VALERIAN: Jean Claude Mézières’ Spatio-Temporal Agent

With the recent passing of French artist Jean-Claude Mézières, I wanted to re-purpose and old article I had written about him. This originally appeared in DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY Magazine in 2017

Before Star Wars, Bladerunner and The Fifth Element the sci-fi future had already been imagined

When Jean-Claude Mézières saw the Star Wars films for the first time he admitted that he was “dazzled, jealous… and furious!”. Why?

Because before Star Wars was released, ten years before, in fact, Mézières along with writer Pierre Christin had created a comic strip for the French bande dessinée magazine, Pilote, called “Valerian et Laureline”. The series focused on the adventures of the dark-haired Valérian, a spatio-temporal agent, and his redheaded female colleague, Laureline, as they travel the universe through space and time. Later the adventures were collected into albums and published by the French company Dargaud.

Even the most casual of glances over the pages of these comic strips will tell you why Mézières had reason to be furious with George Lucas’s creation. Many of the most iconic images from the Star Wars films can easily be found to have been inspired by the work that Mézières put into Valerian. Indeed, according to one source the design director for 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Doug Chiang, kept a set of Valerian comics in his library.

But it doesn’t end with Star Wars. Valerian’s adventures and Mézières’ artwork has similarly “inspired” production designers ranging from 1982’s Conan the Barbarian to 1996’s Independence Day. Christin and Mézières have inspired other artists and many readers with their ground breaking work on the series. Among the artists that they inspired was a French filmmaker named Luc Besson.

More about him later

Science Fiction Spectacle

Back in 1967, creating a Science Fiction spectacle for the movies was no easy task. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey was two years away from making its debut. Few had the vision or the budget to create anything close to what Christin and Mézières were creating for the comic books.

Valérian is a classical hero, kind-hearted, strong and brave who follows the orders of his superiors even if he feels, deep down that it is the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, his partner Laureline combines her superior intelligence, determination and independence with sex appeal.

Influenced by classic literary Science Fiction, the series mixes space opera with time travel plots. Christin’s scripts are noted for their humor, complexity and strongly humanist and left wing liberal political ideas while Mézières’ art is characterized by its vivid depictions of the alien worlds and species Valérian and Laureline encounter on their adventures.

Valerian and Laureline

The original setting for the series was the 28th Century. Humanity has discovered the means of traveling instantaneously through time and space. The capital of Earth, Galaxity, is the center of the vast Terran Galactic Empire. Earth itself has become a virtual utopia with most of the population living a life of leisure in a virtual reality dream-state ruled by the benign Technocrats of the First Circle. The Spatio-Temporal Service protects the planets of the Terran Empire and guards against temporal paradoxes caused by rogue time-travelers. Valérian and Laureline are two such spatio-temporal agents.

Valérian was born on Earth, in Galaxity. He joined the Spatio-Temporal Service in the year 2713. He has been trained to think that Galaxity is always right – even when he receives orders that go against his own morals. He will, reluctantly, follow them. He much prefers to be a man of action than sitting around pondering what course to take next. The early stories present Valérian as a typical square-jawed hero figure, who is strong and dependable

Laureline is a peasant girl from 11th Century France. In the debut adventure, “Bad Dreams”, she rescues Valérian from the enchanted Forest of Arelaune. When she accidentally discovers Valérian is a time-traveler, he is forced to bring her back with him to Galaxity where she is trained as a Spatio-Temporal Agent and assigned as his partner.

(Incidentally, the name “Laureline” was invented by Mézières and Christin who were seeking a name that would sound “medieval” and “soft”. The name has proven popular and there are now several thousand women in France named Laureline, the first one born in 1968 just a year after the publication of “Bad Dreams”. There have also been variations such as “Loreline” and “Laurelyne”)

However, since the end of the story “The Wrath of Hypsis” (“Les Foudres d’Hypsis”), in which Galaxity disappears from space-time as a result of a temporal paradox, the pair have become freelance trouble-shooters traveling through space and time offering their services to anyone willing to hire them while also searching for their lost home.

In the first two albums Valérian travels through time in a two-seater device, the XB27, which transports him to the various relay stations that Galaxity has hidden throughout time. In subsequent stories, Valérian and Laureline use the saucer-shaped astroship, XB982 (which made its debut appearance in 1969 in the short story “The Great Collector” (“Le Grand Collectionneur”). The astroship is able to travel anywhere using a spatio-temporal jump, a sort of hyperspace drive enabling near-instant transportation anywhere in space and time.

