Jean Giraud: Artist hailed for his work in film and comics

 

A household name in his native France, where Libération dedicated six pages as well as its front page to his passing, the visionary comic book artist Jean Giraud enjoyed a multi-faceted career.

Under his own name he co-created and drew the long-running western series Blueberry, whose eponymous anti-hero looks like Jean-Paul Belmondo and behaves like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful Of Dollars – though Blueberry's first appearance in the bandes dessinées magazine Pilote in 1963 predated the emergence of Sergio Leone as the spaghetti western auteur. Originally, Giraud drew Blueberry in a realistic style reminiscent of the Belgian school of comics he had grown up reading, but he soon added other techniques.

In the mid-1970s, under the nom de plume Moebius, using a pen to foster a more free-flowing style, he began a parallel career in science fiction with the wordless, surreal serial Arzach, and his striking illustrations for The Long Tomorrow, a sci-fi noir short story by the screenwriter Dan O'Bannon whom he had met while collaborating with the underground film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky on an ill-fated adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune.

Arzach and The Long Tomorrow were published in Métal Hurlant, the influential sci-fi and horror magazine Giraud co-founded in Paris in 1974, and in its American edition, Heavy Metal, three years later. The Long Tomorrow in particular inspired the dystopian look and feel of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner while the innovative Moebius oeuvre became a touchstone for film directors George Lucas and John Carpenter as well as the manga and anime artists Hayao Miyazaki and Go Nagai.

Giraud added another string to his bow, as a conceptual designer and storyboard artist contributing to the sci-fi and fantasy films Tron (1982), Willow (1988), The Abyss (1989), Space Jam (1996) and The Fifth Element (1997). Along with his uncredited work on Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979, and the film version of Heavy Metal, these endeared him to sci-fi and cyberpunk buffs and made him an international cult figure.

However, as he was keen to stress, with sales of 200,000 up to a million for each of its 50 or so instalments, Blueberry remained what he called his "bread and butter. In the United States it's the complete opposite; no one knows Jean Giraud or Gir. When I go to a comics convention, people want to shake hands with Moebius. It's ironic, and it's also somewhat tragic. It makes you wonder why people tend to associate a commercial artist with only one style. What happens to the other parts of him?"

Born in Nogent-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, in 1938, Giraud attributed his artistic split personality to his parents' divorce when he was three. Partly brought up by his grandparents, he was an avid reader of Jules Verne, Jack London and the western comic strips Red Ryder and Hopalong Cassidy which were translated into French. In his teens, he was enthralled, he said, by "the golden era of cowboy movies. In both the comic strips and the westerns, what struck me was their pictorial quality."

He started selling cartoons and sketches in 1953, studying at Paris's Arts Appliqués institute. He then travelled to Mexico to visit his mother, who had remarried; he spent eight months there and began a lifelong interest in alternative beliefs and practices such as shamanism. He also immersed himself in the writings of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick and AE van Vogt: "Science fiction transported me in an almost metaphysical way. I had the feeling that I was part of the great contemporary mystery, a human being, part of a global species, a planetary consciousness facing the stars."

On returning to France, he contributed cowboy strips and illustrations to magazines like Far West and Coeurs Vaillants. Even while doing his military service in Germany and Algeria in 1959 and 1960 he placed work in the army magazine 5/5 Forces Françaises. The next year he was apprenticed to the Belgian artist Joseph Gillain, aka Jijé, whose ligne claire style he admired, and inked his western series starring the cowboy Jerry Spring. In turn, Jijé recommended Giraud to Jean-Michel Charlier as the perfect illustrator for Fort Navajo, which was soon renamed Blueberry. About a Southerner who fought against the Confederates during the US Civil War, Blueberry evolved into a darker, grittier, hard-boiled action series and remains extremely popular throughout continental Europe.

When Charlier died in 1989, Giraud began scripting Blueberry and its spin-offs. He considered it his most demanding work. "It's all my fault," he admitted. "All the details come from the real West or from movies. Worst of all, I've chosen the Hollywood movies of the Fifties and Sixties, which were incredibly detailed. So every Blueberry album has these backgrounds and animals and weapons and crowd-scene extras and clothing that I have to research so that I can draw them precisely."

Giraud took a back seat for Jan Kounen's 2004 Blueberry adaptation starring Vincent Cassel, though many felt the trippy segments mirrored his interests in shamanism and were closer to his Moebius alter-ego. "Jean Giraud is my perfectionist side," he said. "He needs a framework. Moebius is more like a jazz solo, a total improvisation, the freedom to draw one frame without knowing what comes next. Moebius is closer to my subconscious."

He first used the Moebius pseudonym – an homage to the German mathematician and astronomer – in the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri in 1963 and revived it a decade later for the Michael Moorcock-inspired stream of consciousness serial Le Garage Hermétique [The Airtight Garage] and L'Incal (The Incal), about a shambolic private eye named John DiFool, with a script by Jodorowsky. In the early '80s, Moebius co-wrote and designed Les Maîtres du Temps (Time Masters), René Laloux's animated feature-length sci-fi film.

He then spent several years in Tahiti and Los Angeles where, between films, he oversaw the publication of his work through Marvel and drew a Silver Surfer miniseries scripted by Stan Lee. In 1989, he returned to Paris for more collaborations with Jodorowsky – including the graphic novel Le Coeur Couronné (The Crowned Heart) and the erotic one-shot Griffes D'Ange (Angel Claws), as well as a myriad other projects that made the most of his virtuosity.

Diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Giraud didn't regret not exploring film further. "Too many people, too many things to organise, the fear of losing control and to see my initial project being diluted in other people's talent."

Giraud's images have appeared on stamps and been exhibited, while his limited-edition prints and posters change hands for thousands of euros. "My grand aim was to escape my mortality and now – when it's too late, it seems – I've learned that time won't let me," he said.

Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, comic book artist and writer and conceptual designer: born Nogent-sur-Marne 8 May 1938; twice married (one daughter, one son); died Paris 10 March 2012.

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