Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane Adventures Artfully Take You to Other Worlds

These books create a visually mesmerizing mix of sci-fi and fantasy, where rocket ships cause men to stumble upon gods and monsters that occupy the distant corners of the universe.
Philippi Druillet

Les Humanoïdes Associés and the artists that created it deserve accolades. After making the rounds with Franco-Belgian anthologies such as Pilote, Moebius, Bernard Farkas, Jean-Pierre Dionett and Philippe Druillet started to spin stories that blended genres and joined them with images that mixed European styles with influences from early American superhero comics. As Les Humanoïdes Associés, they went on to put those stories in Métal Hurlant, what would become Heavy Metal to the American audience.

Creating a style that shows no distinction between sci-fi and fantasy, one that never hesitates to throw in magical realism, the stories in early Métal Hurlant include some of the most important comics works from the later half of the 20th century. A list of those comics would be incomplete without an entry of Philippe Druillet’s work on Lone Sloane.

Introducing the character before Métal Hurlant hit the stands, Druillet started publishing eight-page stories in 1966 that acquainted European comics readers to Sloan, a space-traveler with the countenance of a bounty hunter from the wild west. Following an unpleasant meeting with an alien race leaving him with red eyes and mystic powers vaguely tied to the gods, Sloane begins a galactic journey where he is forced into one adventure after the other. With a long history of being out of print, these stories are once again brought back as The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, thanks to Titan Comics.

The collection begins with “The Throne of The Black God”. This story takes place in the year “804 of the new era, after the great scare”, and introduces us to Sloane, one of the remaining humans that wander the galaxy. With a splash page that takes readers into the cockpit by using Kirby-esque techniques that move the cockpit out of the page, one’s eyes are consumed with Sloane’s version of space, a mixture of black and red, with orbiting moons and spaceships that look like mechanical birds. Before reads can settle into Sloane’s world, “Everything is consumed in an instant. Sloane, alive, floats into space. A strange kind of magic stronger even than man’s science prevents the vacuum from utterly destroying his body.” Mistaken as a being of prophecy, Sloane is brought to a new planet for tests that leave him touched by gods, in a story that takes a space cowboy into a world where magic and sci-fi wait around corners.

With little dialogue, Druillet relies on captions to pace stories dominated by splash pages filled with detail. Where most comics lean on panel-based pages, Druillet’s style is more concerned with how he can work a page as a whole, how each page works as an object. This leaves him with a tendency to use splash pages and spreads, or create pages that use central images that divide, and work with, other surrounding illustrations that could have been sectioned by proper gutters. With his sense of how a page works and how eyes should move across the page; when Duillet uses gutters, he does so to pace his story faster, to give his page the illusion of stills on a roll of film.

Such a personal and idiomatic style sometimes creates a flow the goes right to left without warning, making it hard to know how to read the page. But once you figure out the reading order of captions and images, it’s easy to see the cues and pick up on how Druillet’s logic operates. That is when The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane becomes a treat. That is when it becomes obvious how each page is rendered and scaled perfectly.

The remaining stories of Lone Sloane see our anti-hero on a series of trips around the universe that involve him getting captured, freed, united with friends and then sent on a mission to his home planet, Terra. While the plots are simple and fun, it’s Druillet’s world-building and visually mesmerizing mix of sci-fi and fantasy, where rocket ships cause humankind to stumble upon gods that occupy the distant corners of the universe, which make this collection a treasure. Each story is filled with new settings and characters bursting with detail, often exaggerated by Druillet’s use of white and empty space.

Conversely, Druillet will drastically change pace by flooding his pages with repetition, to create a chaotic tonal shift. This is a technique and experiment Druillet uses in his first story and never lets go of. In “The Wild Wind Isles”, the size of this publication starts to show off the art. Printed bigger now than it has been in a while, readers can fully appreciate the detail and shading of a floating castle on a pirate ship as they are given an aerial perspective that dwarfs the planet it sails on in order to exaggerate its mast and ornamentations.

In the story “Rose”, Sloane finds himself in a techno-thriller that highlights elements of fantastique storytelling, and Druillet balances pages with images that work geometrically around the central object. With symmetrical objects, vantage points that center and broaden pages, and lines that decorate, Druillet develops a style that’s not only creative but also simply beautiful. While the Métal Hurlant school were working with and stealing from one another, Druillet’s designs for robots and the interiors of spaceships show a strong influence by Jack Kirby with hints of other American artists. This strong sense of the possibilities of the page and ability to seamlessly blend styles and tradition can not only be seen in his comics, but also in René Goscinny’s forward to the original collected edition of Lone Sloane, reprinted in the Titan edition: “For us professionals, Druillet blew up illustrated narration, and liberated it from the narrow prisons of small panels.”

Druillet may have liberated comics from panels with The 6 Voyages, but he trapped Sloane in a cliffhanger in its final story. The cliffhanger picks up with Lone Sloane: Dilirius, also reprinted by Titan Comics in a gorgeous over-sized edition. This volume in the Lone Sloane series has Druillet working with writer Jacques Lob, and starts off with familiars visual and narrative techniques, only improved. Druillet’s pallet shrinks to play with blue and red hues that dominate pages to exaggerate and stand in for Sloane’s red eyes, emphasizing his presence and expressions. His color work also shows how much he loves to play with the page, amplifying his use of empty space in splash pages. His ability to fill a page with detail uses crisper line work, effectively making his spreads and splash pages of the planet Delirius breath life into every word of Lob’s narration:

… seven million square kilometers chock full of every pleasure imaginable! Delirius and its paradisiums! It’s lavish casinos and its low life dives! Its fantasy parlor and temples of debauchery! Its bloody arenas! Its magical caves! Its shows! Its attractions that will take your breath away and leave you on the edge of your seat! Delirious, a terrifying world governed by money, violence, and corruption… and a never-ending source of revenue for The Imperator and his lackeys!

