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 has 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 and he was 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 wildly short of capturing the essence of his career and breadth of his influence through comics, book covers, paintings and movie work. As filmmaker Ridley Scott said last year of the 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, Giraud made a relatively rare visit to the U.S. to speak at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo and again and again he was approached by fans and younger professionals who gushed.
“They said that I changed their life,” Giraud whispered in amazement. “‘You changed my life.’ ‘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.’ I put a frame around me. A legend — now I am like a unicorn.”
The affable artist has been enjoying a surge of affection in his home country, too, with the large and lavish exhibit at Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain recently staged in Paris. The collection features 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 as well as fantastic beasties that seem to roam the dream-time landscapes bordered by the imaginations of Winsor McCay and Rene Magritte. Also Moebius has just 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” (which has yet to be 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 some 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 with film as a sour reminder of what could have been if timing, geography and luck had worked in his favor. He relates all of this things 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. With the painting, it is very expensive there are a lot of people who want to have my stuff. The level of price increases every year. It is a better, for me, way of life. But with my eye it is not that easy.”
Giraud was born in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne and by 18, with little formal training, his cowboy adventure tales were being published in the pages of Far West magazine. In his early 20s, he became the apprentice of the Belgian artist Jijé, 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 chores.
“I started in 1957 when I sold my first story to a magazine,” he said. “It’s impossible to count how many stories I did, how many pages. But there have not been very many characters. I have just six, you know, and a lot of it started with Blueberry.”
The western still holds a special place in the heart of Giraud — he could barely, for instance, contain his excitement about the release of the Coen brothers film “True Grit” — and in his native country the long, lonesome ride of Lt. Blueberry is regarded by many as the defining work. But while the realistic frontier tales gave him a compelling storytelling outlet, his imagination was restless to explore strange new vistas. That led to the 1960s adoption of the pen-name Moebius (as well as 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. I was such a fan. I committed already to drawing. The comics were not only stories to enjoy for me they were drawings that possessed me. I saw very early on the difference with my friends. They were using comics like a book but to me I saw a drawing exposition. The purpose was different for us, the experience was not the same. The second level for me, another side — 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. There was something very mysterious about that and beautiful. It was a kind of heaven with Picasso and everybody at the same table. I wanted to be part of that. For me it was a feast through the ages. Timeless.”
At that point, though, there were frustrations with the divides between 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. “[To combine] the dream of being artists and the culture and traditions of doing comics. We wanted to put art in comics and comics into art and then send it to the audience. Into the dream, that was the dream of painting and drawing and doing everything. But especially the painting. I started trying to be a traditional painter with brush. I never started with oil. I’m not really completely traditional but with the brush I wanted to do something almost the same, to imitate oil with the brush and after that with acrylic and after that with watercolor. Always it was about color. The color for me is so very important. It is part of my open dream in art, not only in comics. In the 1970s, I made a bridge between the two things.”
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. I didn’t myself know what I was doing. I just wanted it to be different. It was mute. It had no story, almost, and it was strange in the situations and the background. When it was finished it came out as a book … and it was like the stone in ‘2001: a Space Odyssey,’ the monolith, and it gave me a specific energy through all those years…the first one had no story so everything was possible with it I did a lot of posters, pictures, drawings, all of this guy with this guy with the strange hat and that bird.”
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. “I was looking for a new character. But I didn’t want to do a new character, not really, or I was not sure. So it came back to Arzak. The question then was it possible to redo Arzak as the mute and I said no. The time is now to give life and to incarnate him. Before it, the first stories, it was like watching from a distance with difficulty, there’s much that was not known. To find his voice I had to build the world around him, the context, where, why, how — all of those questions and the answers give to Arzak his position.”
He said there may be more to come. “In the first book with Arzak I tried to do a story where possibilities were open and the doors were not closed too much. It was a moment, not a story. The world and the stories are built around what has come before. I want to create a house not a box. I cannot tell you where he’s going, but I can tell you it will be great. My pleasure is to do the stories. I am a storyteller. I must manage between the pleasure and the work. It is also a pleasure for me to do the paintings but is different. I try to make time for both.” Then his head tilted in consternation and he turned to an interpreter who helped him find the phrase he wanted. “A balance,” he said with an expression of exaggerated defeat.
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 wonderfully subversive commentary on the world beyond the page. With a confessional whisper he added that he was not a man of the times when it came to mind expansion. “I did mushrooms in 1964, I did them only once. It was very violent on my stomach. It was not comfortable. There was psychic adventure for others but for me there was no comfort.”
Giraud met Kirby once near the end of the artist’s life and “it was a very warm meeting, I was a very big fan, of course,” and the French admirer famously took on one of the American icon’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. It is still alive. It survives. And the new movie is what Steven wanted to do back then but at that time CG was very odd and we were pioneers. 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; the company did not give us the approval. It was too far, the concept to do everything in computer animation. We were waiting, waiting, and then our producer died in a car accident. Everything collapsed. That was my third contribution to animation and my worst experience.”
In 1982, Giraud and director René Laloux released the feature-length animated movie “Les Maîtres du Temps” (released in English as “Time Masters“) based on a Stefan Wul novel. The artist winces at the mere mention of the project. “It’s a strange story, it’s a small movie, and cheap — incredibly cheap –it was more than independent. 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. More than 35 years now and it is still here.”
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 they 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.” A musical analogy was offered; Bob Dylan continues to push and experiment and revamp his music and persona instead of trying to stay forever young, while the Rolling Stones tour with all the familiar hits as a tenacious declaration that, no matter what the calendar says, time is on their side. “Yes, that it is. The Rolling Stones keep their audience and new ones come in and understand it. Their career is a piece of art. Dylan has pieces all over and it’s a diffused audience and there are chapters to him.”
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. The exhibition in Paris, the theme was transformation. Art is the big door but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new. 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. Outer space is not human but you can visit. You need to be a little bit out there but you need to stay close to human.”
— Geoff Boucher
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