There Would Be No 'Star Wars' Without This Wild French Comic From the '60s
In 1969, a French comic book took readers to the stars. Eight years later, Star Wars took everyone else on the same ride.
That book was Valerian and Laureline. In it, "temporal agent" Valerian and his partner Laureline travel in a ship that looks just a little like the Millennium Falcon, the spacecraft introduced in the original 1977 Star Wars. In the 1971 volume Empire of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline scuttle through an ice world, a jungle world, a desert world, and the Death Star-like industrial bowels of the planet "Stryte the Magnificent." They encounter bog creatures and villains who wear masks to protect their radiation burnt faces. At one point, Valerian becomes encased in a hard resin that would remind any Empire Strikes Back fan of Han Solo's carbonite prison. In the next volume, The World Without Stars, Valerian rescues Laureline from an overweight criminal emperor, who forced her to wear a metal bikini, just as the mobster's floating barge explodes. The adventure On the False Earths involves the dup getting swept up in a war of... clone armies.
You get the point here. Nearly every volume has at least one thing that seemed to end up across the film series, including the Star Wars prequels. While George Lucas' influences for Star Wars have been hammered into legend -- one part Flash Gordon serial, one part Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress baked in Joseph Campbell's mythological study The Hero with a Thousand Faces --Valerian and Laureline has never been acknowledged.
"I could not believe it was possible this little comic story influenced Hollywood," 78-year-old Valerian artist Jean-Claude Mézières tells Thrillist via email. "Only after several movies did the influence became more obvious."
The origins of the universe
Valerian was born from competition. At age 15, Mézières met Jean "Moebius" Giraud, possibly the most famous French comic artist after Asterix the Gaul artist Albert Uderzo. A friendly rivalry developed between the two.
"We helped and criticized each other with passion for our work," Mézières says. "Moebius drew his many western stories under his real name of Jean Giraud or Gir, and played and relaxed with his Moebius style for illustration. To have such an artist as a friend from school days has been tough on me for quite awhile."
To challenge Moebius' artistry, Mézières teamed with his lifelong friend Pierre Christin, who would weave a script through the artist's imaginative illustrations. Christin and Mézières collaborated on various scripts before finally landing on the idea for a science fiction strip. The first Valerian and Laureline strip appeared in Pilote magazine in 1967.
"The first comic story Les Mauvais Rêves was just intended to be a story in a weekly comic magazine for kids," Mézières says. "We were just trying to do something personal and different from the eternal subjects like cops and robbers or western stories, or military stuff."
The strip would go on to be collected in 22 slim volumes, each comprising one story arc. While popular in France -- Mézières and Christin's final installment appeared in 2013 -- Valerian and Laureline's space odyssey never gained a foothold abroad.
During the 1960s and 1970s, American comic markets were flooded with superheroes in the wake of the Comics Code Authority squashing popular horror and science-fiction titles. The American comic underground was closer to counterculture, and science fiction films weren’t nearly as big a deal as they are today. Perusing late-1960s sci-fi titles is basically an island of 2001 surrounded by a sea of Mystery Science Theater 3000 cannon fodder.
So when it came time to make a cheap little movie called Star Wars starring a few veteran British actors and holdovers from American Graffiti, some of the fantastic action inspiration had to come from... elsewhere. Science fiction and other genre comics were much bigger in Europe, where magazines like Métal Hurlant (known over here as Heavy Metal) reigned supreme. There was Barbarella, Lone Sloane, and more. Pilote, unlike Metal Hurlant, wasn’t specifically a genre book so much as an intersection of comics in France and Belgium at the time. But as the French sci-fi comic industry blossomed, artists like Ralph McQuarrie, who came up with much of the iconic art for Star Wars, took notice.
Lost in (a lack of) translation
Valerian wasn’t translated into English until 1981, and by the time Americans could get their hands on copies, there were already two Star Wars movies out in the world. Once Mézières and Christin noted the similarities, they tried to veer their strip in some new directions.
"To me, the best evolution in the themes of Valerian is that when Star Wars appeared, I decided to not compete against Lucas on the space opera themes, but to try the new and very unique mood of Pierre Christin’s storytelling mixing outer space action and realistic Terran atmosphere," Mézières says.
Of course, Mézières and writer Pierre Christin found a way to take a few swipes at the plundering of their work.
"I wrote to Lucas once but no answer ever came back, so I did this illustration of Valerian, Laureline, and the actors of Star Wars," Mézières says. "Now everybody is able to make their mind about the convergence or borrowing [from Valerian] as Lucas [has] never stated his influence from Valerian."
But one director, Luc Besson, has always fessed up to the debt his visual style owes Mézières, most prevalently in The Fifth Element (which Mézières and comic artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud drew concept art for.) And now, Besson is bringing the temporal agents’ adventures to the big screen this summer with Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets. The film stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as Valerian and Laureline, along with Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer, and jazz legend Herbie Hancock.
Mézières, Christin, and Besson have worked together to bring the comics to the screen, creating a new arc out of parts of the older comics, with Ambassador of the Shadows serving as a primary inspiration (despite the similarities in title to TheEmpire of a Thousand Planets).
"He was the only person from the movie business taking a commercial interest in our work," Mézières says. "Besson has always claimed he was a reader of Valerian when a young kid."
The end product is a loving homage to the French comics, giving them a live-action treatment befitting Mézières' art and Besson’s grand action and sci-fi visions. One review describes Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets as "'Star Wars' on Crystal Meth."
"Unlike the Fifth Element, where there was no visual available (that’s why he called me and Moebius for creating it), all the staff, art directors, costume designers, etc. used the [Valerian books] as a base and referred to it," Mézières says. "So Luc did not ask me to re-draw my ideas for his movie, he just improvised freely over it."