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Moebius & Jean Giraud:

Leading a Double Life - Part 2

One of my highlights of 2010 was being whisked over by Art Review to interview Moebius aka Jean Giraud at Transe-Forme, his wonderful one-man retrospective exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. I had met the great man before a few times, including having dinner with him at one of the excellent UK Comic Art Conventions organised in the Eighties in London by Frank Plowright and Hassan Yusuf. Looking good in a light suit and T-shirt, Moebius was relaxed, responsive, reflective, enjoying speaking in English with me, and our hour together was a delight. In keeping with his exhibition’s title and theme, Moebius was about to transform Transe-Forme to change and replace the works on display. He had also been making a new drawing every day for the show. Now a man of 72, with some health concerns, Moebius’ spirit still shines bright both in person and in his work.   

Two of France’s geniuses of contemporary comics, Moebius and Jean Giraud, are one man. Like his enigmatic namesake, the Möbius strip of a twisted loop of paper discovered by the German mathematician in 1858, Moebius and Giraud form one continuous, entwined identity. Since 1963, Giraud has made his name illustrating and later also writing some thirty albums about the rugged, rebellious US cavalry officer, Lieutenant Blueberry, initially modelled on Jean-Paul Belmondo, crafting one of the world’s most vivid and humane westerns in any medium. That same year, 1963, Giraud adopted his punning Moebius nom-de-plume to sign solo humour strips for Hara Kiri magazine.

It would not be until post-May 1968, however, amid the heady French revolution in adult auteur comics, that his Moebius side would emerge fully-formed as a visionary universe-builder, infusing science fiction with an intense reality and spirituality. Now 72 and being fêted with an in-depth retrospective at the Fondation Cartier, Paris, he has come a long way since he failed to qualify at art school for the illustration department and was relegated to designing wallpaper. Along the way, Mexico has proved a recurrent catalyst in his personal and artistic growth. This began in 1956, when as a student Jean was already selling enough comics to magazines to travel there on his summer break to reconnect with his recently remarried mother.

“I first saw the desert on a Greyhound bus trip and that vision burned my brain forever. I met Mexico, a magical country, and was adopted as the mascot by a bunch of radical, anti-American artists, writers, poets, journalists living the bohemian life. They were the continuation of a culture of revolution, in murals, and the school of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalo. I learnt that to be an artist is to connect your story to a bigger story, to the history of humanity. They initiated me into the practice of art, modern jazz, playing chess, and to marijuana. Not for fun but to use as a tool for creation, different from the approach to drugs in the Sixties. I did not draw but I spent my days walking, discussing, observing, absorbing. I stayed longer and missed my third year of school but I thought I was learning something more important. It completely transformed me.”

Lieutenant Blueberry and buddies by Jean Giraud

Returning to Paris too late to finish art school, Jean pursued comics and became assistant and eventually collaborator on the cowboy series Jerry Spring by Belgium’s Joseph Gillain. From his mentor, Giraud acquired a fulsome, supple brush technique and a passion for realism and authenticity, which hugely enhanced his own western project Blueberry. Here he unveiled a distinctive, convincing American West of multi-coloured vistas and uncanny rock formations.

Giraud’s return to Mexico in 1965 marked another revelatory stage. “I tried to contact those artists but they had dispappeared. As for my mother, I couldn’t find her house. I had nightmares about it for years, I was always in a big city, trying to find a house and never finding it. For six months, I learned how to be alone, with my thinking, trying to build an identity for my personal use, not for communication in society. Many people are never alone in their life. I recommend loneliness as a theme for study.”

Meditation, magic mushrooms, fasting, all brought fresh insights and contributed to the extraordinary eruption of Moebius in the early Seventies. This culminated in his co-creating the magazine Métal Hurlant in 1975, home to the haunting, wordless voyages of Arzak, astride his pterodactyl, and the totally improvised, interdimensional Airtight Garage saga.

Arzak soars again in his new 2010 album, Arzak - L’Arpenteur

Mexico would come to him in Paris that year in the form of the Chilean-born writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky, a maverick playwright in Mexico and co-founder of the absurdist Panic Movement. “I met him by pure accident. He was looking out for me for his Dune movie and knew my work. I had seen his movie Holy Mountain six months before and was knocked out, because it gave me another way of perceiving the world. Jodorowsky had been a showman, very much on the surface. But now he was going deeper inside, working especially in Tarot. He gave me direct proof that it was possible to open the door inside.” Although the Dune project never happened, Jodorowsky, nine year’s older than Moebius, became another vital mentor and creative partner, scripting their epic science fiction graphic novel The Incal.

Dune also introduced Moebius to the movie business, where he has contributed ever since, from Alien and Tron to The Abyss and The Fifth Element. “Los Angeles is also part of Mexico, the WASP side. I love LA, I like driving, to be stuck on the freeway in the middle of beautiful cars!” As for getting movie proposals of his own made, to date Moebius has had less success. “I am not a producer or director, I only draw. Of course I love the cinema, I have been fed by film since the beginning. My collaborations with movies have given me more than all my books, it’s a big industry, comics are a bit on the side.”

He was heading off again shortly to Hollywood with the dream of realising a feature based on his own work, demonstrated by a new eight-minute pilot for a 3D computer-animated version of his marooned space-travellers Stel and Atan. He has also dusted off his unfilmed script for a Japanese proposal to animate Arzak and turned it into the first of a trilogy of oversized albums reviving his mute voyager, now speaking and embroiled in a racist society analogous to the white man’s suppression of Native Americans.

A group portrait of Moebius & his cast - click to enlarge.

Moebius’ latest return trip to the desert arrived as the self-published cycle Inside Moebius, partly a surreal Pirandello-like meta-fiction about his six characters wandering the wastelands in search of their author, and partly a therapeutic inner exploration, as shown in this two-page extract below. “It came after I had some health problems and took medicine which made a hole in my stomach. I was on the bus, I had to get out, I threw up some black blood and fainted. I woke up in hospital with all these tubes in me. Inside Moebius became an allegory, a way to be completely free, to play with different versions of me, and to be funny.”

These six volumes brim over with unfettered, free-flowing invention; he even responded to 9/11 by introducing Osama Bin Laden into his cast. “Since the beginning my desire is to be boundless, without limits, while still being a good seller for the publishers. There’s always a tension there, but we can make choices on paper. The virginity of a simple sheet of paper is the desert.”

Posted: January 9, 2011

This article first appeared in Art Review magazine in 2011.


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Moebius Transe Forme
Fondation Cartier, Paris
until March 13, 2011

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