Forever Moebius: The Legacy of French Illustrator Jean Giraud

In 1999, Sony was so sure it was destined to become a Digital Age Disney, it opened its own high-tech amusement park: the Metreon in San Francisco. But what this $85 million "urban entertainment center," with its faux-futuristic architecture, most closely resembled was an exceptionally dull shopping mall. While you may have fed your old-fashioned money into gleaming HAL-9000-like ATMs to get a silver Metreon debit card, you inevitably spent it on the same things you could get cheaper at Target: Discman portable music players, Windows2000 CD-ROMs, and not much else. The novelty didn't last long. However, the Metreon did offer one attraction that was truly unique: the Airtight Garage, a video-game arcade based on the work of French illustrator Jean "Moebius" Giraud.

With its spooky lighting, art deco-industrial piping, and dreamy faces popping out overhead, the Airtight Garage featured original games designed around Moebius characters and settings. It was a grand, doomed venture being undermined by the PlayStation Store directly below it on the first floor—did anyone even go to arcades anymore? Ones with games nobody ever heard of, based on comics by an artist famous everywhere but in the U.S.? At $5 worth of Metreon currency a pop? Well, no.

Whichever Sony executive green-lighted the astounding plan, I applaud his audacity, if not his geographic business sense. In France, this could've been a hit. In San Franscisco, our most "European" of cities, it was a flop from the get-go. The space is currently being converted into a Target, and the Metreon itself is no more.

But perhaps that long-ago Sony executive shared the same sort of artistic faith that Moebius fans invest in his work: that his drawings are visions just waiting to be made real. No matter how fanciful or surreal they may be, his comics come to life with simple, direct lines that make you believe in the intricate details they reveal. Surely, you think, he must have seen these things he recorded. Moebius died last month at the age of 73, yet his imagination can be seen everywhere in our popular culture, in creations far more successful than that lost arcade, even if most Americans aren't aware of his influence.

As a sullen boy stuck on a family vacation in the late '70s, I discovered his comics entirely by accident—looking for escape at the magazine rack of a drug store, I picked up a Heavy Metal magazine. It was a comic book, but one quite unlike any I'd ever seen before.

Superhero comics had never taken hold of me; the only comics I regularly read were in MAD Magazine, and they were usually mocking those same superheroes. Heavy Metal described itself as "The adult illustrated fantasy magazine," and it certainly was just that; inside were bizarre science fiction and fantasy worlds populated with under-dressed Amazon women. (I carefully hid it from my parents). But the drawings I kept returning to were part of a more restrained serialized adventure: "The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius" by Moebius. The story was a bit difficult to follow—more like a fever-dream set in another dimension—but the artwork was so precise, so original that you couldn't help but want to be in those places.

In fact, Heavy Metal was the American reprint of a French magazine (Métal Hurlant) started by Giraud and other illustrators who called themselves "Les Humanoides Associes." It truly changed the world of European comics, creating several generations of artists who have emulated the cinematic styles of Moebius, Philippe Druillet, Caza, Enki Bilal, as well as Americans Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben. In the U.S., Heavy Metal did create new fans for these artists, and spurred Marvel to start up a more adult imprint to compete with it, Epic Comics (which also reprinted Moebius' comics in paperback books). But in a country where comics are still not quite as revered as in Europe or Asia, Moebius' influence has been more apparent in Hollywood productions. (And I don't mean the Heavy Metal movie.)

After contributing conceptual drawings to a doomed production of Dune by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, Moebius (along with Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and H.R. Giger) was hired by Ridley Scott to help visualize Alien. (Those bubble-head space suits are all his). That led to work on the original Tron, The Empire Strikes Back, The Fifth Element, and others. But it was his comics—particularly the wordless Arzach (1973)—that directly influenced some of the most famous creators in anime, including Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo and the masterful Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki's first film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), was based on his own manga of the same name, but the imagery is redolent with Moebius-style scenery. Giraud's visual language has been adopted by so many filmmakers that it's the norm for any stylized vision of the future, from Blade Runner to Avatar.

Sadly, it appears unlikely that U.S. readers will be exposed to his comics again any time soon. Nearly all of his works are out of print in English editions. Those trade paperback collections from Epic were published some 20 years ago, and now start at $100 each from your friendly online sellers. A complicated rights dispute involving Giraud's family appears to be holding up new editions here, as well as a few decades' worth of new Moebius comics, including revisits to his Western adventure Blueberry and the fantastical Arzach, and his seven-volume autobiography, Inside Moebius. To think of all the comic art by new generations of American artists that won't be inspired by Moebius is dispiriting. But let's have faith that those drawings will come to life here again...