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Twists of Fate
By Peter Mikelbank

When Jean Giraud first picked up a pencil, he unwittingly embarked upon a journey that would lead from Wild West comics to big-budget sci-fi flicks—with stops in Mexico, Tahiti, Los Angeles and Paris along the way.

In 1827, German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius published Der barycentrische Calcul, a pioneering work that made him the darling of geometry circles of his day. Aside from penning this and other substantial reads, the author is today best known for having conceived the Moebius strip—a band of paper twisted in half and then attached at the ends, forming an ingenious one-sided loop.
    As neat a bit of paperfolding as ever invented, the Moebius strip is a stellar example of topology or “rubber-sheet geometry”—those properties of geometric objects that remain unchanged when bent, stretched, shrunk or twisted. For nearly two centuries, it’s been invaluable to theorists attempting to explain the universe and time itself.
    You will need this information shortly. I find it helpful in understanding that Jean Giraud is also Gir, and Gir is also Moebius, and Moebius is also Jean Giraud....
    After all, it can become slightly confusing when you are speaking to him (them?) and you ask whether he has (they have?) ever felt professionally schizophrenic.
    “No. Never,” he replies. “Well, some days. Perhaps yes, a little....
    “No,” he finally decides. Then smiles, “I really feel more like a mutant—or mutants.”
    Perhaps it’s simpler to say that Giraud (as Gir) created Les Aventures du Lieutenant Blueberry, the epic adventure of an ex-U.S. cavalry soldier in America’s Wild West, one of France’s longest-running and most successful bande dessinée franchises. And that, in a second career as Moebius, his vivid science-fiction and fantasy visions—drawn in a completely different style from Blueberry—have changed the way the world looks at comic art and made him France’s most internationally recognized comic artist. And that in a remarkable parallel career Giraud has been directly involved in the production of a dozen Hollywood blockbusters during the past 25 years and has influenced a slew of others. Finally, all of his personas are currently and separately engaged in several completely different big-budget films slated to arrive in theaters within the next 18 months.
    “It’s really quite unprecedented,” marvels Jean-Pierre Mercier of the Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image in Angoulême. “Here’s an artist with two very different careers in very different styles. As far as I know, there is no equivalent to Giraud/Moebius in comics. In literature, I suppose the closest you could come would be Romain Gary and Emile Ajar. But that was a one-off. With Giraud/Moebius, the dual careers, the alter egos have been successfully maintained for 30 years now.”
    Giraud laughingly agrees that there is probably not a comparable situation in comic history. “In the past, artists evolved from one strip to the next. Mine’s been more of an ongoing mutation of style. For me to go from Gir to Moebius and back to Gir is a way for me to change the constraints of what I do and yet still enjoy my work. The closest example that I can think of is Woody Allen playing the clarinet.”
    Curiously, one of Giraud’s personas is wildly successful in France, but the other remains relatively obscure. Blueberry sales, Giraud admits, “are my bread and butter here. An initial press run is now 200,000 copies, and over time sales can reach one million. Yet I only sell about 500 to 2,000 Moebius books—it’s so small as to be almost nonexistent.
    “In the United States, it’s the complete opposite—no one knows Jean Giraud or Gir. When I go to Skywalker Ranch or a comics convention, people want to shake hands with Moebius. It’s a bit ironic,” he says, talking about his dual identity, “and a little funny. It’s a gag and yet at the same time, this gag is my life, so it’s also somewhat tragic. And while it may not appear tragic to you,” he laughs, “it does pose certain essential questions as to why people tend to associate a commercial artist with only one style. What happens to the other parts of him?”

