Valérian et la Cité des milles planètes, Luc Besson’s adaptation of the work of Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin, is coming to the auditorium on July 26th. This is an opportunity to look back at the origins of this pioneering comic book in the science-fiction genre, but also at the influence it may have had on American cinema (but not only).
Today, as this film adaptation is being released on July 26th, the series includes some twenty albums recounting the adventures of the duo of temporal agents, the forerunner of the genre at the time of its release. So precursory that it is difficult not to see the influence of Christin’s screenplays and Mézières’ drawings in certain science fiction films, so much so that the two French authors were among the first to imagine such a wealth of sets and creatures at a time when the conquest of space was beginning to mark the minds of the whole world.
By stirring up an imaginary and avant-garde thinking, Valérian et Laureline has left its mark on many creators who seem to have drawn on French comics to develop their universes. This is the case of a certain George Lucas withStar Wars.
However, this influence must be analysed with caution, despite the many comparisons that flourish on the web. To what extent has Valerian influenced science fiction cinema? Elements of answer withNicolas Labarre, lecturer in Bordeaux Montaigne and author of the book Heavy Metal, the other Métal Hurlant .
Cover of Valérian’s 21st album, L’OuvreTemps, published in January 2010.
Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin, respectively cartoonist and scriptwriter, have the particularity of having experienced the same initiatory journey at the age of 25, when they went on a trip to the United States in the 1960s. That’s where they met.
Their journey proved to be as personal as it was artistic, because at the time, if Mézières was obsessed with the western, he discovered a completely different kind of comic book “American comics have produced an enormous amount of science fiction narrative, with short stories – the somewhat dominant form of American comics in the 1950s. And it is from comics that Christin and Mézières know“, Nicolas Labarre tells us, ” there is no doubt that both authors know this American comic, even if they will try to do something quite radically different with Valérian.»
We can clearly find some American sources of inspiration in Valerian, at least graphically, since Pierre Christin does not keep the country in his heart : “This is one of my American hates, one of the reasons why I didn’t stay in the United States it is a society that is steeped to the core in the biblical word and, deep down, in the fight against good and evil” he explains in Avril Tembouret’s documentary, Valérian, l’Histoire d’une Création – which will be broadcast on July 25 at 7:30 pm on OCS Max. A manichaeism he regrets, and which he will try to escape from in the first stories of Valerian and Laureline published in Pilote.
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Cover of Valerian’s 2nd album, The Empire of a Thousand Planets, published in 1971.
It is only after this American passage that the two artists, who have just met, will contribute to the successful weekly magazinePilote. The very first pages of Valérian and Laureline, signed by the pseudonyms Mézi and Linus, are published in November 1967, with the story Les Mauvais Rêves.
At the time, Pilotewas a considerable success in France, as Nicolas Labarre explains : “It’s a magazine that’s extremely important, because it’s a bit like the beginning of a re-conquest of adults by the comic strip, via the phenomenal success of Asterix. “An undeniable French success, but one that does not cross borders as easily as it does today.
“Recognition in the French-speaking world, yes, but outside the French-speaking world, not so much “, says the author of Heavy Metal, the other Metal Hurlant, before adding an anecdote: “I had collected a testimony, as part of my book on Metal Hurlant, from Howard Chaykin, who was, at the end of the 1960s, the assistant of Gil Kane, a great American cartoonist. One of his tasks was to archive and cut out the Pilots for him. So there were already people who knew Pilote in the USA, even if he did not know a substantial distribution there. Local cartoonists knew about the magazine, probably not all of them, but some of them did.”
“How fun it is to meet us here! – Leïa / Oh, we’ve been regulars in this box for a long time! – Laureline. “
Illustration made by Jean-Claude Mézières in 1983 for Pilote, in reaction to George Lucas’ non-answers to his letters.
If the cartoonists are the first to know the work of Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin, it would seem that other artists have also leafed through Valérian’s adventures. Among them is George Lucas who, with his life’s work Star Wars, will push the French cartoonist to say to himself : “Shit, it looks like Valerian! »
By the time the first film was released in 1977, six Comic Books had already been published, including The Empire of a Thousand Planets or The Shadow Ambassador. Showever, they did not really cross the Atlantic. “It’s not so surprising, considering that the series was not published in the United States until 1980, in Heavy Metal. The series had been well received there, but Dargaud then sought to establish himself directly in the United States in an attempt to sell the series in the form of albums, with mixed success ” analyses Nicolas Labarre.
Nevertheless, there are striking similarities between the two works, notably in the design of the Millennium Falcon – close to that of the XB982 Spacecraft at a time when ships generally looked like rockets – but also in the appearance of the Grand Moff Tarkin – a strange cousin of the Shadow Ambassador. Or even in the Cantina, a place where different types of aliens gather… like in a bar where Laureline goes in the above-mentioned album.
Common points that are accentuated with the following episodes of the film saga, since we can find a version close to Leïa’s slave outfit in Le Retour du Jedi worn by the French heroine in Le pays sans étoile. But also an equivalent of the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo is cryogenically frozen in The Empire of a Thousand Planets – an album where we can also find a scene quite identical to the opening of episode VI.
All these similarities are troubling, not to mention some similarities between comics and the prelogy released in the early 2000s, when Valerian crossed the Atlantic.
