Mœbius and the Art of the Inescapable

by Sam Thielman

A lurid thronelike tiered purple dais with a highly stylized bearded ruler at the center, wearing a tall cylindrical crown and what looks like a huge grey styrofoam bedspread, with neon piping. At his side a helmeted lady reclines in a skin-tight bodysuit; she is holding his hand
From Tron, courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

“There’s no escaping yourself,” the French artist Jean Giraud observed; thus his principal pseudonym, Mœbius. And no one else can escape Mœbius, either—neither his eminent admirers, fellow visionaries from Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo to Ridley Scott, Federico Fellini and Stan Lee, nor the rest of us, who live in the worlds he helped create as a titan in comics, as a founder of Heavy Metal (the magazine found in every record store and head shop of the ’70s), and as the visionary designer of dozens of futures for films and video games.*

He loved to draw people and places in states of transformation, and his images of convolved flesh and inhuman architecture are at once impossible and believable. Strange airships, dense cityscapes, alien flora and fauna, beautiful women and homunculoid men decorate his comics, but his true subject was his own irreparable persona, which he found just as frustrating and difficult and occasionally hilarious as his devoted readers and friends did.

Image: Dark Horse Comics

The deliberately disjointed, wrenchingly beautiful sci-fi adventure stories known under various names, and easiest to refer to as Major Fatal, are perhaps the clearest expression of this rare talent. The final volume of the series, The Major, is published in English for the first time this month by Dark Horse, twelve years after its author’s death; it is a kind of science-fictional self-assessment in which his hero, the semi-omnipotent explorer Major Grubert, finally meets Mœbius himself, is disappointed by him, and lives happily ever after.

In the Major Fatal stories, some places are bigger inside than outside, certain creatures are pure expressions of emotion given physical form, and yet Giraud could make it all appear real on the page. 

“Jean could draw that stuff and you could build it,” Geof Darrow, a pupil of Giraud’s, told me in an interview recently. “It had a three-dimensionality. It was grounded in reality, but it was totally fantastic.”

Some people actually did build it. In 1982 Ridley Scott told Film Comment that Giraud was “probably the best comic-strip artist in the world” and that his con­cept for Blade Runner “linked up to a comic strip I’d seen [Moebius] do a long time ago; it was called ‘The Long Tomor­row,’ and I think Dan O’Bannon [au­thor of the original Alien script] wrote it. His work on that was marvelous because he created a tangible future.

“If the future is one you can see and touch, it makes you a little uneasier because you feel it’s just round the corner. And you always get in his work a sense of overload, of cities on overload.” 

Characters from Mœbius comics tend to sneak into stories not their own, and into the works of other authors, as well, though in the latter case they’d often lose some of his trademark silliness. Hayao Miyazaki declared that he had “directed Nausicaä under Mœbius’s influence.” From a distance, his heroine atop her stout white glider might be mistaken for Arzak, Mœbius’s signature creation, who rides a chubby pterodactyl. 

A desert landscape shows a village scene with market stalls, a kitchen garden, wild flying creatures, and extremely improbable beasts
An Arzak drawing from 2002, reprinted in Arzak. Courtesy Mœbius Production.

Darren Aronofsky cites Giraud’s gorgeous sketchbook-as-graphic novel, 40 days dans le desert B, as a primary influence on his film The Fountain. Aronofsky’s themes of reincarnation and transcendence are realized in the unmistakably Mœboid image of a mediating man contemplating his lover (who has taken the form of a tree) inside a glowing, spacefaring sphere. Both The Fountain and Nausicaä are films about heroes assigned the impossible work of defeating entropy itself—a preoccupation of Giraud’s, as well. 

Dalí's costume is the color of flames, a huge floor-length coat with elaborate puffed, slashed sleeves and there's also a golden helmet with multiple curved horns, and... candles?
Mœbius's costume for Salvador Dalí as The Emperor from the unproduced Dune film, via the "Unseen Dune" archive.

Mœbius designed costumes for Tron and Alien—Darrow told me that it was Mœbius’s idea to make the spacefaring explorers look like dockworkers, rather than superheroes—sets for The Fifth Element, and monsters for James Cameron’s undersea extravaganza The Abyss. He even designed a costume for Salvador Dalí, another dreamscape cartographer whose work affected Hollywood, during the brief, shining moment in 1974 when Dalí was engaged to perform in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-made film of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Jodorowsky’s Dune was to have been fourteen hours long and star Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger (as a perfect Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen), and Dalí. The project was scuttled in 1976, but its now-legendary pre-production inspired a documentary, Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune.’ 