Jean Giraud was born outside Paris in Nogent-sur-Marne in May 1938, of parents who divorced when he was three. His earliest memories of books, he recalls, “were illustrated volumes—Jules Verne, Jack London—in my grandparents’ home in Fon-tenay.” He first began drawing as a refuge from a turbulent wartime childhood. “My passion for Western strips dates from that era because during the war, comic books reprinted prewar cowboy strips. The French and Italian press allowed it because the moral values shown in the Western strips were acceptable. So we had a diet of Red Ryder and Hopalong Cassidy.
    “After the war we were able to see all the American films that had been kept out—the whole golden era of cowboy movies. In both the comic strips and Westerns, what immediately struck me was their pictorial quality. That’s something that marked me forever.” The arrival of “other things American” further contributed to Giraud’s development. “Many people in postwar France were similarly influenced, but it was particularly pronounced in my case. Perhaps because I didn’t have a typical university education but was part of the 1950s counterculture, which was heavily oriented toward the United States. What we found most interesting were the things that were the most contested in the U.S. We were fascinated, for example, with intellectuals and artists who were victims of witch-hunts. We were also intrigued by Westerns and musicals, in spite of the fact that many people looked down on them.”
    Accepted to the Institute of Applied Arts in l954, Giraud became a professional cartoonist during his sophomore year, landing a number of sketches in the periodical Far West before placing his first strip, Frank et Jérémie, in Coeurs Vaillants. His third year of school, he says regretfully, “didn’t happen.” Instead of finishing his studies, Giraud took his earnings from cartooning and ran off.
    To Mexico.
    There, he briefly rejoined his mother, “who had finally married her longtime boyfriend—a Mexican professional poker player named Pepe.” She soon left Pepe, but Giraud stayed on nearly eight months after her departure, “learning things any 17-year-old boy learns alone in a foreign country.” He also found a new passion: the science fiction of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, with whom he immediately felt a strong connection.
    “Some people get swept away by music or literature but in my case, it was science fiction that transported me in an almost metaphysical way. I’d known Jules Verne since boyhood but Van Vogt was an amazing revelation. Here was an entirely new point of view. On being human. On the relationship between humans and the superstructures that society had developed—government, religion and so forth. What really hooked me was that I suddenly had the feeling that I was part of the great contemporary mystery, that is to say, a human being, part of a global species, a planetary consciousness facing the stars.”
    Returning to France, Giraud put in 27 months of military service in Germany and Algeria. He later took a nine-to-five office job with Hachette in Paris drawing realistic encyclopedia illustrations—a period he describes as “time spent in a demonic company that tried unsuccessfully to deter me from the blessed path of the comic strip.”
    In 1963, a colleague recommended Giraud to Pilote co-founder Jean-Michel Charlier, who wanted to add an entirely new type of strip to the magazine’s stable. Initially called Fort Navajo, Gir’s strip featured the first French comic-book anti-hero: Lt. Mike Steve Blueberry.
    Drawn in realistic style, Blueberry bore a strong physical and spiritual resemblance to Belmondo and was as unconventionally heroic as a Peckinpah character. Discarding comics tradition, Blueberry drank, gambled, fought for Indian rights and was eventually cashiered from the Army, which freed him to roam the West on the way to becoming the hero of France’s most successful adventure series. There are now 26 volumes in the Blueberry oeuvre, not counting those Giraud has drawn for two spin-off series (Young Blueberry and Jim Cutlass) launched in the ’70s.
    Giraud considers Blueberry to be his most exacting work and labors steadily for up to a year to produce each new episode. “This strip is the one that’s the most demanding, most detestable, takes the most work and physical sacrifice. And,” he concedes, “it’s all my own fault.” Indeed, Giraud’s devotion to Blueberry is a slavish obsession—the work is now so technically detailed that a selection of panels was recently published as a fine arts collection. “All the details come from the real West or from movies. Worst of all, I’ve chosen the Hollywood movies of the ’50s and ’60s, which were incredibly detailed. So every Blueberry has these backgrounds and animals and weapons and crowd-scene extras and clothing that I have to research so that I can draw them precisely.”
    As early as 1963, Giraud had begun to contribute a few sketches and drawings to the rival magazine Hara Kiri under the signature of Moebius (a name he chose because, like the mathematician, he too produced “twisted strips”), but his success with Blueberry forced him to concentrate his efforts on that strip throughout the ’60s and mid-’70s. “I worked like a madman,” he admits.
    As a result, Moebius completely disappeared. For a decade.

In the early ’70s, as a reaction to the intense schedule Giraud kept while drawing Blueberry, Moebius began to reawaken. In January ’73, Pilote published La Déviation, a landmark seven-page autobiographical story of artist Jean Giraud’s vacation, drawn in full-blown Moebius style and signed Gir. The result of merging Gir’s technical virtuosity with a surrealistic universe was stunning. “I wanted to reassert something of the Moebius attitude, to surprise myself, to allow myself a certain freedom and sense of improvisation,” recalls Giraud.
    Then in 1974, he joined three others (Phillippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas) in founding Les Humanoïdes Associés. Their first collaborative publication, Métal Hurlant, was brought out in January 1975 and changed comics forever. Still published in reprint form in the U.S. under its translated title (a term that didn’t exist before Giraud & Co. coined it), Heavy Metal took comic art in a direction only hinted at in pioneering strips such as Barbarella. But it went light-years farther, merging neo-Romantic fantasy, science fiction and underground comix techniques. Emphasizing complex graphics, cinematic imagery and surreal storylines, Heavy Metal was visionary and introduced a slate of brand-new, fully wrought Moebius characters, including Major Fatal, Arzach and John Difool (scripted by filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky).
    To truly appreciate Moebius’s work, consider that Arzach, an epic fantasy, employs no dialogue whatsoever, completely dismisses linear narrative and relies solely upon the brilliance of its drawings to propel readers through the adventures of a boy and his pet pterodactyl. Then consider that this technique presages the development of the “graphic novel” in the United States and Japanese manga comics, both of which would become popular nearly a decade later.
    Or consider that Major Fatal (the time-traveling hero of The Airtight Garage), introduced at a time when the dwindling U.S. comics market was desperately seeking redefinition, helped make Moebius an American superstar overnight. He was invited to work on American comic-book heroes (and did for both Marvel and D.C.) but more significantly, he was seen as more than just a comic-book artist.
    For many who caught the first Moebius wave, he was a visionary, a mainstream artist with a potentially incalculable influence upon the cultural landscape. It is eminently arguable, for example, that the public interest in science fiction brought on by Star Wars would have occurred without Moebius’s arrival, but you would have a very hard time convincing George Lucas of that. In the preface to The Art of Moebius, the director, who recruited Giraud for Willow, pays tribute to the artist’s overwhelming influence on the film’s look.
    In 1983, with his career in warp-drive in New York and Hollywood, Giraud packed up his pens and brushes and left France.
    For Tahiti.