The initial albums were generally straightforward good versus evil adventure stories that employed a great many well-worn clichés. However, thanks to Pierre Christin’s interests in politics, sociology and ethnology, as the series progressed the situations typically arose from misunderstandings or ideological differences between various groups that could be resolved through reason and perseverance. The core theme of the stories is an optimistic liberal humanism: the adventures are not about defeating enemies but about exploring, facing challenges, and celebrating diversity. Thus, according to academic John Dean, Christin “as a rule works into his narratives political, environmental and feminist concerns – thereby showing social ills are universal, no matter on what planet you land”.

Another concept that developed was Galaxity as a proxy for Western democracy; contrary to its benign self-image it is actually imperialistic and prone to corruption.

Publishing History

Childhood friends Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin had previously collaborated on the comic strip “Le Rhum du Punch” (“Rum Punch”) in 1966 while both were living and working in the United States. Upon their return to France, they initially intended to create a Western strip, but with the genre already well represented in French comics thanks to Lucky Luke, Blueberry and Jerry Spring. Christin instead proposed that they turn their hand to Science Fiction, a genre he felt was unrepresented in French comics at the time. The decision to work in the Science Fiction genre was also influenced by the political climate in France at the time; Mézières and Christin saw Valérian as a “backdoor” means to react against the prevailing doctrine of Gaullism. Although Science Fiction was not a favorite of Pilote editor, René Goscinny, he wanted his magazine to be diverse and innovative and so agreed to commission Valérian.

There had been French Science Fiction comics before Valérian such as Kline’s Kaza the Martian (a childhood favorite of Mézières), Roger Lecureux and Raymond Poivet’s Les Pionniers de l’Espérance (The Pioneers of Hope) and Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella.

Barbarella is famous for its strong, female, titular character, but Christin has denied any influence on the character of Laureline stating that she was inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as well as the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, contemporary reviews of the early stories by Jean-Pierre Andrevon describe the books as “Forestian”. Mézières and Christin were also heavily influenced by literary Science Fiction such as that by Isaac Asimov (especially The End of Eternity), Jack Vance (especially The Blue World), and John Brunner. Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier have also suggested that Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol books, about an official organization dedicated to protecting time from interference, are a major influence on the series.

Christin has also cited the whodunit genre—notably novels by Georges Simenon and Ed McBain—as an influence on Valérian since they taught him, as a writer, that all characters in a narrative must be seen to have motivations.

Mézières’ drawings in the early albums were influenced by such “comic-dynamic” artists as Morris (Lucky Luke), André Franquin (Spirou et Fantasio) and Jack Davis (Mad magazine), leading Jean-Pierre Andrevon to refer to Valérian as “a kind of Lucky Luke of space-time”. As the series progressed, Mézières developed a more realistic style, akin to that of Jijé, though in more recent albums he has returned to the more cartoonish style of the earlier stories.

Award Winning comic book

Valérian and its creators have also received recognition through a number of prestigious awards. Most notably, in 1984, Jean-Claude Mézières was honored with the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême for his comics work, including Valérian. Mézières and Christin also received a European Science Fiction Society award for Valérian in 1987 and the album Hostages of the Ultralum (Otages de l’Ultralum) won a Tournesal award, given to the comic that best reflects the ideals of the Green Party, at the 1997 Angoulême International Comics Festival. The encyclopedia of the alien creatures found in the Valérian universe Les Habitants du Ciel: Atlas Cosmique de Valérian et Laureline (The Inhabitants of the Sky: The Cosmic Atlas of Valerian and Laureline) received a special mention by the jury at the 1992 Angoulême International Comics Festival in the Prix Jeunesse 9–12 ans (Youth Prize 9–12 years) category.

Valérian has also been nominated for a Haxtur Award in 1995 for The Circles of Power and for a Harvey Award in 2005 for The New Future Trilogy, an English-language compilation of three of the albums.

Legacy

Valérian’s arrival on the French comics scene was contemporaneous with the debuts of other notable French Science Fiction strips including Luc Orient by Greg and Eddy Paape and Lone Sloane by Philippe Druillet. The success of these strips would eventually lead to the creation of Métal Hurlant, the highly influential French comics magazine dedicated to Science Fiction.

The influence of Valérian has been noticed in such strips as Dani Futuro (es; de; it) (by Víctor Mora and Carlos Giménez) and Gigantik (by Mora and José Maria Cardona). The visual style of Valérian has also influenced some American comics artists, notably Walt Simonson and Gil Kane. Sometimes the impact of Valérian has gone beyond mere influence; following a complaint by Mézières, the artist Angus McKie admitted that several panels of his strip So Beautiful and So Dangerous were copied from Ambassador of the Shadows.