The film costumes evoke creatures deformed by the world, having erected strange defenses in response to its strange assaults; one from Tron is just a pile of humanoid protuberances, topped with an elongated head and forming the peak of a narrowing symmetrical staircase. The benevolent deep-sea “non-terrestrial intelligences” in The Abyss seem simultaneously omnipotent and fragile, mutant manta rays of glowing neon lattice. 

Outer-space mantas conceived by Jean Giraud, seen here creating blue neon confusion for Sam Harris in a screencap from trailer for The Abyss
Screenshot: YouTube

In science fiction, the future is often the present, merely more so. Like many Frenchmen his age, Giraud was conscripted and fought against the liberators of Algeria in that country’s civil war. The huge apartment blocks of Algiers haunt his work, with their balconies and terraces teeming with possible spies and gunmen. Both The Incal and The Fifth Element feature main characters who enter their stories by falling off a balcony onto a flying car. In Blade Runner, too, the chaotic, hostile, vertical city is an indelible presence; Giraud envisioned a new century of buildings forced ever further into the sky by progress, with the elite safe in their penthouses. At the level of the street lurked all manner of skullduggery, which could bloom into orgiastic violence at any moment. This anarchic vision informed the sci-fi of the ’80s and ’90s; one man’s troubled childhood and adolescence had become a genre.

The chaos also informed the way Giraud lived his life; he was successively enamored with all kinds of appalling foolishness, from telepathy to angels to collective memory. In the throes of his infatuation with a cult leader who called himself “Ios,” he told an interviewer in apparent earnestness that Ios “received messages that generally matched up with when there were UFO sightings.” He let the cult forbid him from drawing dinosaurs, Darrow told me. It is a paradoxical bummer to read a story about aliens by somebody who, it turns out, appears to believe that aliens might actually be trying to communicate with us. There really is profundity in his comics, but he makes you wade through a lot of nonsense to find it.

Considered in detail, the plot of the Major Fatal stories is absurd, and yet often satisfyingly recursive; some apparently meaningless piece of technobabble might quietly gain in significance over the course of a long story. The author also repeatedly, contradictorily summarizes this frustratingly convoluted plot for the reader; in one episode called The Man From the Ciguri, for example, one of the characters finds a piece of paper describing the plot; he announces that he will read it to the audience—unless he finds it too boring, as he immediately does. “A lot of verbiage,” he observes. “The usual potpourri of philosophical-metaphysico-spiritual claptrap, sprinkled with juvenile jokes.”

“I’m wary of Freud,” Moebius once said. “I don’t trust that man, I don’t know why. I find Freudianism too tidy, even down to its holes.” 

The reason for Giraud’s mistrust of the father of psychoanalysis seems clear enough: Freud had him dead to rights. 

“He wanted a dad,” Darrow told me. 

“The reality of Mœbius is rooted in the fact that he had no father,” Jodorowsky said of his beloved collaborator. “Once a man like that grows up, he goes looking for one.” 

In 1941, when Jean Henri Gaston Giraud was three, and the world outside was collapsing in rains of bombs and floods of soldiers, his parents divorced. When his father, Raymond, came to visit, he brought the little boy comics. As a teenager, Giraud voyaged to Mexico, where his mother, Pauline, had eloped with a new boyfriend—in a 1974 interview with French journalist Numa Sadoul, he describes this hoped-for stepfather as “the swordfighting champion of Mexico”—only to find, when he arrived, that the newlyweds had already split up. In Mexico he fell in with a painter and his sybaritic patron, who conducted “fairly harmless orgies” among the painter, his teenaged charge, and an entourage of sex workers. And then, when Giraud turned eighteen, he had to go to war.

Francophone comics before the Second World War had been reactionary, even by the standards of the day. The greatest of them were inarguably the adventures of Tintin, a creation of Georges Remi, known better as Hergé. His immaculate renderings of airships, trains, automobiles and, memorably, Olmec heads, established an entire style called ligne claire—“clear line”—drawing. Hergé’s editor Norbert Wallez, who commissioned Tintin’s most notoriously racist adventures, had been a Nazi collaborator. Wallez was by no means alone: Philippe Pétain, the nominal leader of the Nazi puppet regime during the German occupation, had been a decorated World War I veteran. Giraud’s grandfather had a portrait of him in the dining room.

