“Moebius was a genius. Because he was not only an artist with incredible capacity, but he was very quick. He was superhuman.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
Context: Jean Giraud is a French cartoonist who also worked under the name Moebius. The name Giraud was used for his more conservative works while Moebius was used when doing more mature experimental pieces. At the time, these included: La Deviation, Le Bandard Fou, Arzach and Le Garage Hermétique. The latter was started in 1976 as a serialized story in a magazine he co-founded called Métal Hurlant and took four years to finish (34 installments in all). There are only a handful of names in comics that command international respect and Moebius is one of them.
Story: The world of Le Garage Hermétique is governed by a semi-god like figure called Major Grubert. He takes on different physical attributes during the story, but is mostly seen as a mustachioed man wearing an old colonial uniform. Pointy helmet and all. Grubert’s labyrinthine world is composed of three levels: the unconscious, the conscious and super conscious.
The plot involves a mechanic accidentally blowing the fuse of an important machine and running away to avoid his boss’s retribution. This mistake ultimately triggers a manhunt that unifies a cast of characters from all three levels. This includes Major Grubert who ends up being forced to personally investigate all the levels of his own creation looking for a possible saboteur. Worlds manifest into other worlds, characters change names, personalities and even gender in a miasma of fantasy that aims to blow up the inner workings of the medium while celebrating its action adventure origins.
Writing: Le Garage Hermétique started off as an unambitious double page strip. 2 pages. It was drawn just for fun and got filed away without plans to continue. Months later when asked to hand in a small piece for a magazine, the strip was dug up and published. To his surprise, he was asked to write a follow up and handed in the second installment without referencing or remembering the previous story.
Part self dare and highly self-confident, he continued writing the story in this spirit – putting himself in a corner and seeing how he could juggle all the open endings he was setting up. Like a jazz musician improvising on stage, pushing ahead, going off key for stretches of time only to come back to the main riff. Some melodic build ups work, others are dead ends. This also allowed Moebius to work through all of his favorite childhood adventure stories, projecting a love of the genre while fully embracing its clichés. The writing and narrative of Le Garage Hermétique doesn’t always work, some parts are weak but the fluidity and ambition of the blast more than make up for it.
Influences & background: Usually it’s the name Moebius that gets mentioned by other cartoonists as an influence. With Brandon Graham leading the way, there has been a slight resurgence in the kind of science fiction comics he pioneered years ago. But oddly enough, after reading many interviews with him I can’t easily recall specific names as direct influences to his work.
I’m sure there are, and maybe many (and to totally contradict myself, above is a page layout homage to Will Eisner’s use of typography) but my feeling is that there was an early leaning towards image making that came out as a natural extension of who he was and how he communicated. Maybe that is what makes his work seem so genuine and personal, even if he is dealing with spaceships and aliens.
Drugs and exploring different perceptions of reality is also part of his make-up. He refers to an influential year off living in the Mexican desert as being a deep source of stimulus. Its dreamlike vision is a reoccurring pattern in the work: environments reflecting internal psychological states that take the shape of barren landscapes and empty deserts.
Look and feel: Hatch marks, hatch marks, hatch marks. Thrilling to look at – obsessively covering the surface of his masterful page designs, they make the flat pages curve up, create dimension and form. Even rocks and clouds (ESPECIALLY rocks and clouds!) in his backgrounds are exciting to look at, and whether or not you’re a fan of the genres he works in (sci-fi, westerns) it is hard not to get dazzled by his drawing abilities and seduced by his ardent dedication to the art of cartooning.
Like cartoonist Gary Panter, Moebius is easily able to shift drawing styles. Altering perspectives according to plot points, new settings and psychological states. It creates a schizoid template that allows for an amalgam of unexpected images. Serious and carefully rendered at one moment, elastic and spontaneous the next – a completely malleable world building ability.
When he worked on more conservative pieces (most notably a western series called Blueberry) the impression is that that original artwork was carefully gridded out, penciled and then inked. But when working under the pseudonym Moebius, it is said that Giraud rarely did any preparation pencil drawings underneath. Straight to black ink on the page. It wouldn’t matter to me either way, but I am curious to see original pages to see what kind of template and safety net he was using. It seems a bit crazy to think that images like these could get done in ink alone.
