The prelude to Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s graphic novel, The World of Edena, is a brief and quiet story that serves as a powerful introduction to the ever changing and always mesmerizing characters of Stel and Atan. Right from the start, Moebius drops his readers into a world that is at once fully formed and constantly transforming.
The opening panel features a long, yellow craft in front of a blue wall and an even bluer sky. The craft hovers above a gray roadway, casting a shadow from a sun that must be immediately overhead. At the nose of the craft stands a tiny figure, dwarfed by the pilot who sits snugly behind the controls. The narrator speaks: “A Waymaster has broken down on the planet Styrinx.” And just like that, the story is off — a character study as prelude to a mind-blowing sci-fi epic.
We soon learn that it is Atan who stands atop the craft. Stel is deep in the bowels of the ship trying to effect a repair for which he is not really qualified. “In this case,” Atan tells the driver, “what you needed was a ‘psykik,’ not my ‘mekanik,'” and the driver, admitting his mistake, makes the terms clear. “Well that’s true. I do have a small “psykik” problem . . . but I’m doubling your fees! And if that “mekanik’s” heart is pure, he’ll survive, no problem!”
It’s the next panel, a tiny rectangle in the bottom right-hand corner of the page, that really gets me. Atan, dressed in green with a matching skull cap, looks straight ahead, eyes narrowed, face calm and sure, and says “Stel?! Of course, his heart is pure. Without question.”
In the chapter that follows, another scene is equally serene. Stel and Atan are aboard an asteroid that has been transformed into a space ship. The craft is in trouble and rapidly descending, out of control, to the planet below. There are two panels, small horizontal rectangles at the center of the page. The panels are colored entirely red. The characters — Atan to the left, Stel to the right — are rendered in pure and simple lines. Atan is strapped into a chair. Stel is attempting to land the craft safely through an array of wires attached to a cap on his bald head. Atan looks terrified while it is Stel who, this time, looks calm and sure. Stel’s countdown to the landing started in the previous panel and now Atan can’t stand it anymore.
“Please stop counting!” Atan shouts. “You’re scaring the hell out of me!”
And Stel, eyes narrowed, face calm and sure, stops speaking the numbers aloud while the thought bubble to his right shows he continues to himself: “Five … four … three …”
Moebius, in these simple panels drawn with simple lines, works wonders. He’s a master of graphic storytelling, able to convey emotion and human character with simple renderings and simpler words. Rarely a graphic novel, at heart just a low-brow comic book, rises above the rest to become more than popular entertainment, to become more than a story told in words and pictures. Rarely artists produce works of pure wonder that usher in the sublime. Moebius’ The World of Edena manages that feat by rendering the simplest moments purely and cleanly while managing to tell a story that is both grand and strange.
I’ll confess that this beautiful book, which collects Moebius’ Edena stories for the first time in English, hits me at just the right time. Like so many others, I come out of 2016 feeling bruised and defeated, wondering about the supposed goodness of the human race, worrying about the state of our very souls. Important debates have been reduced to base arguments and quarrels. Reason has given way to irrationality. Truth has fallen, perhaps never to rise. And hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and lies have risen to power.
Like so many others, my anger has given way to hopelessness. It turns out that we are not the people that I thought we were. As Dylan says, “everything is broken.”
In the midst of all that, The World of Edena hits me where I live, hits me just right, first and foremost because it is simply a beautiful thing. It’s a work of art, grand and personal. “Of course his heart his pure,” Atan says about Stel, and I can’t help but feel that the words are meant for all of us, a reminder in a broken world that pure hearts continue to beat. When Moebius reveals Stel’s silent response to Atan’s plea, the kindness is overwhelming. Neither the characters nor the narrator see fit to comment. It is, purely and simply, an act of grace. Grace, of course, is precisely what we now need.
Yes, The World of Edena did start out as something base. Moebius was contracted by Citroën, the French automaker, to prepare a comic book as a promotional item. It was, at the beginning, supposed to be a car commercial. Moebius agreed to produce a three or four-page story which other artists would ink over his pencils. But, as Moebius began the work, the story took over. In the end, Moebius produced almost 40 pages, included in this collection as the first chapter of an even larger tale. In a fit of inspiration, he both penciled and inked the story.
While a 1938 Citroën Traction does play a part in “Upon a Star”, the story is about so much more. It’s about Stel’s and Atan’s crash on the planet Pool Ball and their journey deep into a mystery. It is about wonder and the many faces of humanity, about the human journey and the wondrous transformations that we all seek.
