Art For Art’s Sake Special: Celebrating The Life And Works Of Jean-Claude Mézières, Co-Creator of ‘Valérian’
by Richard Bruton
Art For Art’s Sake – our weekly celebration of all things comic art. And this week, it’s a sad celebration as we mark the passing of the artist Jean-Claude Mézières, co-creator of Valérian and Laureline, visionary artist, who passed at the age of 83 on 23rd January 2022…
A little bit of an extended Art For Art’s Sake this week, with just one artist, Jean-Claude Mézières.
Best known for Valérian and Laureline, Mézières was a giant of European comics, a science-fiction visionary whose art fed into the imaginations of fellow artists, movie makers, and creatives in all fields.
With childhood friend, writer Pierre Christin, they created the innovative sci-fi world of the Spatio-temporal agents Valérian and Laureline. Alongside Christin’s forward-thinking scripts, it was Mézières’ spectacular artwork that marked out the series as something so different, exploring beautiful yet bizarre alien worlds, showing us strange vistas, incredible machinery, wonderful architectural delights, and everything else that went into making Valerian & Laureline something appreciated not just by comic fans and fellow creators but by the leading lights of the movie world as well.
First published in France’s Pilote in 1967 and ending in 2010, it’s hard to overestimate the genius and influence of Christian and Mézières’ creation.
It’s been accepted for years that it was Valérian and Laureline and the inspiring work of Mézières that influenced a generation of filmmakers, including Luc Besson, maker of the 2017 movie, Valérian And The City Of A Thousand Planets but also 1997’s The Fifth Element, which Mézières did design work for.
And then there was the Star Wars connection, with George Lucas being a fan of the V&L series… well, that’s the accepted wisdom, seeing as so many elements from V&L sneaked their way into Star Wars. To their credit, Christian and Mézières took it in (relatively) good spirit, although Mézières was reportedly “flabbergasted” when he first saw Star Wars in 1977, telling an interviewer that, “I’m convinced he’s looked at my books.”
Mézières would later go on to gently remind people of the ‘coincidences’ with this Pilote illustration:
And if you want to see some of those ‘coincidences,’ The English language publisher of the V&L series, Cinebook, handily gave you a cheat sheet to compare and contrast…
Then there was the 2016 interview with Christin by Martin Scholz of Die Welt. It’s well worth going and reading the whole thing, but here’s a few highlights…
On the similarities between V&L and Star Wars:
“My first reaction was not anger… I was thrilled… Star Wars was the science fiction film I had been waiting to see. Besides a few exceptions, the other films of the genre were mediocre at best, particularly when it came to the visual effects. I instantly felt connected with Star Wars because of the number of intersections and parallels with our comic strips. George Lucas had created complex worlds, just as we had. Like us, he had staged the functioning of societies from within, although Star Wars focussed perhaps a bit more on the struggle between good and evil. In this respect, Valerian was more European, more intellectual. For my part, this comes from my fascination for science fiction novels by authors like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I am sure George Lucas has read Asimov as well. That’s how it goes in sci-fi: It’s all about copying from one another. Or, in other terms: You borrow something from someone else and develop it further. In any case, Star Wars was a huge, positive surprise to me. I loved the characters.”
And then on the Pilote drawing in response to it all…
“In the ’80s, particularly in France, people were convinced that George Lucas had stolen from Valerian. This particular drawing was our way of addressing the question in a satirical manner. In general, all you hear from the US in reply to such allegations is that French comics are barely known and not successful at all on that side of the Atlantic – which, on the whole, is true. Nevertheless, the few people in the US who do know French comics fairly well are Hollywood’s art directors and storyboard artists. They might not be able to read the magazines, but they still flick through them now and then in search of ideas. That’s what French film-makers who’ve been to Hollywood have told me: They happened to have seen piles of French comics in the creative departments of various film studios.”
And finally, his thoughts on Lucas…
“Lucas could have contacted us, even just to say “merci” – as a polite gesture, some kind of acknowledgment. But that is how the Americans in Hollywood are. Most of them aren’t bothered about what other artists did in other parts of the world. They don’t hesitate to help themselves. This applies to many filmmakers in the US.”
Anyway, that’s all done now. Those who know, know, Mézières and Christin included. Valérian and Laureline is a work of absolute genius. Granted, when I first read it, the first couple of volumes didn’t do much for me, but it really is a series that takes a little time to gel. Once it does though… oh boy, you’re in for a treat.
Christin’s stories are full of wild invention, liberal and humanist, incorporating complex political and social ideologies alongside epic, action-packed adventures. Alongside Christin, Mézières’ art gives the ideas flesh, his artwork detailed, imaginative, full of spectacular alien landscapes and bizarre alien species. Together, they created a work of brilliance that stands the test of time.
Mézières visuals are perfect for capturing the interplanetary, time-traveling madness with style and imagination. His stylised layouts, incredible use of backgrounds, a color palette just this side of perfection, tight cartoon-ish character work, all of it is simply sublime. Mézières works miracles in the subtleties he puts into each and every panel, driving the emotion home.
There’s a joy in looking really closely at each page, with Mézières’ artwork equally adept at capturing the sense of wonder of the adventures, the alien landscapes, the beautiful spacecraft, or the mundanity of daily life in between all the adventuring.
Simply put, we’ve lost a stellar artist. And one who should really get a lot more recognition over in the USA than he does.
Now, a little of that stunning artwork…
And finally, some of the concept art from The Fifth Element by Mezieres.
It all came about when Luc Besson came to Mézières with the idea of working on designs for a new sci-fi film he was planning – Zaltman Bléros. Besson, like so many filmmakers, was a massive fan of V&L.
That particular project came to nothing, but it led Mezieres to rework a lot of the concepts for the 15th V&L volume, The Circles of Power. Mézières sent Besson a copy of the album, who then reworked a lot of what was to become The Fifth Element as a result – including the character of S’Traks the cab-driver in the skies, later to be known as Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas.