By Bob Clark
This week, the title is meant to be read in the future tense, an appropriate consideration, seeing as the person in question is a figure whose work always dealt with imagining the future in the most extravagant terms possible. A couple weeks back when Ralph McQuarrie passed away, I closed my short piece on him by wondering out loud how the Star Wars series might’ve turned out if another artist had been contacted by George Lucas to put pen and brush to paper and render production art for his big pitch at 20th Century Fox. I had only thought so far as to speculate the results if Frank Frazetta or Jim Steranko had teamed up with the young filmmaker, but almost as soon as I’d published the piece, I realized that I had overlooked another seminal sci-fi and fantasy artist of the time, and one whose work had already been shaping the look of genre films and would go on shaping them for years to come. Both directly through collaboration and indirectly through inspiration, Jean “Moebius” Giraud has very likely been more responsible for the look and feel of science fiction film, comics and animation than any other artist in the past thirty or forty years. And now, like Ralph McQuarrie, he is gone.
Now as I said, the title for this piece looks forward to the future, and future pieces. I’m not referring to an abstract, hypothetical act of memory, where it concerns the recently departed comics maestro. Rather, I’m talking about how, specifically, I plan to remember him in upcoming pieces on the site. The truth of the matter is, Moebius’ breadth of work as a cartoonist and behind the scenes in a variety of creative and technical positions in film is far to large and vast for me to even be able to digest a portion of it in full for a commemorative piece. Like many, the first time I heard of him was in connection with how his work inspired the look of The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas requesting permission to use one of the French artist’s designs for the Imperial Probe Droid that lands on Hoth, projecting a distinct flavor of spidery menace right from the start of the picture. After that, I found how his design worked its way into Ridley Scott’s Alien, where it stood toe-to-toe with H.R. Giger’s gothic monstrosities, and played a large part in shaping the texture of the director’s follow-up, Blade Runner. It wasn’t long before I was noticing his name in the credits of childhood favorites like Tron or The Fifth Element, or seeking him out explicitly in his collaboration with animator Rene Laloux on the feature Les Maitres du Temps.
Even now, I can find new room to be surprised by the wide reach of his imagination, when discovering the influence he bore on no less a figure than Hayao Miyazaki, particularly in the early phase of Studio Ghibli in features like Castle in the Sky. I can barely even be shocked when considering the kinship those two artists shared, to the point that Moebius even named a daughter after Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, the very work that in both animated and manga form bears the closest influence from the French master’s touch. And it almost goes without saying that it’s difficult for me to look at any comics work, particularly from the French school, and not see either the distinct creative resemblance to Giraud’s work, or the earlier artists who influenced him. One of the marvelous things about his work is the clarity with which he renders all these far flung worlds and imagined wonders, an appropriate attribute coming from a man who practiced, in part, a variation of the ligne claire style that the Belgian artist Herge made popular in his Tintin stories, and would go on to become a part of the European art-comics vocabulary in luminaries like Joost Swarte and Jacques Tardi. But while most of his contemporaries used that spare, simple style to present pictures and stories of life not too far removed from the realities of the present day or not-too-far-off past, Moebius was using it to render increasingly complicated visions of futures distant and fantasies far beyond the reaches of any human measure. The clarity his clean and simple linework provided allowed him to twist and populate each page into a surrealist cornucopia of sights both strange and beautiful, delighting the reader in twisted portraits of mankind, nature and civilizations that don’t look too far removed from the courses taken by evolution down in the depths of the ocean floors.
It’s there where I intend to return to Moebius’ work and provide a fuller tribute to the artists’ rich and stunning work, with a piece dedicated to what is by all accounts his masterpiece– the long-spanning comics series The Incal, drawn by himself and written by the master surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski. What’s most interesting about that series is how their collaboration began as a behind the scenes venture for one cinematic project– the director’s fabled, too ambitious to ever get off the ground adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune— and yet wound up influencing countless cinematic sci-fi visions afterwards. Everyone from Lucas and Scott to James Cameron owe a tremendous debt to the creative vision that Moebius and Jodorowski dreamed up together between the pages of Metal Hurlant (known in the States as Heavy Metal magazine), and the intersection it represents between comics, animation and cinema provides one of the most ample opportunities for fresh discovery by disciples of all three paths. Until then, allow that large image on the sidebar of John DiFool, Class R Detective, and his plummet through a monstrously deep and complex science-fiction metropolis provide something of a hint of things to come, just a hint of the artist’s work at its best and most revelatory– teasingly familiar, yet never in your wildest dreams like anything you’ve seen before.