Jean-Claude MEZIERES

Adapted from the original text in
Edited by John Dean and Jean-Paul Gabillet
Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, Number 50
GREENWOOD PRESS Westport,Connecticut. 1996


          Jean-Claude Mezieres was born in Paris in 1938. From the time he was a child he developed a passion for drawing, comic strips, and America. He began to attend art school at age 15, where he met Jean « Gir » Giraud (Moebius), who became his lifelong friend. Jean-Claude Mezieres perfected his draftsmanship and soon got his first professional work — doing western comic stories published in Coeurs Vaillants under the pseudonym « Mezi. »

          Like all French male citizens, he was drafted into the army at age 20, where he served for 28 months, including a full year in Algeria, in the last throes of this country's violent process of liberation from French colonization. After he was discharged Jean-Claude Mezieres worked for an advertising agency and the publisher Hachette, for whom he illustrated encyclopedias. Meanwhile his friend from art school, Jean Giraud, had joined the studio run by Jijé, Jerry Spring's creator, and started a promising career at Pilote in 1963 with the successful « Lieutenant Blueberry » strip. Mezieres was getting fed up with his routine work and daily life. At which point - — thanks to Jijé — — he succeeded in securing a temporary work visa for a draftsman's position with a company in Houston, Texas. In the first days of 1965, Mezieres left for America.

          He never went to Houston, though. Instead he spent almost two years traveling across the United States and making a living doing odd jobs - — specially cowboy work on ranches. In the process he perfected his knowledge of a country that was mythical to him, to which he had been exposed since his childhood through movies, comics, music, and popular literature. In late 1965 he met up with Pierre Christin, then a French literature professor in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah. Pierre Christin was another childhood friend whom Mezieres had met in underground shelters during the Second World War, when they were five. Spurred on by Christin's offer to work together, they collaborated and created a comic strip together. The two men's first story was published in Pilote after Gir presented it to editor Rene Goscinny (of « Lucky Luke » and « Asterix » fame)... and then Mézières went back to cowboying some more !

          Alas, because of his own increasingly difficult relationship with U.S. immigration services, Mézières returned to France in the fall of 1966. Christin had already returned to Paris - — where Mézières and Christin reunited and their collaboration really took off. Specially when their 30-page story « Les mauvais reves » (The Bad Dreams) was serialized in Pilote in 1967-68. Set in the year 2720 in a galactic empire whose capital was the Earth city « Galaxity, » the strip featured an unusual protagonist : Valerian was a flippant, good-natured « space-time agent » whose first assignment was to track down Xombul, a renegade Galaxity technocrat who had fled to the Middle Ages after disrupting the dream-generating equipment on which the whole Galaxity population relied to survive. After arriving in the eleventh century, Valerian came across Laureline, a gorgeous, fearless, sword-wielding young woman who helped him find Xombul and defeat him after the entire cast traveled back to the twenty-eighth century.

          Pilote's readers responded warmly to the new strip. Many wrote to praise Christin's witty script, Mezieres's artwork, the generally « different » tone of the strip, and the thoroughly novel concept embodied by the Valerian-Laureline interplay. The male hero was no muscle-bound macho guy who brainlessly punched his way through the story, but rather a good-humored and occasionally blundering adventurer. While the story's heroine was a free, initiative-taking, totally unsubmissive character with both charm and brains. A female protagonist was still a rarity in French comic strips, but one of this ilk was simply mind-boggling to most readers.

          Goscinny gave the successful creative team the green light for another « Valerian » story. « La Cite des eaux mouvantes » [The City of Moving Waters] which was serialized in Pilote in 1968 ; followed by « Terres en flammes » [Blazing Land] in 1969. In the following year the first « Valerian » album was published ; “La Cité des eaux mouvantes” contained the 1968 and 1969 stories. This album series now has altogether sixteen titles and has become Dargaud's fourth best-selling series (behind such leading lights as « Asterix » and « Lieutenant Blueberry ») and has been successfully translated into eight foreign languages — except English. Unfortunately, Dargaud's ambition proved a commercial failure after a couple of years, because of poor reception and very bad marketing, at a time when specialty comic-bookstores were still very few and overwhelmingly promoted the stapled four-color booklet format.

