present and review significant bande-dessinées. Previous columns dealt with recent publications, works by Sfar, Trondheim or Larcenet, which have attracted some attention in the US either through well-publicized translations or through the publication of original works by these authors in English (in Mome, for instance). However, while going through my own collection, I have realized that some older and perhaps more accessible works, which do not fit as neatly into the “independent” niche, are probably more in need of an introduction than Sfar or Killofer’s work, however admirable these are.
Thus, let me introduce two forty-year-old characters, Valérian and Laureline. Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, who created them in 1967 in Pilote, still respectively write and draw their adventures, having produced a total of 20 albums and a few spin-offs over this period. Valérian truly is an institution, a mainstream success, a powerful influence for many writers (and film makers), and it could not by any means be called an independent-intellectual work. However, it happens to be among the most convincing and intelligent science fiction comics ever produced.
Initially, Valérian‘s premises were similar to Poul Anderson’s classic Time Patrol stories, focusing on time-travel police in charge of averting time paradoxes. The first two storylines even include a megalomaniac villain, complete with ridiculous surname (Xiombul), for a proper approximation of pulp science fiction thrills. However, as early as the second story (La Cité des Eaux Mouvantes), several strong points of the series are already perceptible : Mézières’s impressive ability to convey a sense of place and time, his smooth handling of different scales of events, Christin’s focus on convincing details to enrich a classical storyline, and most of all, his refusal of classical macho heroism. These traits later developed and improved, providing the basis for an ambitious and successful saga.
Visual splendors, On the Frontiers
Throughout its first albums, the series goes through most of the classical science-fiction plots and settings, each time displacing Valérian and Laureline in an unfamiliar setting, with a usually peaceful mission. They are ambassadors rather than conquerors, and they get to be confronted with post-apocalyptical worlds, time-travel, decadent galactic empires, full-fledged space-opera, a galactic contest, and even Dickian artificial worlds. Christin and Mézières even bring most of these themes together in an impressive four-album storyline (from Métro Châtelet Direction Cassiopée to Les Foudres d’Hypsis, albums 9 to 12), which shake up the very foundations of the story at this point : by preventing an impending nuclear disaster, Valérian and Laureline make it impossible for their own future civilization to appear. While they manage to escape the catastrophe with one lone space-time ship, the human race finds itself without any base or role in the galactic order. Unfortunately, with the exception of a thirteenth extremely brilliant album, the series then declines sharply, putting an increasing emphasis on its own continuity and seemingly targeting a younger audience. This loss of focus should however not obscure the series’ achievements in its first twenty-five years. Valérian may use classical science fiction tropes intelligently, in itself a commendable feat for any comic or bande-dessinée, it also sheds a special light on them.
Visually, first of all, it refuses classical space-based science-fiction’s fascination for machinery and technical wonders, instead opting for a constant opposition between machines and organic devices, much closer to Cronenberg’s brand of speculative fiction than to the series’ immediate contemporary, 2001 : ancient cities crumble under masses of rotting vegetation, native aliens fish giant predators in a sea polluted by industrial wastes while organic spaceships powered by telekinesis drift slowly in space. The technical/industrial model of science-fiction is here presented as a typically earthly habit, more notable for its numerous failures than for its effectiveness. A quick comparison can be made to the first hour or so of Star Wars IV : this vision of a low-tech, do-it-yourself rural landscape of wonders echoes the charm of several Valérian stories (note that these similarities extend beyond a mere common mood, since several elements of Star Wars seem to have been directly inspired by Valérian). While ostensibly set in the Campbellian mode of golden age science fiction, the series constantly provides alternatives to its perceived imperialism and belief in science.
Valérian’s industrial spleen in Welcome to Alflolol
This refusal of scientific idealization is echoed by a similar refusal of pop Nietzschean heroism. Though competent, Valérian is fallible, hesitant and ultimately human. Symmetrically, Laureline, initially relegated to a somewhat classical role as a feminine supporting character, quickly becomes a strong character, the driving will in the series, and on several occasions, the damsel gets to rescue the hero-in-distress. Yet, if Valérian and Laureline are not superhuman heroes, the stereotype is not so much reversed as ignored altogether. They are not anti-heroes, and the series never becomes a parody, except in brief passages when it deliberately mocks epic, reactionary narratives : it simply aims at overcoming the recurrent limit of short science fiction narratives, their tendency to emphasize settings and plot points over characters. There may not be much room for character development in a 48-page, self-contained story, but Christin and Mézières nevertheless refuse to use a simplistic approach, instead relying on the long run to slowly define their protagonists. Additionally, the relationships between his flawed, human protagonists give him an opportunity to include light humor in the stories without endangering otherwise serious plots.
