Is This the Comic That Birthed Modern Sci-Fi?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because visionary artists are sometimes left out of sight.
By James Wilkinson
On the 40th anniversary of the first Star Wars movie, OZY flashes back to the comic that might well have birthed it all. This story was originally published on March 27, 2017.
Paris, 1944: Night had fallen on the suburb of Saint-Mandé and death was waiting in the skies. Powerless to affect — or even truly comprehend — the clash of titans that was World War II, two young boys hid underground, reveling in the drama. This is the first time that Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières had ever met. But in these unhappy surroundings began a friendship that would go on to transform French comic books, inspire celebrated directors and, perhaps, influence a galaxy far, far away.
By 1967 much had changed, but those two boys — now fully grown and returned from working in the United States — found themselves in a different kind of bunker. The stifling, buttoned-down conservatism of French President Charles de Gaulle left the pair frustrated and hungry for change. As an outlet, they created Valerian and Laureline, a daring sci-fi comic that combined their liberal, progressive values with mind-bending, dimension-hopping pulp verve.
Its heroes were subtly subversive, for a start: Valerian, the two-fisted agent sent out to stop time-traveling villains, was really a slightly buffoonish indictment of violent machismo. Laureline, the 11th-century girl swept up in his wake, quickly established herself as the brains of the pair. Their adventures, while on the surface zippy sci-fi silliness, were tinged with political depths, at once a critique of Western global imperialism and an increasingly technophilic society.
And just as Valerian brought Laureline out of the past, so too did the comic help pull readers out of de Gaulle’s repressive, backward society and toward the permissive psychedelia that had flowered in the U.S. and U.K. Valerian and Laureline found itself at the nexus of a blossoming world of politically aware, boundary-pushing comic books that would go on to produce the bold sci-fi of celebrated artist Moebius and the genre-busting adult anthology Metal Hurlant (known in the States as Heavy Metal), among others.
Their influence was also felt in the real world, Mézières says. “Laureline is a name Pierre Christin and I created for our female character in the first story. … Nowadays, more than 2,000 girls are named Laureline on the French civilian records. We have testimonies from many little girls and older ones. They come at some signing sessions with their books and proudly say, ‘My name is Laureline!’ Very touching for the authors!”
The comic may even have touched Hollywood: Any fan of Valerian and Laureline will note curious similarities to George Lucas’ Star Wars movies, which debuted in 1977.
Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon bears a resemblance to Valerian and Laureline’s time-hopping spaceship, the XB982, for example. The unmasking of horribly scarred Darth Vader in 1983’s Return of the Jedi looks like a similar moment in the Empire of a Thousand Planets storyline. Both Han and Valerian spend an uncomfortable time encased in a block made of a mysterious alien chemical. And when villains force both Laureline and Leia to wear demeaning metal “slave girl” bikinis, it’s hard not to wonder if they shop at the same intergalactic branch of Victoria’s Secret.
Those similarities and others certainly didn’t escape Mézières’ notice. He later drew a cartoon of Luke Skywalker and Leia encountering Valerian and Laureline in a bar. “Fancy meeting you here!” says Leia. “Oh, we’ve been hanging around here a long time!” Laureline responds.
Lucas has never publicly discussed a direct influence on the films, and Lucasfilm did not respond to a request for comment. But Paul Gravett, a comics historian and author of 10 books on the medium, says it’s hard to deny that Valerian and Laureline must have been at least one source of inspiration.
“When we look at the number of correlations between Valerian and Laureline and Star Wars, there are rather too many of them for it just to be accidental,” he explains.
He adds that Valerian and Laureline comic books, along with their peers, were on the shelves of every designer in Hollywood at the time. “It’s fairly well-known that if you were in the design world, certainly pre-Internet, you were looking out for what’s happening, what’s hot, and you were looking at these comics.”
One director who most certainly owes a lot to Christin and Mézières is Luc Besson, of Lucy fame. Besson, who started reading the comics as a 10-year-old boy, concedes that Laureline had a somewhat hypnotic effect on him.
“Laureline was probably my first love,” he admits. “It was the first time that we saw a modern couple where the girl kicks ass all the time and the guy has more bravado than skill.” Besson, who learned to read with the Valerian comics, is adapting the story for the big screen with an all-star cast, including Cara Delevinge, Ethan Hawke and Rihanna, to name a few. And while this won’t be his first time working with the comic’s creators (he brought Mézières in to help when he directed The Fifth Element), he admits he’s felt added pressure bringing this story to life.
“When [Christin and Mézières] first visited the set of Valerian, it brought me to tears just to see them,” Besson says, “because suddenly I could see in their eyes where I was at 10 years old, reading the comic book. The rush of emotion was just truly overwhelming.”
- James Wilkinson, OZY AuthorContact James Wilkinson