Valerian: The Original Visual Space Opera Spectacular

Seeing as Luc Besson's Valerian big screen adaptation comes out this weekend, this may be a good time to take a look at the original source material. Valerian and Laureline were sometime companions of mine as a kid, the albums a little harder to find than others - I only own three, two of which are in Dargaud's pocket format - though I did read through all the 1970s books at my local library. I didn't even realize writer Pierre Christin, artist Jean-Claude Mézières and colorist Evelyn Tran-Lé collaborated on the series for another 30 years after that, the last story coming out in 2010!

In fact, the Spatio-Temporal Agents have 23 graphic novels to their name (including a collection of shorter tales and an encyclopedia), the first dozen or so serialized in Dargaud's house magazine Pilote starting in late 1967. Remember that date because what I find most striking is how slick and modern the books look and feel compared to their American Silver Age cousins. Mézières' style evokes a looser Moebius or Walt Simonson, Christin's prose has as much throw-away imagination than a Grant Morrison script, and Tran-Lé's filtered color washes are strong on mood. What really makes it sing is the breadth of imagination, the art able to do what movies would only manage SOMEwhat 10 years later with Star Wars.
Case in point, Bienvenue sur Alflolol (Welcome to Alflolol), in which our heroes - Valerian, the by-the-numbers lantern-jawed hero, and Laureline, his sexy rule-breaking partner in work and love - come upon a planet's native people returning from a millennia-long trip after Earth has taken over what it believed was an uninhabited planet and started exploiting its resources. On the one hand, this is a simple space opera/Star Trek story (indeed, the series had a similar humanist bent), with the aliens treated to relocation camps and put to work in factories - the plight of the Native American, so to speak. But Christin's deep interest in ethnology and anthropology comes across as he breathes life into the characters and their exotic culture. And these defy expectations and show a lot of imagination and humor, while also putting the two heroes at odds as their philosophies clash.

With the whole of space and time to work with (as the ship can also time travel), other books in the series show as much imagination, some stories looking and feeling more like fantasy, horror or steampunk. Later books tend to follow from one another in longer arcs; earlier ones are one-offs, including L'empire des mille planètes (The Empire of a Thousand Planets), which is apparently the basis for the new film (but that's as maybe, the original book was much more planet-bound than what we see in the trailers; it actually looks like the plot of L'Ambassadeur des Ombres, Ambassador of the Shadows).
I very much hope that the film will be good (I've always found something of interest in Besson's work regardless of plot problems, so I'm not worried for myself) and will find an audience (less obvious) and become a viable franchise. In part, that's because I got to enjoy something that went on to inspire a lot of things OTHERS then enjoyed, including Star Wars. I mean, THIS is Valerian's ship:
Right?! According to Wikipedia, Mézières was apparently livid when he saw George Lucas' opus, but impressed as well. He also noted a striking resemblance between sets in Conan the Barbarian and Les Oiseaux du Maître (Birds of the Master). Any resemblance between Valerian's world and The Fifth Element's are expected since Mézières worked on that film a designer in the early staged of planning, and it was the flying taxi from Les Cercles du Pouvoir (The Circles of Power) that inspired Korben Dallas' day job. Now, Besson gets to put that specific universe on screen and it would seem there is no better director to do it.


snell said...

Comixology has all of the Valerian graphic novels (translated into English, too) on sale right now. Siskod is right, they're great--check them out!

Brendoon said...

You've possibly read them both in French and English?
How do they compare?

Siskoid said...

No, only in French.


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