Sloane is brought to this “pleasure palace of cosmic dimensions” to assist the men looking for him, “The Red Redemption”, an extortion-fueled religion. As with the vignettes that made The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Delirius is very much a story about world-building. Sloane is a very simple character that doesn’t need to be anything more than the tough guy that tries to do the right thing, but only if it means he can save his own skin first. He doesn’t need to be anything more than that because he’s a vehicle for Druillet’s imagination, an object that brings us into the settings and backdrops which are the real attraction. Druillet uses Sloan as a way to bring Delirius to life and turn it into a character.

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Even though the long form story of Delirius is richer, fueled by more exposition and plot twists than The 6 Voyages, it’s still the art that does the heavy lifting. The illustrations don’t stop impressing when the characters enter the Escher Palace, a splash page that moves the story along by literally turning the setting upside down with a turn of the page. Making readers move the page around isn’t a technique Druillet created (Gustave Verbeek was doing it in 1904), it’s just one that he breaks out, not because he can, but because it’s appropriate.

When Sloane enters the Escher Palace, it’s roughly halfway into the story and the plot has grown thin. After Sloane and Yearl free themselves from the trouble they’ve gotten into, they no longer know whom to trust or what the motivations of the Red Redemption are. They have been walking around Delirius, getting exposed to the visual wonders in it, filled with the side tracks and red herrings that divert them from their intended journey. When they find themselves in the Escher Palace, it’s easy to mistake the setting as just one more stunning aspect of Delirius, or simply an homage to E.M. Escher’s optical illusions. But Druillet has the design of Sloane’s physical surroundings reflect the point in his story, where his direction is uncertain, where he sees a series of new paths that seemingly loop back on themselves, leading Sloan back to the beginning.

One of the few narrations on the page comes from Sloane’s new friend, “all the street kids hang out here! You can spend days just running around one plane to the next…” This makes the page come off as self-aware, acknowledging how a reader can spend days just looking at the layers in this and many other splash pages in Delirius. Or, perhaps it’s the room that is aware of the story it’s in; it’s the room, drawn in the middle of the book, that shows Sloan reflecting on his point in the story and functions as a bridge between the two acts.

After Sloane leaves the Palace, the pace picks up. Sloane is reintroduced to the Red Redemption, who now give him a back story filled with mythology, oppression, prophecy, good and bad sides (the usual). Sloane then agrees to a new plan that sets him on the second stage of his journey, filled with more settings and characters that build the disgusting and delightful casino world of Delirius. The only difference is that Sloane has a few tricks up his sleeve and his idea of how the plan will pan out.

The idea that it’s not the story that’s important anymore, but how you tell it, that’s an old one. It’s a problematic concept but there’s a bit of truth to it, especially when talking about 6 Voyages and Delirius. While the stories themselves are fun, if at times predictable, it’s the visual and narrative techniques that make Druillet’s work such a satisfying experience, and such a well-deserved choice for Titan to reprint.

The service Titan Comics has undertaken here is sordid. With the work of Druillet and other big names from European comics, Titan has given attention to books that have gone through several different printings, by several different publishers that don’t always find their audience. While the US audience hasn’t always been the most receptive to European masters outside of Heavy Metal, Moebius, and sexy Milo Manara covers, some current publishers have been trying a hand at bringing back some classic bande dessinée and Fumetti.

While Titan has done a good job with these books, there are usually issues with reprints and translations. Though it’s great to see the books reprinted in large format with a color scheme that compares well to previous editions and holds well on the chosen paper, each edition has differences that hold preferable elements. For example, in the spread that opens Delirius, the statue has a French engraving in the original illustration. In the new printing, the English engraving sticks out, highlighted by blurring techniques used to cover up the original. What really makes this bad is that the entire spread is filled with signs written in made up alien languages, turning the engraving into a frivolous correction that actually interferes with the image. This begs the question why visual edits are ever a question in translated comics, instead of elements deserving of an asterisk and entry in the margin. There are other decisions to wonder about, like why the plain galaxies to separate chapters in 6 Voyages, why not the more detailed images from other printing that have Sloane’s face over those galaxies?

As for the linguistic translation, there are small distinctions that don’t change the story much, as it’s one with little need for words. But when you look at the original English translations of Lob’s prose in Delirius, there’s a certain poetry that gets taken away and replaced with a pedantic feel. The original translation is: “Forbidden to land on Delirius openly, Sloane and his friend board the Red Redemption ship. It blasts off into the heavens leaving O Sidarta far behind.” This caption becomes “Sloane, not having free access to Delerius, boards the red redemption vessel with his friend. They blast off into the stars, leaving O Sidarta behind.”

Another example from the original translation of Delirius: “They covered immeasurable distances on the strength of the vaguest information. In vain.” The new translation reads, “They traveled immeasurable distances on the basis of a simple rumor. All in vain.” Both passages do give the same meaning in each translation, but the original Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier translations have a smoother, richer feel that compliments the fantastic elements of the story.

There’s no need to focus on these differences, however, to enjoy the stories. They don’t change the reading much, and there’s no real way to know which translations are more accurate. (If you want to be that much of a purist, learn to read French). What’s left is to focus on the great work of Philippe Druillet that is now back in print after being forgotten for too long. Delirius vol. 2 is scheduled to be published in English by Titan Comics in September 2017.