Giraud, Jean-Claude Mézières, and other cartoonists were among France’s conscripts in the 1950’s. But the monstrosity of a childhood spent under German bombs and an adolescence fighting the transparently unjust war on Algeria suffused the French and Belgian comics of the nineteen-sixties with antiwar, anticolonial fervor. In Algeria, Giraud had found himself on the wrong side of what he called “a bizarre atmosphere of revolution.” The counterculture in which he was suddenly and unexpectedly immersed was not characterized by the hedonism that had delighted him in Mexico, but by violent social change. Giraud spent part of his tour in the capital city of Algiers, dreading a sudden deployment to the jebel to hunt anticolonialist militiamen, where he would almost certainly be killed. “Every hour we spent in Algiers was a win,” he told Sadoul.

From the French magazine HOP!, a series of reproductions in black and white of Giraud's comics for the Army magazine, 5/5 Forces françaises, with a bibliography
Giraud's drawings from 5/5 Forces Francaises, from French fanzine HOP!, via Jean-Paul Gabilliet

To escape, he drew. “No matter where they stuck me, I’d find a dark corner, hide out, and make comics! It’s like I became invisible,” he said. He was already a remarkable draftsman: comics he drew for the Army magazine, 5/5 Forces françaises were as assured as anything his far older peers were capable of.

Suffering in this intense and violent atmosphere, Giraud needed an outlet, badly—he narrowly avoided being court-martialed for strangling a warrant officer. And, blessedly, he found one: Blueberry, a Western comic he drew from scripts by Jean-Michel Charlier. Charlier had returned from an overseas assignment in the American West for his comics magazine, Pilote, burning to write about the mistreated indigenous people of the First Nations and the soiled nobility of the Civil War; Giraud had come of age in Mexico and was the perfect artist for the project. But the latter was even more interested in the exploding new market for countercultural comics filled with sexually explicit, confessional material, the stranger the better. To work in this mode, he invented the pseudonym “Mœbius” (misspelling the name of the German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius), at the suggestion of Charlier, who feared Giraud’s NSFW comics would ruin the reputation the pair had earned with their enormously successful cowboy serial. 

Giraud used Mœbius comics, especially Arzak and Major Fatal, to explore an inner landscape in turmoil. In one short story, a visitor to an alien cantina “drinks [you know this word] his koks [a beverage] without frapping it [your guess is as good as mine]” and explodes into a riot of flying polygons that eventually reconstitute back into the man himself. In a Major Fatal episode, the precious universe for which the Major is responsible comes under attack from huge explosions of flat black ink, each cruelly disrupting the carefully hatched and crosshatched buildings Giraud has drawn in perfect perspective. As the environmentalist movement took shape, he’d already begun to examine the ways in which worlds themselves could grow sick and even die.

Jodorowsky collaborated with Giraud to cast a collection of his dream-logic sci-fi scenes as The Incal, a graphic novel series that debuted in 1980. In the story, the likeness of Giraud’s dashing grandfather appears as the heroic Metabaron, the avatar of a dynasty of indomitable warriors who help the hero, John DiFool, save the world from destruction. Instead of writing scripts for his friend, Jodorowsky would perform them, Giraud recalled. The pair would work out what would look right and feel right and then, with Jodorowsky’s organizational help, Giraud would draw. 

Jodorowsky admired Giraud’s work, and loved the man; he disliked the idea of making a subordinate of such a gifted artist. “I never wanted to be his paternal archetype,” said Jodorowsky, who was nine years older. “I just wanted to be a brother to him.” The Incal may be Mœbius’s most influential work, and one that is simpatico with the visions of many fellow environmentalist SF auteurs and artistic collaborators—people like Miyazaki and Cameron, who saw evidence of a kindred spirit in Giraud’s thwarted utopianism.