Favorite page (above): One of my favorite pages in the book has the story coming to a climax when a triggered explosion disrupts the foundation of the 3 worlds. Formally speaking it’s a gorgeous page to look at, and what excites me the most about it is its execution of tonal shifts. The move from calm blank white water to hatch mark clouds, curving into crosshatching mushrooms that end in jet black inks. Its balance and harmonious design is admirable. The ship also seems to point towards Le Garage being an influence on George Lucas, this being published before the original Star Wars film was made.
Favorite panel (above): After much build up and secrecy in the plot, Moebius finally shows us an image of Jerry Cornelius. He’s a major personality in the story, but not an original Moebius character. He was taken from science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. As previously mentioned, many of the characters throughout the story change names, styles and even genders. In a bravura performance of cartooning Moebius uses many different drawing techniques and also decides to give him strong feminine traits.
Hatch marks meet crosshatching in bold moves that render the drawing spontaneous and precise at the same time. He even brings in elements of pointillism to soften up the face. He has to juggle the shading of the image itself (characters are looking at an old photograph) and the shadow marks in which are imposed on the photo by the characters hands and pipe.
Possible use of Patti Smith and Amelia Earheart as inspiration.
COLOR vs. BLACK & WHITE
Context: His books are not easy to find, French editions exist and English ones are rare. Marvel Comics published collections of his work under the Epic imprint in the eighties. This is where I first read him. These included English translations and a full color treatment (Le Garage Hermétique was originally in black and white). I had been looking for the original French B&W edition for years, and recently found a great set of new reprints by Les Humanoïdes Associés. I read them side by side, one page at a time.
Page flow: The first thing that stands out between the two versions is Epic’s (English / color) decision to break the original design of the spreads. Because of their written introduction, the story BEGINS on the right page, while in the original work the story spread STARTED on the left page. This seems like a small detail, but ends up completely throwing off the whole rhythm of the book. It’s always a page behind.
See how the flow of the original black and white (above ) has a much more harmonious feel – Major Grubert on left page looking to his right, pushing the eye towards the next page. Starts with light pen marks on left and pushes towards a heavier hatch marked end point on bottom right corner.
While the colored version has Major Grubert looking away to the right, pushing the flow off page and breaking the movement. The color palette of the two story segments don’t necessarily clash, but the mood of the spread would have been much more effective if only composed of the soft greens and bubbly pinks of the odd aquatic hippo ride.
Beautiful use of heavy blacks and contrasting empty space pushes the flow nicely as the above clearly shows how the spread was designed to work together, and becomes messy when tampered with.
Color pallet: For enthusiastic Moebius fans, there is nothing like seeing his original black and white lines uninterrupted by color. But it is also important to point out how lush and beautiful some of the off kilter coloring choices are in the 1988 Epic version.
At the time, traditional (American) super hero comics often worked with very crude color plates, not always being able to catch the subtleties some artists needed. Call it a European sensibility, but how refreshing it was to see soft pastel pallets challenge the usual macho context. The colors sometimes get in the way of the art and at other times make it POP and snap vibrantly – right down to seeing the crackling on some pages from the paint application.
The use of the color extractions on the very last page of the book (above) is a brilliant touch only a colored version could pull off. The shift happens as Grubert is being hunted down, eventually escaping the colorful world of Le Garage into the lifeless black and white of the “real world”.
Coloring hatch marks: Interesting to see that Moebius’s line work alone is strong enough to suggest a sense of dimension and light without the help of color. See how well the image reads with the hatch marks making the foreground closer in the B&W version – guiding the eye towards the two figures walking, making them pop out on the stark backdrop. The color struggles to deal with the extra lines and opts to make the (darker) foreground colors paler and (lighter) background colors darker.
Ultimately the addition of color, more often than not ends up flattening out the line work of the pages. Not to say that Moebius’s work is not adaptable to color, only that the original piece was conceived in black and white and feels more complete in its original state.
Criticism: While I like a lot of the story developments that deviate and make us face dead ends, other story points don’t feel as well rounded as they should be. Specially near its end point, when having to deal with a climactic confrontation that resolves itself suddenly by a convenient interference from an outside source. But maybe action adventure stories always end that way, so maybe he is playing within the genre. An easy way out, or maybe I need to re-read it again.