In the sequel to “Upon a Star”, a story called “The Gardens of Edena”, Stel and Atan discover that they have been transported to the mythical planet of Edena. The planet is indeed a paradise, with water and fresh fruit readily available to fill their stomachs. It’s all too strange for Stel and Atan, however, who have never eaten food that had not been synthesized, who have never eaten an apple or a strawberry. First, they fear that the fruit will poison their bodies, then, they learn that it is the source of their salvation.
Over the course of the chapter, the characters are transformed, as is Moebius artistic style. The simple lines and simpler backgrounds gradually become more detailed and dense. His renderings of Stel and Atan become more realistic and earthy. Their bodies sprout hair and mature. Without their regular dose of synthetic hormones, Atan’s ambiguous sexuality gives way to a more sensuous femininity.
On the planet of Edena, Stel and Atan follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. Only, in Moebius’ telling, eating the apple does not lead to a fall but to a rising. Then, in a scene that will shape the rest of the story, Stel does the unthinkable. His desire for Atan overwhelms him. A battle is fought. As with Cain and Abel, blood is drawn.
Stel’s awakening, his head bleeding and sore, is a riveting scene. Atan has left him, wandered into the jungle to escape his violence and his desire. Stel, in a square panel at the bottom left-hand corner of the page, stares ahead in sorrow and in fear. He is unrecognizable as the simple being from before. His bald head is now full of uncombed and scraggly hair; the clean lines of his face are now replaced by the hint of a beard; from his head and brow flow streams of blood.
Moebius’ political views about the importance of natural food clearly color the story he tells in “The Gardens of Edena” and throughout the rest of the tales, created at different points in Moebius life and career, his current interests are front and center. In “The Goddess”, arguably the best chapter in the book, Moebius follows the adventures of Atan as she encounters a civilization on Edena that has used technology to cut itself off from the natural world.
Celebrated as the prophesized goddess who will lead the people to overthrow their totalitarian state, Atan leads the revolution from a deep and spiritual dream state, her power coming from her calm rather than from any crowd-pleasing rhetoric or exuberant rallies that whip the people into a frenzy. With Atan as their inspiration, the people, forced to wear masks to hide their “facial organs” from public view and to emphasize their bland sameness by referring to each other only as “Sir”, topple their shriveled but powerful leader and proclaim “Throw off your faces! We are free! Free!!” “The Goddess” is the story of revolution, the story of liberation, both political and personal.
The next chapter follows Stel on his quest to find and reconcile with Atan. It’s a journey that leads him across a desert and into another city of faceless followers. This time, the shriveled leader has taken a new form and appears as a ’80s style mogul with a head full of orange hair. He lives in penthouse surrounded by wealth, privilege, and beautiful women. Despite his outward appearance, he is, on the inside, a lizard-thing, driven by his desire to bring revenge down on the head of Atan while using Stel as the bait.
Finally, in the bizarre and beautiful final chapter, “Sra”, Moebius tells a story built around the idea of lucid dreaming. Moebius artistic style is again something new, the work less careful, more freeform and abstract. Whether we are in Stel’s dream or in reality, we are never quite sure. The lizard-man wears his hair in an even more elaborate style, piled higher and higher on his head, an orange joke that’s not funny.
The ending is not quite satisfactory, endings to great stories hardly ever are. It throws too much of what has gone before into question, sacrifices too much of the story for a gimmick and a quick goodbye. But it does not really matter. The story is good enough without the ending, as good stories often are.
It resonates with me, this flawed ending to a near perfect tale, because I too spend my days thinking that surely I’m dreaming, thinking that I will wake and the world will not have changed, thinking that we have not become what we have become.
Moebius’ The World of Edena is a masterpiece fitting for reintroduction in our troubled times. With our Earth on the brink of environmental catastrophe, Moebius teaches us about our place in the natural world. At a time when the great advances of personal freedom seemed threatened anew, Moebius gives us an inspiring tale of freedom and liberation. As the American order is shaken, Moebius’ tale of an orange haired tyrant seems as relevant as if it were written today. With victory in the struggle for sexual and gender freedom seemingly always just beyond our grasp, Moebius embraces individuality and transformation as something both human and true.
After American progressives suffered a bruising fall, when all of the important things were reduced to hashtags and slogans, when discussion gave way to shouting matches and insults, when the beauty that should be at the heart of even the most contentious democracy turned ugly and profane, Moebius gives us something that is at one and the same time both important and beautiful.
The World of Edena is an epic for our times, told both on a grand scale and in intimate human interactions. In a world that is scaring the hell out of us, it’s a work of quiet calm and beauty with revolution at its heart.