Something For The Weekend: The Valerian Vol.1 Collection

by Oliver MacNamee

 

Being German-Irish like Tom Hagen in The Godfather, or as Woltz puts it, “Kraut-Mick”, I spent many a happy childhood holiday visiting my German family and one of the strongest, fondest memory of this times was always flicking through the abundance of European comic albums which seemed to be everywhere, from supermarkets to train stations, with only the art to guide me. It’s probably where I cut my teeth on comics and being exposed to such a fantastic abundance of different genres, styles and storytelling clearly left its indelible mark on me.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear that Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude MézièresValerian bande dessinées was to be collected over a series of oversized hardback editions available on both sides of the pond. Now, Valerian: The Complete Collection Volume 1 form Cinebook has been out a while, but with the Luc Besson helmed film out next week in the UK and currently out in the USA, I thought it a good time to try and get you, my colonial cousins, to get switched onto this great book ahead of going to see the film.

I have no doubt it will do well over here in Europe, but I do worry that American audiences may well be switched off from a property that many well not have heard of before. And, with sci-fi making a big comeback thanks to such titles as Seven To Eternity, Descender and, of course, Star Wars I’m hoping after you’ve read this review of the first collection you may reach out of your comfort zones and take a punt on this French classic.

The first collection contains the three four albums, with the opener – Bad Dreams – first published in serial form through 1967-1968 within the pages of Pilote (home to Asterix The Gaul), the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to put it into some sort of context. Flower power, the Summer of Love and the rise of equal rights for minorities and women ignited and burning across the globe.

Enter, Valerian a time-hopping protector of history, who is sent back to the Middle Ages to prevent the menacing Xombul from causing chaos and terror in the future. A future he sees as apathetic due to the idyll that is Galaxity back in the 28th century, where very few people work, save for a handful of spatio-temporal agents such as Valerian. It’s a rather quaint, hokey story with shades of sword and sorcery fantasy due to much of the action taking place in 11th century rural France where Valerian meets Laureline, soon to be his partner, as is obvious from the trailer to the film. So, no real spoilers in revealing that one. I do wonder, however, if they broach the subject of her origins in the film. We’ll see.

Nonetheless, this first story is a work in progress and in time Valerian settles into itself and into the world of sci-fi rather than lo-fi, with magic and shapeshifting being big elements of Bad Dreams. All the same, it’s an enjoyable romp and while the artwork is leaning towards the more cartoon-like–as was the dominant style of Pilote–over the course of the other two tales in this collection, it does develop. And, arguably, it was still miles ahead of some American comic art of the time. Some, I said, mind, before I’m pointed in the direction of Kirby, Adams and the like.

Again, context is everything, and within the context of bande dessinées, this was not untypical. Plus, in any period of history (the second story, The City of Shifting Waters and Earth In Flames is set in a flooded 1986 New York, for example) Mézières attention to details is impressive and imaginative. He delivers to the reader beautifully rendered pages whether illustrating a post-apocalyptic world or the utopian 28th century from which Valerian hails.

The relatively flat, albeit complementary colours used at the time are well chosen and well executed. The earthy palette used in Bad Dreams really adds to the rustic landscape of Middle Ages France, while Galaxity is a more colourful vista as one might expect from a society that has transcended the need to toil to live. When Valerian does time travel back to 11th century France, a rainbow appears overhead in lieu of Kirby crackling, or some such effect. Hey, it was the 60’s, man.

The City of Shifting Waters and Earth In Flames is a much better example of the Valerian albums, with a New York that’s swamped in vegetation and vagabonds where Valerian and Laureline have to seek out Xombul, who has escaped from the future. Given he was their only political prisoner, something tells me the 28th century ain’t geared up to such practices as securing outlaws. Either that or they are very, very slack in their guardianship of a would be dictator.

Either way, this second epic is a swashbuckling, sweeping science-fiction space opera again with some astounding design elements and a breathless narrative; moving from the watery depths of a half-submerged New York City to the warmer climes of an environment reminiscent of the Wild West; cowboys and all. And the whole epic is told as an all-in-one story over 96 pages; an unusually longer adventure by French publishing standards of the day.

Why the album format has never really caught on in America is beyond me. It seems so obvious, especially given the rate some modern creators work at. Surely a 48, or in this case, a 96 page album annually–and in oversized hardback at that–by your favourite creators is preferable to a monthly run interrupted by one or two (or even more) fill-in artists to help hit that monthly grind?

The final story, The Empire of A Thousand Planets is yet another kind of sci-fi story, showing how diverse the genre can be in the right hands. I can see how Besson fell in love with Valerian, and even more in love with Laureline. And, in the central villains of the piece, the helmet-clad Enlighteneds; a religious group of healers who hold dominance over the planet Syrte The Magnificent, there is something of a familiar feel to it all. Something picked up on in one of the additional articles that accompany this collection; drawing parallels with Star Wars and a certain Darth Vader. This, it would seem, is not the only similarity the book suggests. It makes for a fascinating read, as does the interview with Besson, Christin and Mézières all placed helpfully ahead of the three sci-fi spectaculars.

In reading these three initial albums in this first volume one can clearly see many elements of them in the Valerian trailer and it has only peaked my interest in this movie more so. The trailer is a remarkable CGI’d advert, but when you get to know the history of the comic–even this collection–it can only add to the (hopefully) enjoyment of the film on its release. If you do pick it up, I’m sure you’ll feel the same way if you follow it up with a trip to the cinema you may not even have thought about before now.

Valerian: The Complete Collection Volumes 1 -3 are available now from Cinebook.