The reach of French artist Moebius is out of this world

[15 April 2011]

By Geoff Boucher

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

BURBANK, Calif. — For his fans, the man called Moebius could never live up to the mystery conjured up by that name. Like Houdini or Hendrix, Fellini or Frazetta, the 72-year-old French artist’s name has become supercharged by the unreal, which made it disconcerting to see him sipping from a beige coffee cup in a hotel room near the Burbank Airport while a maid attempted to lug her vacuum cleaner through the doorway.

“We need a moment,” the artist said with a Parisian bow of the chin and an apologetic smile. “It’s time to talk about art.”

The name on his passport is Jean Giraud, born in May 1938 (just one month before Superman arrived in a small rocket from another planet in the pages of Action Comics No. 1), and he has long been regarded as the most important cartoonist of his country. That phrase, however, falls short of capturing the essence of his career and the breadth of his influence through comics, book covers, paintings and movie work. As filmmaker Ridley Scott said last year of Moebius’ influence on contemporary sci-fi film: “You see it everywhere, it runs through so much you can’t get away from it.”

Perhaps, but the artist is still caught off guard by the breathless reception he gets these days. In late November, when Giraud made a relatively rare visit to the U.S. to speak at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo in Burbank, he was repeatedly approached by fans and younger professionals who gushed.

“They said that I changed their life,” Giraud whispered in amazement. “‘Your work is why I became an artist.’ Oh, it makes me happy. But you know at same time I have an internal broom to clean it all up. It can be dangerous to believe it. Someone wrote, ‘Moebius is a legendary artist.’ A legend — now I am like a unicorn.”

The affable artist has been enjoying a surge of affection in his home country too, with a lavish exhibition at Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain in Paris. The exhibition featured enormous pieces — entire walls have been given over to the artist’s oddly serene images, which veer from Old West frontiers that Sergio Leone would find welcoming to fantastic beasties that seem to roam the dream-time landscapes bordered by the imaginations of Winsor McCay and Rene Magritte. Moebius has also returned to his most famous fantasy character, Arzak, the traditionally tight-lipped traveler who, after 36 years of gliding in silence, speaks for the first time in the hardcover comic book “Arzak: L’Arpenteur.” (It has not been translated for the English-reading audience.)

The recognition is plainly pleasing to Giraud, but bittersweet realities tug at the corners of his smile. He is dealing with profound vision problems and finds that the time devoted to his true love, writing and drawing comics, is diminishing as he uses his hours to paint the large commission pieces that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. And though he has enjoyed memorable success in Hollywood (he was responsible for design elements in “Tron,” “The Fifth Element” and Scott’s “Alien”), he looks back on his work in film as a sour reminder of what might have been if timing, geography and luck had worked in his favor. He relates all of this with a wink and a shrug.

“After all the years I have a problem with my eyes. In my left eye I have the cataract. They took my eye out, they took it to a shop. They did the sort of sushi chef stuff to it” — here he does a chopping-board pantomime — “and they put it back and now it is special. It is like the Terminator and his android eye. The vision in my left eye is different in the right eye, and it is very difficult to have the skill I had. The computer is very good for me, I can magnify my work very easily.”

Giraud was born in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne. By 18, with little formal training, his cowboy adventure tales were being published in Far West magazine. In his early 20s, he became an apprentice of the Belgian artist Jije, best known for his work on “Spirou et Fantasio” and the western adventure comics series “Jerry Spring.” Giraud worked on one of the “Jerry Spring” books, and the experience clearly informed his first signature creation, Blueberry, the Old West wanderer who first appeared on Halloween 1963. The stories of Michael “Blueberry” Donovan, a Southerner framed for murder who rides the range and fights against bigotry despite (or because of) his heritage, were written by Jean-Michel Charlier until his death in 1990, when his longtime collaborator took on both the writing and art.

The Western still holds a special place in the heart of Giraud, and in his native country the long, lonesome ride of Lt. Blueberry is regarded by many as his defining work. But he was restless to try strange new vistas, which led to the 1960s adoption of the pen name Moebius (and a third identity, Gir).

