Valérian: The Rich Graphic Novels Behind the Film

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Valérian is one of Europe’s most widely admired and respected graphic novel series, following the exploits of a couple of time-traveling, hyperspace-hopping crimefighters. It gained popularity largely due to its intelligence and subtle whimsy, rare then—as now—for the science fiction genre. Its emphasis on the humanity of the characters over the standard sci-fi flash and bombast has helped keep it alive and fresh over five decades. The 21 books were published in France from 1967 through to 2010. And next week Valérian opens as a movie.

Is the movie better than its source? Well, here are some early reviews: “Valérian is an epic mess,” Entertainment Weekly. “Visually, it’s beyond dazzling. Just don’t think about the story or the characters too much,” Village Voice. “A mind-blowing array of environments and stunning computer-generated alien characters. Too bad Valerian himself is such a dud,” Variety. “Unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible,” Hollywood Reporter. Okaaaaay… now about those cartoon books.

Originally Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent, the series was retitled Valérian and Laureline as the emerging feminist movement of the late ’60s helped shape writer Pierre Christin’s narrative. Laureline was introduced in a minor supporting role but quickly blossomed into a hero whose courage, independence, intelligence and feisty spirit is equal to—and, more frequently than not, superior than—Valerian’s.

Valérian and Laureline’s art, by Jean-Claude Mézières, varies from rather cartoonish, in its early and later years, to a more substantial, realistic look—one shared by his comics colleague Enki Bilal—at its height of quality. Influenced by the likes of Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Mad’s Jack Davis, and Tintin’s Hergé, Mézières’ art is exceptional in its page composition, refined color, and strategic application of background detail.

Valérian and Laureline and other such comics laid the foundation for France’s famed Métal Hurlant magazine and its American incarnation, Heavy Metal. Fans also frequently credit the series for influencing Star Wars films’ visual aesthetics, from costumes and spaceships to the lived-in quality of its surroundings, a look that Mézières originally pioneered. He actually tried to contact George Lucas to discuss the several striking similarities between their works, but never received a reply.

Beyond that, Valérian and Laureline’s powerful impact on writers and filmmakers is undeniable. Special effects-driven director Luc Besson was impressed enough to hire Mézières—and Moebius—to create concept illustrations for his 1997 sci-fi hit, The Fifth Element. In 2010 Besson went on to direct The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was loosely based on another acclaimed graphic novel series—featuring a brave and bold woman battling bizarre, occult forces in early 20th century Paris—by Mézières’ contemporary Jacques Tardi.

And, oh, yes: Besson also directed that abovementioned flick, with the full title titled Valérian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The film’s stars appear to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s teenage son and a blonde who might be, I dunno… Elle Fanning? In other words, in no way do the youth demographic-targeted main characters resemble Mézières’ tall, raven-haired Valerian and the mature, auburn-haired Laureline.

While the fate of the film is yet to be determined, Mézières’ work will continue to maintain its distinct status in sophisticated visual literature. If you’re interested in exploring for yourself, several are available in English through Europe Comics and Cinebook, with more on the way. Also, Titan is about to publish a Valérian Illustrated Treasury. Meanwhile, here are some page samples which should help serve as an introduction.

And if some of the images happen to remind you of a galaxy far, far away, perhaps you may have better luck than Jean-Claude Mézières in hearing back from Lucas.

concept art for The Fifth Element

About Michael Dooley

Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.View all posts by Michael Dooley →