Obituary: Jean-Claude Forest

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SEX IN space was no problem in the fantasy Fifties when science- fiction comic strips were rigidly researched in the interplanetary knowledge of the time. Dan Dare, Eagle's "Pilot of the Future", was rooted solidly in his creation by the Rev Marcus Morris as Daniel Dare, Padre of the Future. One of Dare's space team, Professor Peabody, christened Jocelyn Mabel and known as "Prof", may have had a pretty face but the rest of her was covered in a spacesuit. In American comics Buck Rogers zoomed around the 21st century with a blonde lady called Allura, but legs apart (if you pardon the expression) she too was wrapped in head-hugging helmet and rocket-powered flying belt. It took the French, then as now the great porno-production country, to take the first pioneering steps into sexual space. The cartoonist was Jean-Claude Forest and his heroine was Barbarella.

Forest created "Barbarella" as a full-page serial strip (and strip is the operative word) for the Parisian magazine V, back in 1962. On sale in London after the Second World War, this picture paper was a popular buy for teenagers, carrying as it did spicy pin-ups, scantier-clad than their native counterparts. These were both photographic and drawn, the latter in a style somewhat sexier and livelier than in the English magazines of the day such as Men Only, Lilliput and Health and Efficiency.

The nearest thing in Britain to "Barbarella" was Norman Pett's genuinely glamorous "Jane" in the Daily Mirror. But Jane never ventured into outer space. Forest's girl of tomorrow was truly liberated, needing no cumbersome spacesuit to survive in the vastness of space. A pair of droopy pantomime boots and an even droopier bikini was all she needed to protect herself from every spacial hazard from meteorites to monstrosities.

The strip gained huge popularity and in 1964 the first set of strips was reprinted as a book by the French publishers Frank Losfeld. Two years later Grove Press translated an edition for America. Meanwhile the French authorities, anxious that their country would not become the world's publishing centre for pornography once again, banned it. The US edition escaped censure and Newsweek reviewed Forest's strip thus:

Cruising among the planets like a female James Bond, Barbarella vanquishes evil and rewards, in her own particular way, all the handsome men she meets in outer space. And whether she is tussling with Strikno the sadistic hunter, or turning her ray-gun on weird gelatinous monsters, she just cannot seem to avoid losing part or all of her skin-tight spacesuit.

Forest was born in Le Perreux, a Parisian suburb, in 1930. At the age of 16 he attended the Ecole des Arts et Metiers in Paris, and whilst there he adapted Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Black Arrow into a strip cartoon. In 1952 he became a staff cartoonist for the weekly boys' comic Vaillant, drawing two serial strips, "Pour la Honde", set in the prehistoric period, and "Copyright" which told the adventures of a fantastic animal. In 1955 Forest became the cover artist for several magazines, and took over the drawing for two popular strips of American origin: "Bicot", the French title for "Winnie Winkle", and "Charlot", the continuing cartoon adventures of Charlie Chaplin. Nineteen fifty-nine found him graduating from children's comics to newspaper strips when he joined the daily France- Soir.

In 1962, Forest created his classic "Barbarella". In style this is still one of the best-drawn strips in the fantasy genre, despite the total impossibility of the situations. Forest paid no attention at all to current scientific space research. Instead readers of V Magazine enjoyed Barbarella's imaginative circumstances and her pleasures of the flesh.

Barbarella was filmed in 1968 by Roger Vadim, and shot young Jane Fonda to international fame. She looked the perfect living reproduction of the bosomy, leggy lovely, and her adventure in a mad professor's orgasmic stimulator marks a high point in the development of sexy cinema. The film's look, a brilliant transference of strip-cartooning to live action, was due to Forest who Vadim hired to supervise its design.

Forest's cartoon career expanded enormously after the world-wide success of the film. He was made editor of a new comics magazine for adult readership, Chouchou, for which he created another girlie serial called "Baby Cyanide". In 1965 he created an animated cartoon series for French television. Again in his favourite mixture of science- fiction and sexy girls, this featured a teenager called Marie Math.

Despite this enterprise Forest's career began to decline, perhaps because he concentrated almost solely on sex and sci-fi. Maybe real life space travel made such wild imaginings less popular with the public. However his creation of Barbarella as both cartoon and film ensures him a place in the pantheon of the great comic strippers of the century.

Denis Gifford

Jean-Claude Forest, cartoonist: born Le Perreux, France 11 September 1930; married (one son); died 30 December 1998.