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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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