Dive into the cosmos created by Jean-Claude Mézières, and you will encounter images that seem very familiar – as if his drawings were inspired by cinema’s biggest science-fiction and space adventures. In fact, it’s sort of the other way around. Countless designers and directors have drawn on Mézières’ work, and numerous films bear his official touch – including Peter Fleischmann’s adaptation of the Strugatskys’ novel Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (Hard to be a God, 1990). Mézières’ influence is especially recognisable in Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element (1997).
The never-ending story of the man behind a multifaceted comic universe began 80 years ago. Jean-Claude Mézières was born in Paris on 23 September 1938, just a few weeks after Pierre Christin, the literary scholar, writer and comic author who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Erlangen International Comic Salon in 2010. The jury’s decision to salute Mézières this year means that the lives of two men who have had a lasting impact on comic history have intersected again. The pair first met as youngsters. Then Christin pursued writing and literature, and Mézières attended the École des Arts Appliqués in Paris. After graduating, Mézières worked as an illustrator for the publisher Hachette, and in advertising. While traveling across the United States, he met Christin again, who was teaching at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. They decided to get together and try their luck in the medium of the graphic narrative.
With the help of Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius, and winner of the 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award), they published their first short stories in the renowned French comic magazine Pilote. Mézières drew short stories for some of the Pilote writers – among them Reiser, Lob and its editor-in-chief René Goscinny – until the first instalment of Valérian and Laureline appeared in 1967. At that stage, there were no plans to take the story any further. It was the sequel, The City of Shifting Waters, that gave rise to the series about two humanist, anti-colonialist agents working for the diplomatic Spatio-Temporal Service.
In terms of form, Mézières initially drew the comic in what German-speakers refer to as the semi-funny tradition of Franquin, Uderzo and the MAD Magazine artists he admired so much. The heads were overemphasised – both in terms of the proportions that gave them a certain cuteness, and their cartoonishly overdrawn personalities. Over time, Valérian and Laureline became more grown-up – but Mézières retained the funny formal elements for the characters in his galactic zoo, which he ran with the most exuberant of imaginations. The complexity with which Mézières imbued his galaxy-dwellers – rather than being simply “good” or “evil”, they are always headstrong, coherent characters – is one of the many qualities that make his art so special. Hieronymus Bosch’s beasts seem to have been a rich source of inspiration for him.
These beasts run wild in pictorial spaces whose roots lie in the comics of Gillon and Forest. Yet Mézières transformed the angularity of his role models’ work into playful decoration. Using a largely traditional page layout, he gave the individual panels great depth and a sense of the boundlessness of space with its immeasurable possibilities for astronomical, physiological and cultural experiments. He regularly smuggled new creative techniques between the illustrated passages. He bewildered his readers with painted-over screentone, blended his drawings with macrophotography and computer animations, and in doing so captured effects that are nothing short of magic. None of these experiments were ends in themselves; they serve the narrative, accentuate the mood or lend irony to proceedings.
Mézières always had fun with variety. An extremely sober, highly realistic Mézières can be found in Lady Polaris, a comic novel for which Christin again supplied the text. Mézières used painted-over photographs and imitation photographs, and merged images with ideals. In this work, the commercial style of comic art flirts heavily with the possibilities of a free discipline.
Mézières concluded Valérian and Laureline in 2010 with Volume 21, The Time Opener. In 2014, though, he caved to the pressure to continue – time, after all, is a never-ending affair that offers up infinite adventures and images to explore. And so Mézières drew a few more pictures – some in the especially luxurious format of double-page spreads – for a few more adventures that his friend, partner and writer Christin had penned. The result was a new volume dedicated to the heroes of the Spatio-Temporal Service. It contains nine short stories and is entitled Memories from the Futures. In 2017, self-confessed Mézières fan Luc Besson made a film adaptation of Valérian and Laureline, which fuses computer animation with live-action. The endless expanse of the universe will never lose its appeal – and no one can portray it quite as well as Jean-Claude Mézières.
Books by Jean-Claude Mézières published in German (selection):
Valerian und Veronique, the complete works, published as collections by Carlsen Verlag, all in collaboration with Pierre Christin:
- Volume 1: Schlechte Träume, Die Stadt der tosenden Wasser, Im Reich der tausend Planeten. Hamburg, 2010
- Volume 2: Das Land ohne Sterne, Willkommen auf Alflolol, Die Vögel des Tyrannen. Hamburg, 2011
- Volume 3: Botschafter der Schatten, Trügerische Welten, Die Insel der Kinder. Hamburg, 2011
- Volume 4: Das Monster in der Metro, Endstation Brooklyn, Die Geister von Inverloch, Die Blitze von Hypsis. Hamburg, 2012
- Volume 5: Die große Grenze, Lebende Waffen, Die Kreise der Macht. Hamburg, 2012
- Volume 6: Im Bann von Ultralum, Die Sternenwaise, In unsicheren Zeiten. Hamburg, 2013
- Volume 7: Am Rande des großen Nichts, Das Gesetz der Steine, Der Zeitöffner. Hamburg, 2014
- Lady Polaris. Carlsen Verlag, Hamburg, 1992
- Valerian und Veronique: Jenseits von Raum und Zeit – Die Kurzgeschichten. Carlsen Verlag. Hamburg, 2017
- Valerian – Filmausgabe: Im Reich der tausend Planeten, Botschafter der Schatten. Carlsen Verlag. Hamburg, 2017