          Another reason for this scintillating comic’s surprisingly poor reception in the States, may have been the very unusual viewpoint which the “Valerian” stories had for comics readers back then. One of the strip's numerous initial assets was Mezieres's rendition of the space-opera atmosphere stemming from his and Christin's longtime passion for U.S. science fiction literature. Valerian lives adventures set against visually stunning backgrounds : complex architectural inventions, futuristic machines, otherworldly landscapes, and odd-looking aliens are staples of Mezieres's seemingly boundless visual inventiveness. There is no reason why this characteristic would not have appealed to U.S. readers. However, what might have unsettled them has been Christin's approach to scriptwriting ; « Valerian » is a self-conscious strip teeming with references to science fiction and mainstream literature, movies, and canonical European and U.S. comics. Its most unnerving trait for U.S. comics readers is probably Christin's constant reliance on social commentary ; a liberal himself (like Mezieres), he writes stories with particular emphasis on dictators, outcasts, haves and have-nots, and as a rule works into his narratives political, environmental, and feminist concerns — - thereby showing that social ills are universal, no matter on which planet you land.

          The two protagonists of ”Valerian” exemplify this liberal commitment ; whereas Valerian is very much an anti-hero, occasionally cowardly, weak, and indecisive, Laureline is a willful person who cares and is ready to fight for ideals of social justice and individual liberation. Just like « Lucky Luke » and « Asterix, » « Valerian » is therefore one of those Franco-Belgian comics that is extremely palatable and entertaining for a wide range of European readers thanks to its various levels of reading. On the other hand, it has proved unattractive to North American comics readers seeking standardized formula entertainment and being generally unprepared to respond positively to a « different, » and ideologically committed, comic strip. It is mind-boggling that - — after all the liberating changes of attitudes and insights of the late 20th Century — such a pure ray of liberal light as “Valerian” should still be overlooked by US readers.

          Anyhow, in spite of this commercial failure in the United States, the two creators know that their strip's influence has spread much farther than many would expect. Americans would indeed be surprised to discover how much Mezieres's drawings have inspired sci-fi movie designers and comic artists all over the world. The community of graphic and visual artists crosses genres, mediums, and national boundaries ; and Mezieres has lastingly impressed a number of designers whose own creations have subsequently received worldwide critical acclaim. Yet Mezieres has not given birth to any heirs ; his style, a very personal blend of various influences (including those of Jije, Gir-Moebius, and U.S. cartoonist Jack Davis), has never been imitated or plagiarized. It is in fact so personal that Mezieres has never been able to hire an assistant for very long — he is never satisfied with their attempts to match his style. His creative individuality has earned him the most prestigious European prize to which a comic-strip artist can aspire, the Academy Award of European comics. In 1984 he was awarded the Grand Prix of the Angouleme, France, International Comics Festival, a distinction granted to an outstanding comics creator once every year since 1974.

          Although « Valerian » is the outcome of a collaboration between two childhood buddies sharing common tastes and ideas, the piece reproduced here is a one-man product. Since the mid-1960s, Goscinny had encouraged regular and occasional contributors to offer « personal » fillers to be published next to the usual columns and serialized strips of Pilote. « My Very Own America » is one such piece, an eight-page story first published in 1974, recounting Mezieres's 1965-1966 stay in the United States. Beyond the narrative's autobiographical dimension, the story's interest has increased with time as it expresses how a Frenchman glanced back at mid-1960s America a decade later and we the readers consider it another two decades later.

          When he returned to France penniless in late 1966, Mezieres left behind a young woman, one of Christin's students. After he sent her a ticket a few months later, she came to France and they have been together ever since. In the following years, Mezieres's passion for America never let up ; he would cross the Atlantic at least once every six months and spend a few weeks or months in the United States to gather material and work on ranches. But America continued to change, faster indeed than his own perception of it. Since the mid-1980s he has ceased to go frequently to the United States, for professional and family reasons. The kind of fascination that he, Christin, and many Europeans of their generation experienced in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s is no longer possible simply because, as he puts it, « for ten, fifteen, twenty years, America has crossed the Atlantic.When he made »My Very Own America« in the mid-1970s, his goal was »to talk of America, to go beyond anecdotes,« and convey to Pilote readers the significance of America in his personal evolution. This is the first English publication of the story. The editors have translated it, and Jean-Claude Mezieres very kindly took care of the English lettering.

          One final note : the story's last panel pastiches the final panel of many « Lucky Luke » albums. It shows Luke riding Jolly Jumper into the sunset while singing « I'm a poor lonesome cowboy and a long way from home. » The allusion is obvious for European readers, but not so much for their American counterparts.

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