However, George Lucas never cited Valerian as a source of inspiration, and it seems rather difficult for Nicolas Labarre “to isolate what would be Valerian’s specific influence in this field.»
The director of THX 1138 , on the other hand, has never hidden his love for Flash Gordon, Japanese cinema, the writings of Frank Herbert, Edgar Wright Burrows and History in general, and his film is above all a synthesis of all these passions. All the more so as the story of the saga remains rather Manichean, far from the political and thematic nuances wanted by the two French authors – and which will be at the heart of the SF of the 70s and 80s.
It is still quite undeniable, at least visually, that we find Valerian in Star Wars. The prelogy is full of borrowings, since it includes alien designs that are quite similar – be it for Watto, Sebulba, members of the Trade Federation and many others – or quite similar ideas – the clone army or the chase in the water against a huge creature. But it’s another influence that is going to be felt much more on American science fiction: that of Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.
“If we consider that Hollywood science fiction cinema takes a political turn with films like Alien or Outland, marked by a class consciousness, then the origin is rather to be found in Moebius, for example, and in particular in the founding story of “The Long Tomorrow”, written by Dan O’Bannon, who will notably be the screenwriter of Alien” details Nicolas Labarre, who has been able to observe the influence of another French publication on American mentalities, that of Métal Hurlant.
Cover of issue #6 of Howling Metal, designed by Moebius in 1976.
At the time, in 1975, the magazine published by Les Humanoïdes Associés brought together many feathers, including those of Moebius, but also those of Philippe Druillet, Gotlib, Enki Bilal, Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Dionnet, the magazine’s creator.
More mature than Pilot, the publication will leave its mark on Anglo-Saxon culture like very few other foreign productions. Moebius and Druillet will be the authors who will have the greatest impact on the American market, as the Bordeaux speaker explained: “Moebius and Druillet were known to North American authors as early as the early 1970s; both were in New York in 1972 to meet their American counterparts, and both were also exhibited on Madison Avenue in 1976. It was, however, with the release of Heavy Metal in the spring of 1977 that the two authors enjoyed massive public exposure, arousing general admiration among their peers and the general public. »
A major success that blurs even more the tracks on the real influence of Valerian vis-à-vis the science fiction produced in the USA from the 70s. Nicolas Labarre nuance: “The influence of Valerian – and of Pierre Christin’s other scenarios – may be there, but it is difficult to isolate it from a network of contemporary sources.»
Concept-art directed by Jean-Claude Mézières for the production of the film Le Cinquième Élément by Luc Besson, released in 1997.
While the French imagination infiltrated American film productions in those years, no filmmaker seemed to want to embark on an adaptation of Mézières and Christin’s work. But, at that time, the young Luc Besson devoured the pages of Pilote and imagined throughout his career a way to bring it to the screen. To work on his SFfilm The Fifth Element in 1997, the French director logically called on Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières to elaborate the visual universe.
If Mézières has already worked for the cinema in the 80s, it’s the first time he can infuse a feature film with his paw, he who had received no response from Lucas when he offered to work for him after the release of the first Star Wars. The idea of an adaptation of Valérian et Laurelinethen resurfaces, but Besson seems to judge that the techniques of cinema are not yet at the level to do justice to the imagination of Mézières and Christin. He will therefore wait about twenty years before finally embarking on this adaptation.
Very first unveiled photo of Luc Besson’s film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
An adaptation which, unfortunately, may be a bit late, at least for the American public. For if Valerian’s visual influence on Lucas’ saga, or on films like Pitch Black or Independence Day, is beginning to be known, comics are not really popular across the Atlantic.
Nicolas Labarre sums up the concern about the reception of the film: “This is an adaptation sold as such, but refers to a series that few people have read and which is perceived as ‘a success in France’. This is a rather uncomfortable position, which seems to have irritated some critics and nurtures the film with a kind of negative exoticism.»
The first results from the American box office seem to prove his fears right, all the more so in a highly competitive context – with heavyweights such as The Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, Cars 3 or Baby Driverfacing the competition.
Released on July 21, the film only raised $17 million on its first weekend of release, behind the other big release of the week, Chris Nolan’s Dunkerque . A disappointing result, which will surely be made up for by operations in Europe and Asia, but which unfortunately gives an idea of the relationship between the American public and the work of Mézières and Christin.
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Poster of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, reminiscent enough of Drew Struzan’s compositions for the Star Wars posters.
Nevertheless, it is difficult not to see in Valerian an underground influence of the kind to which he largely contributed in the late 1960s. The fault lies with a precursor status, at a time when science fiction was not as widespread in France and diffusion was less broad and rapid than it is today.
As the testimonies collected in Avril Tembouret’s excellent documentary tell us, at the time it was a question of experimenting and imagining what had never been done before, both in terms of imagination and drawing techniques.
It is then easy to imagine that many creators have been able to imagine, conceptualize or even create similar things, following the same thinking or starting from the idea of another to go further. This is the hallmark of popular culture, and the film Valerian seems to be no exception to the rule, since it is itself largely inspired by visual elements, in particular Mass Effect .
It is nevertheless hoped that Luc Besson’s ambitious undertaking will find an audience on other continents, and that the comics of Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin will continue to be discovered to inspire artists around the world.