“In the beginning I had two different levels,” Giraud said. “To be an artist in comics because it was my dream as a teenager and when I was 7, 8, 10. The comics were not only stories to enjoy. For me they were drawings that possessed me. The second level for me, — which would maybe be my Moebius face — was the other wonderful art I was discovering with a lot of appetite. The expression of art as something bigger than life, bigger than anything.”

Here, though, frustrations arose from the intersection of the hard-bordered world of comics and the judgmental canvas of the art world. “There was a new generation of comic book artists in America and Europe (coming up in the 1960s and 1970s), and we wanted to connect the ambitions of art and comics,” Giraud said.

The 1970s brought Giraud a strange new character, an odd fellow with a strange, tall hat and a great winged beast. “I did the first Arzak in 1977. It was very strange. We were creating the magazine Heavy Metal — in France it was Screaming, Metal, Metal Hurlant’ — and we wanted to change everything. We wanted to be completely original and bizarre. That story was in the first issue and the next four after that. It was mute. It had no story, almost. When it was finished it came out as a book, and that book was like the stone in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ the monolith, and it gave me a specific energy through all those years.”

Two years ago, Moebius was eager to return to the storyteller mode with a new comic book epic. He put pencil to paper in search of a new face, but the sketch lines on the page took him back to an old friend: Arzak.

With an eye to the 1960s and America, when Marvel comic books were crackling with the creations of Jack Kirby, Giraud said he was most intrigued by the work of R. Crumb and the underground movement that was taking the storytelling traditions of comics and using them for startling expressions of self and subversive commentary on the world beyond the page.

Giraud met Kirby once near the end of the latter’s life, and “it was a very warm meeting, I was a very big fan, of course.” The French admirer famously took on one of the American’s creations for the 1988-89 Marvel miniseries “The Silver Surfer: Parable.” It was a landmark moment for Marvel Comics and even popped up as a random topic in the submarine-crew dialogue of the film “Crimson Tide,” much to the delight of Giraud. “I was glued to my seat in the theater, I can tell you,” he said with a vigorous laugh.

Filmmaking and Hollywood have been elusive for Giraud, and he can tick off the failures and fizzled adaptations. Even the successes were limited.

“‘Tron’ was not a big hit,” he said of the 1982 film that recently yielded a sequel that again used his design work as a starting point for some of its digital creations. “The movie went out in theaters in the same week as ‘E.T.’ and, oh, that was a disaster for it. There was also ‘Blade Runner’ and (‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’) that summer, so it was a battle of giants. ‘Tron’ was a piece of energy trying to survive. I almost did the first computer-animated feature after that, it was called ‘Star Watcher.’ We had the story, we had the preparation done, we were ready to start. But it came apart. That was my third contribution to animation and my worst experience.”

In 1982, Giraud and director Rene Laloux released the feature-length animated movie “Les Maîtres du temps” (Time Masters) based on a Stefan Wul novel. The artist winces at the mere mention of the project. “When I saw the film for the first time I was ashamed. It’s not a Disney movie, definitely. But because the movie has, maybe a flavor, a charm, it is still alive after all that time.”

The artist says he finds it hard to retrace his steps, and he nodded toward his wife and business partner, Isabelle Giraud, leaning over a laptop computer nearby.

“She says I exist because I always do something new, but many people exist because they do something that is always the same,” Giraud said. “It is a kind of a performance to always stay; the audience sees them and admires it because they remind them of the past and they seem to always stay young, stay strong, stay active. The purpose of transformation is not for everyone.”

The man they call Moebius trailed a finger along the brow above his healthier eye. “I have no explanation, but I am interested in being alive. No, seriously, staying alive for an artist means to always be in an unknown part of himself. To be out of himself. You don’t always need to go far. If you are in the space station Mir and you need to fix something, you go outside, but not too far. If you travel too far you’ll die. You need to be a little bit out there, but you need to stay close to human.”

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