When great artists draw and paint, they will whole worlds into existence. Born in 1938, French illustrator Jean Henry Gaston Giraud, better known as Moebius (or Möbius), stands atop the Mount Olympus of comic book artists. His influence and talent are acknowledged by the most successful artists inside and outside the field of animation and comics, from Hayao Miyazaki to Stan Lee to the films of Ridley Scott. As a child, Jean Giraud took up drawing to find refuge from the melancholia of his French suburban life. His work as an adult is vibrant, dynamic, and exudes awe.
An exemplary figure in Franco-Belgian comics, Moebius simultaneously built on and jettisoned the movement’s jovial style seen in The Adventures of Tintin and Astérix. Moebius’ comics, from Blueberry (1963-2007) to The Incal (1980-1988) to Arzach (1975-1987), are emblematic of his skill as a master of numerous forms of illustration. Blueberry, illustrated by Moebius and written by Belgian scriptwriter Jean-Michel Charlier, is a gritty western drawn in both rugged black, white, and soft colors. It brought Moebius to the attention of fans around the world.
The Incal, a collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky, is a shamanistic space-epic whose story begins in media res. It has been the subject of adoration and even thievery by science-fiction aficionados and creators. Ridley Scott famously “borrowed” The Incal’s architecture design and vertical cityscapes – where cars fly thousands of feet in the air and people plummet just as far down – for his 1982 era-defining sci-fi film, Blade Runner. The Incal’s vibrant colors, the creative panel to present the story, and superlative illustrations, make it one of the great graphic novels.
One of Moebius’ less well-known short comics, Arzach, published in the French magazine Métal hurlant (known in the US as Heavy Metal) has been particularly significant. The comic’s desert landscapes and dragon-riding hero have become ubiquitous images in popular culture and media. Moebius’ wide-ranging works remain conspicuous and endure due to their sophistication, his creative use of color, and virtuosity.
Moebius utilized several different styles throughout his career. Other renowned artists like musician Miles Davis and filmmaker Agnés Varda are revered for changing styles during pivotal stages of their careers. Moebius not only added new styles of illustration to his oeuvre, but unlike Miles, he did not discard any. Like Varda, he alternated between styles using the ones that best fit a specific project. He even switched back and forth between them in the same comic. Few artists have incorporated such diversity in their work.
Ushering in New Worlds
Moebius’ art makes even the mundane look magical. Nowhere is Moebius and his comic Arzach having more influence than in video games. Almost 40 years after its initial release, Arzach’s world design and color palettes continue to inspire video game designers. Indie games, like the excellent Heaven’s Vault (2019), We All End Up Alone (unreleased), Aquamarine (2022), and Sable (2021), are recent titles whose visual styles are indebted to Moebius’ vast and generous imagination. Moebius had direct involvement in the video game industry dating back to 1992 when he was commissioned to make illustrations for Fade to Black (1992), but it was his work and impact on the creation of Sega’s 1995 video game, Panzer Dragoon, that struck a chord with gamers.
Panzer Dragoon was first released in 1995. The game’s world and design owe a great deal to Arzach. According to Yukio Futatsugi, the game’s director, Moebius created the cover illustrations for the game and influenced the game’s development. Its desert landscapes and fantastical scenes of flying dragons are a not-so-subtle homage to the French artist. Panzer Dragoon spawned several sequels and became one of Sega’s most heralded series.
Panzer Dragoon and the subsequent games in the series are rail-shooters (the only exception being Panzer Dragoon Saga). In these types of games, the player partakes in a guided exploration of the world. Movement is limited to just being able to see one’s surroundings. There are no paths to select, and exploration is not free roaming. This allows for scenes and action to unfold in a scripted fashion. Players are along for a ride; they are passengers. Gameplay is strictly limited to controlling the camera and interacting with the world by aiming and firing at enemies and environmental hazards along a set route. This type of gameplay makes for an excellent way to take in the views and for fans of Moebius to spot the parallels between the game’s world and his art.
In 1955, while crossing the Mexican desert, Moebius experienced “…something that cracked open my soul… The result of all that was a very strong curiosity for the world of the unconscious and the parallel universe of dreams. It became the impetus for my work.” Mexico’s vast flat desert landscapes became a signature environment he drew from constantly. For him, the barren desert was beautiful and full of wonder. The colors of the desert’s sun – reds, yellows, blues, and oranges – became tones where epic scenes unfolded in The Incal and Arzach. Panzer Dragoon is indebted to Moebius’ trip to Mexico; the game’s opening sequence is an homage. A more recent game, Shedworks’ Sable, also greatly reveres those desert landscapes.
Experiencing Sable is akin to watching an animated picture in motion. As in Moebius’ work, the desert is an omnipresent environment. Sable’s art design utilizes flatlines and colors familiar to fans of Moebius. The use of color is not just simply for demarcation and shading but also ambiance. Sable is emblematic of how Moebius’ influence still permeates today.
Unlike Panzer Dragoon, in Sable, the player is free to roam and explore the world. Interactions with the environment are predicated on what the player wants to do and where they want to go. The game follows many of the design decisions taken by Nintendo’s landmark The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, albeit in a more limited fashion. Sable and Panzer Dragoon offer different ways to play and interact with worlds that originated with Moebius. Both games have achieved and built on Moebius’ legacy.
Shamanistic imagery, vehicle designs, and cultures drawn by Moebius are reproduced and further expanded on in Sable, Panzer Dragoon, and Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal work, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Nausicaä, a film released in 1984 and a serialized manga released between 1982 and 1994, is a seminal work. in Japanese popular culture. Panzer Dragoon and Sable are also influenced by it.
Miyazaki has a great deal of admiration for Moebius. Miyazaki commented that Arzach had a “great impact” on him when he first saw the comic in 1980. He began work on Nausicaä with Moebius in mind. Nausicaä’s titular character traverses the world on her wind glider, similar to how Arzach’s main character travels on his dragon. Miyazaki’s appreciation for Moebius and Arzach speaks to how important the French cartoonist is even to artists who are household names.
In the BBC documentary Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures released five years before Moebius’ death in 2007, Moebius eerily states, “I create forms and ideas, but I am not responsible for them.” Moebius kept evolving as an artist throughout his life, incorporating different experiences and influences in his oeuvre. He depicted worlds that at first seem distant if not unknowable. Ten years after the artist’s death, these once mysterious worlds are now familiar even to those who have never seen his work or know his name. If video games and the popularity of artists like Miyazaki are any indications, Moebius’ work will continue to impress and resonate.
Special thanks to Mark Gutiérrez for his insights and for exploring the world of Sable with me.
Giraud, Jean Henry Gaston. Arzach. 1975.
Panzer Dragoon. 1995.
Parish, Jeromy. “Panzer Dragoon: Looking Back at the Original, 25 Years Later”. Limited Run Games. 8 April 2020.
Zavarise, Giada. “A Panel Shaped Screen: Rediscovering Moebius, the artist who influenced Sable (and a million other games)”. Rock Paper Shotgun. 21 February 2019.