Influence on Science Fiction cinema

Outside of comics, the Valérian series has been particularly influential on Science Fiction and Fantasy film.

Just as Jean Claude Mézières recognized the debt Lucas owed to Valerian, several commentators, such as Kim Thompson of The Comics Journal, film critic Jean-Philippe Guerand and the newspaper Libération, have also noted the similarities between the Valérian albums and the Star Wars film series. Both series are noted for the “lived-in” look given to their various settings and for the diverse alien creatures they feature.

Valérian and Laureline’s spaceship directly inspired Star Wars‘ Millennium Falcon. There is a scene in one of the books, There’s No Time Like the Present where Valerian escapes by falling into a laundry washing vat, exits through a portal at the bottom of the vat, and falls out of a hole at the bottom of the space station hanging from a sheet which gets transmuted into the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker escapes Darth Vader by falling down a chasm, goes through a vent, and falls out of Cloud City hanging from an antenna.

There is a scene in Empire of a Thousand Planets (L’Empire des Mille Planètes) where Valérian is encased in a liquid plastic that is almost exactly duplicated in The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo is encased in carbonite. There is a slave-girl costume worn by Laureline in World Without Stars that is echoed in Princess Leia’s infamous ‘Slave Leia’ outfit from Return of the Jedi.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

And it goes on. After Mézières saw Star Wars and had his moment of jealousy and fury, he produced an illustration for Pilote magazine in 1983 depicting the Star Wars characters Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa meeting Valérian and Laureline in a bar surrounded by a bestiary of alien creatures typical of that seen in both series. “Fancy meeting you here!” says Leia. “Oh, we’ve been hanging around here for a long time!” retorts Laureline.

Mézières has also worked as a production designer for films, many of which never got made. But in 1991 Mézières began work producing concept art for the director Luc Besson for his film The Fifth Element. When the project stalled and Besson moved on to work on the film Léon in 1994, Mézières returned to Valérian for the album The Circles of Power (Les Cercles du Pouvoir). This featured a character, S’Traks, who drove a flying taxi around a great metropolis on the planet Rubanis.

Mézières sent a copy of the album to Besson who was inspired to change the background of Korben Dallas, the lead character of The Fifth Element, from a worker in a rocketship factory to that of a taxi driver who flies his cab around a Rubanis-inspired futuristic New York City. Mézières produced further concept drawings for Besson, including flying taxicabs. He also re-used certain aspects of the design of the space liner seen in the 1988 Valérian album On the Frontiers for the Fhloston Paradise liner seen in second half of the film.

The Fifth Element was finally completed and released in 1997. Although Besson has claimed that he first came up with the idea for the film at the age of 16, which would predate many of the Valerian stories, the inspiration of Valerian on Besson cannot be understated.

At New York Comic Con in 2016 Luc Besson told audiences of his love for the Valerian strip which he discovered in the pages of Pilote as a young man.

“I was living on the countryside and when I opened my window, I saw only cows. Believe me, I want to escape,” he said. “Then on every Wednesday you have Valerian and Laureline, like ‘Yeah!’ Reading those stories was like building your imagination, your sense of beauty. It’s important. It’s almost your main food when you are 10 years old. Probably the first woman I fell in love was Laureline when I was 10. So you always have that in your mind. But to be able to think, ‘One day I should make a film about it,’ that comes way, way later.”

The influence of Valerian was notable with Besson’s The Fifth Element, particularly as Mezieres was a production designer for that film

Besson reveals that Mezieres playfully needled him about an adaptation while working as a design consultant on The Fifth Element. “He’s the one who said, “Why don’t you do Valerian rather than this fucking Fifth Element? At the time, to be honest, you couldn’t make it. There are five or six [human] characters and all the rest are aliens. The technology was not ready. You really had to wait until Avatar to really start to think, “Oh, okay, now imagination is the limit. Now we can do everything.”

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevignge in Luc Besson’s VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. Credit: Courtesy of EuropaCorp Copyright: © 2016 VALERIAN SAS Ð TF1 FILMS PRODUCTION.

Christen and Mezieres’ creation was brought to the big screen by Besson. The film itself had few positive reviews and ironically,the chief criticism was that the picture did not serve Mézières source material. After decades of filmmakers ripping off his work, the one adaptation of his material did not go far enough

Jean-Claude Mézières died on January 22 of this year. He was 84.

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