Last July, Wired magazine selected its “Sci-Fi Top 20.” Nearly half were projects Giraud worked on directly, influenced or turned down. “Alien, TRON, Willow,” says Giraud, clicking off feature films he has worked on. “Legend, The Abyss....
    “When Luc Besson did The Fifth Element, he went back to a story he’d written as a child under the influence of comic strips. He wanted to pay tribute to the work of Jean-Claude Mézières (author of Pilote’s Valérian) and Moebius, and so he decided to use us both as production designers. It was a bit of an homage,” he smiles, “and at the same time, a very touching gift from a reader. In a way, you could say it was a very Moebiusian moment.”
    Films tend to be Moebius-Gir collaborations, Giraud confesses. “What’s funny is that producers and directors call on Moebius but more often than not it’s Gir who shows up to work on the project. It’s not a reflection of the artistic quality but a question of discipline. When I’m working on a film, the attitude I have is closer to the one I have when I’m working on Blueberry. Moebius is more ambiguous and based on fleeting humor and liberty. If it isn’t free, it isn’t Moebius. So all my collaborations on films have generally been signed Moebius, but they’re really a slightly cynical manipulation of me by myself.”
    Two years after settling in Tahiti, Giraud exchanged paradise for Los Angeles, where he lived out his “American dream” in four years before returning to Paris in the early ’90s. He now ascribes his choices and relocations to “random circumstances and a certain innocence. What happened most often was that life accidentally brought me to someplace new and I was happy to go.”
    Today, he works in a top-floor apartment near Montparnasse. Tucked into a 19th-century corner cupola, Giraud’s atelier shares drawing space with scanners, computers and other high-tech gear. While he protests that his computer skills are rudimentary, he also admits that certain projects are 100 percent computer-generated. “For me it’s the same as paper—without paper. It requires the same gestures, palette, erasures. Yes, there is a trade off. I lose the overall field of vision, but I save a lot of time.”
    Technology has also allowed him to maintain contact with film studios in Los Angeles and China, where work is wrapping up on a revolutionary $8 million mixed-technique animated feature, Thru the Moebius Strip. Based on his drawings, the “Jack and the Beanstalk in space” tale is scheduled to premiere next summer, and talks are under way for showing the film’s spectacular 3-D techniques in IMAX theaters.
    There’s also a $30 million live-action Blueberry feature shot in Mexico and starring Vincent Cassel that is scheduled to open in theaters next spring. And a live-action epic sci-fi whose budget, production and partnerships stagger the imagination. Slated for release in 2004, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama plans to team actor/producer Morgan Freeman, director David Fincher (Seven) and George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic special-effects group. What makes the project truly fascinating is that chip-maker giant Intel, in its first film venture, has reportedly refitted Skywalker Ranch with a whole new generation of computers capable of bringing Moebius’s elaborate production designs to the screen.
    In addition to films, Giraud’s output since returning to Paris has been nothing short of phenomenal. He has continued work on his Incal series, launched the Monde d’Edena series, and is currently working on another Blueberry episode (“I’m way behind deadline because of all the other little jobs I’ve taken on”). These “little jobs” include a video game for a major Japanese firm and development of Arzach as a cartoon project.
    “I’m considering an offer to do a Marvel superhero but I don’t know if I will because I’m so far behind on Blueberry, and my schedule is a disaster just now,” he says. “My grand aim was to escape my mortality and now—when it’s too late, it seems—I’ve learned that time won’t let me, so I always have a number of projects under way at once. And there’s always an overlap between Giraud and Gir and Moebius and their projects, which in itself is a very Moebiusian situation, don’t you think?”
    And there’s really nothing more to add. Except perhaps to say that in 1827, German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius....s


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