Giraud kept looking for father figures, often settling on the worst imaginable candidates. Among these were Guy-Claude Burger, a dietitian eventually imprisoned as a serial child predator, and Jean-Paul Appel-Guery, a charismatic sex cult leader who tried to collaborate with Giraud on sci-fi comics. Giraud was smitten with Burger’s dietary theories and remained a passionate defender even after the latter was convicted. “The press were either very poorly informed or else had bad intentions,” he raved to Sadoul. Surely, Sadoul gently suggested, Burger wasn’t convicted for no reason? “Yes, he was!” Giraud insisted. “All great scientists and pioneers have been persecuted.”

Giraud loved to ascribe the sudden influence on him of men like these to shocking coincidence, or magical or supernatural intervention, a fatalism he visited on the characters in his stories, as well. Jodorowsky deplored these lesser men for taking advantage of Giraud. “When someone who isn’t an artist, who isn’t creative, is a ‘master’ and believes, as a result, that he can make art, the results are ridiculous and catastrophic.”

Giraud found himself among spiritualist charlatans for decidedly earthly reasons, says Sylvain Despretz, who studied under him and worked with him and his daughter Hélene on the designs in The Fifth Element: “Part of his gambit—and this is where the New Age came in and helped him, um, self-immolate—is that he latched onto this idea that he was living in the present and following pleasure as a guide. Which…if you really get into metaphysics, it’s about as immoral an attitude as you can take.” 

Utopia and hedonism are synonymous throughout the Mœbius comics.  In what is probably his most disturbing book, Angel Claws, a beautiful woman seeks the ultimate sexual experience; she narrates her descent through a series of Sadean encounters until she is ultimately stretched and inflated into a bulbous, headless, betentacled, permanently ecstatic creature that is no longer even recognizably naked. It’s tempting to consider his stories’ single-minded pursuit of sensation a flaw, but it is more like an argument: Giraud allows his characters to slake their lusts on one another and dares us to pass judgment on them, and, by extension, on him.

“If you really want to see him closely, he confesses,” says Despretz. “He just doesn’t tell you he’s confessing, but don’t assume anything you see in his panels is just there. If he bothered drawing riot scenes with people, smashing sticks on people’s skulls and everything, [with] happy-looking faces, it’s there for a reason. He had such incredible rage.”

In this reading, Giraud’s passions and curiosities were bound neither by the laws of man nor the laws of physics. He craved approval, and he took pleasure in conflict between his admirers; in all his affairs except the creation of his art, which he kept sealed off from interference, Giraud’s relationships were “a constant vortex of insanity and chaos,” Despretz says. “He would create this chaos so he could flee, and go into a corner and draw obsessively, and create beautiful images.” (Darrow dissents: “I think he just really wanted to draw,” he says.)

“Murderers are murderers because they’re not directors,” Giraud told Sadoul in 1974. “If Henri Désiré Landru [a French serial killer who preyed on women, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Gambais”] had been able to express himself in film, he would’ve had a scene of women’s corpses burning in an oven instead of actually going out and doing it.” This morbid declaration makes one grateful for Giraud’s facility.

Rage emerged in Moebius’s art as a shocking enlargement on Hergé: A ligne-claire style of the same impeccable precision displayed in the Tintin comics, except that the subject was no longer the interwar hijinks of an intrepid boy reporter adventuring through intricately realistic scenery. Instead, it was a soup of depravity and epiphany drawn from Giraud’s subconscious, the sort of thing that forces most artists into metaphor but found literal depiction in the Mœbius strips.

The resulting work is a paradox: a painstakingly exact expression of uncontrollable passion and violence. The lines themselves are utterly clinical, and often oddly beautiful, even winsome. But the emotion informing them still infects, enhances, and troubles our science fiction today. It is white-hot fury at a world that refuses to rise above violence, and all the people in it, the artist himself very much included. To read the Major Fatal books is to watch that rage abate—slowly, but finally—as the artist began a new family, raised another child, Nausicäa, and ceased to seethe.

It is the final confrontation he worked so hard, and with such clear futility, to avoid. “Mœbius” again reminds us: “There’s no escaping yourself.”

*Distate for Stan Lee compels me to bring this quote to your attention from Dr. Mœbius and Mr. Gir, a book of interviews in which Giraud observes that for their one collaboration, Silver Surfer: Parable, “My own words were very succinct stand-ins, like: ‘Pass the salt!’ Stan turned them all into things like ‘Wretch! Give unto me that receptacle of hewn crystal wherein grains of highly iodized matter reside!’”