Valérian and Laureline wondering where in time and space they will spend their next break – Sur les Terres Truquées
The epic mode is certainly a great narrative device in some cases, but it also tends to reduce science fiction in comics to a light science fantasy variation, with limited narrative possibilities. By contrast, the mode chosen in Valérian allows Christin to alternate between galactic stories and reflections on ecology, imperialism and power structures, so characteristic of the 1970s speculative fiction, between quiet moments and action sequences, made all the more significant by the relative vulnerability of the protagonists.
In other words, Valérian is not only a good science-fiction series in itself — and science-fiction has rarely been in visual media — it also manages to bypass the limitations of most successful works in the media of comics or films. Instead of offering tightly controlled narratives, it presents us with amateurs : imperfect yet enthusiastic heroes in a complex and, at times, baroque world.
Graphically, the organic nature of this fictional universe is especially well-rendered, recalling in that respect the early Bilal. The emphasis is on the dynamism of the narrative, and while Christin is able to draw richly detailed backgrounds (see Les Héros de l’Equinoxe), he will in most cases simply sketch it, bringing in only as much detail as required by the scene. While it may be perceived as a limitation of the series, especially if you have in mind, say, EC’s marvelously detailed science-fiction short-stories, it actually works well within a narrative already full of loose ends and deliberate imperfections. Starting with the sixth album (L’ambassadeur des Ombres) an equilibrium is found between texture and movements which seems almost perfect, especially in the light of the series later return to a rougher (but more colorful) look.
A quick digression : bande-dessinées age better than comic books, thanks largely to the coloring techniques. The early Valérian books still look good today, with nice, clean colors, which do not require an entire revision to suit modern standards. Having suffered through a fairly recent reprint of Steranko’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D with horrible computer colors, I can’t imagine how anyone but a comic fan would want to even open the book. That’s simply not the case for bande-dessinées.
Finally, it seems to me that a work of popular culture really proves itself when you realize you still enjoy it after a few years, and not simply for its nostalgic value. I find myself unable to even read most of the BDs I liked fifteen or twenty years ago, but having re-read my Valérians, I can confidently say they pass this test. They have this openness, this enthusiasm which makes more controlled works seem overly rigid and stale once they go out of fashion.
Where to start?
While the series has attracted some attention in the English-speaking world (including a very detailed Wikipedia entry), it has been very sparingly translated. Of the twenty albums, only seven exist in English, and in most cases are long unavailable. The New Future Trilogy, a 2004 comic-book sized edition can still be found, but its best story, On the Frontiers, is a direct consequence of the events of the previous four untranslated albums.
If you read French, the series is at its best between album 6, L’Ambassadeur des Ombres, and album 13, Sur les Frontières. If not, do try to find Ambassador of Shadows and Heroes of the Equinox. You shouldn’t be disappointed.
0. Les Mauvais Rêves
1. La Cité des Eaux Mouvantes
2. L’Empire des 1000 Planètes
3. Le Pays sans Etoiles – World Without Stars
4. Bienvenue sur Alflolol – Welcome to Alflolol
5. Les Oiseaux du Maître
6. L’Ambassadeur des Ombres – Ambassador of the Shadows
7. Sur les Terres Truquées
8. Les Héros de l’Equinoxe – Heroes of the Equinox
9. Métro Châtelet Direction Cassiopée
10. Brooklyn Station Terminus Cosmos
11. Les Spectres d’Inverloch
12. Les Foudres d’Hypsis
13. Sur les Frontières – On the Frontiers in Valérian : The New Future Trilogy
14. Les Armes Vivantes – The Living Weapons in Valérian : The New Future Trilogy
15. Les Cercles du Pouvoir – The Circles of Power in Valérian : The New Future Trilogy
16. Les Otages de l’Ultralum
17. L’Orphelin des Astres
18. Par des Temps Incertains
19. Au bord du Grand Rien
20. L’Ordre des Pierres