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Artist spotlight: Moebius

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Artist spotlight: Moebius

Science fiction would not look the same without the work of Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.

Arjan Terpstra

03 May 2022 ⋅ 7 min read

If influence is a key measure to understand someone's artistic success, Jean "Moebius" Giraud (1938 - 2012) scores the highest marks of them all. While some artists get friendly nods from their peers in interviews, and others see their work "quoted" in other designs, only a select few are so influential their work is seen as the artistic norm in a specific field.

For science fiction design in movies, comics, video games, and animation, that person is definitely Jean Giraud, better known under his nome de plume Moebius/Mœbius. "You see his influence everywhere," Alien-director Ridley Scott said about Giraud. "It runs through so much you can't get away from it." Take one look at Star Wars, see Luke Skywalker drive his landspeeder across the empty deserts of Tatooine, and you will instinctively understand what he means: you're traveling inside a Moebius comic panel.
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Blade Runner



Or take the movie Blade Runner, where Rick Deckard roams the streets in a "neon dystopia" that directly honors Moebius' 1975 comic The Long Tomorrow: a futuristic detective story set in a city cramped with layered housing blocks, floating traffic, seedy neon-lit districts, and scruffy inhabitants. The script for the comic, written by (Alien script writer) Dan O'Bannon, was "a film noir in the future," set in a vertical city that gets weirder the farther you get from the light.

It's an aesthetic that's dominant in films, games and television series today: Altered Carbon and Cyberpunk 2077 are but a few examples of current media that borrow their visual identities from The Long Tomorrow. In fact, every "cyberpunk" story today probably has roots in the comic, as it directly inspired William Gibson's Neuromancer. The 1984 novel tells of the struggle of "fringe lowlifes, drug-infesting antiheroes, and outlaws" operating in "the filthy setting of an environmentally damaged, alienated, dystopian society"—a summary of the book, that conveniently doubles as a description of the comic that came before it.
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A panel from Möbius' The Long Tomorrow. The vertical orientation of the buildings and busy streets would be a regular feature in dystopian sci-fi.

Fans in East and West



And yet it is not only in cyberpunk we see Moebius' impact. Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio Ghibli head, was smitten by his Arzach comic, a wordless story where a character rides a pterodactyl through a psychedelic fantasy world. Consequently, he directed his animation classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind "under Moebius' influence." Manga legends Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) also professed their admiration for Moebius' work, the latter publishing a Moebius-inspired short story named Flowers in 1979, that consciously emulated Moebius' use of colors.

In the West, it was more of the same, with Italian movie master Federico Fellini penning a roving fan letter, telling Moebius "Everything you do pleases me, even your name pleases me," and offering the Frenchman to collaborate on a sci-fi movie. And none other than Stan Lee worked with Moebius on Silver Surfer: Parable, a highly influential comic that combined Lee's scenario with Moebius' art. It's safe to say Moebius was an artists' darling. Giraud himself admitted as much in 1988, when he told an interviewer:

"There were thousands of professionals who knew my work. That has always amazed me every time I entered some graphics, or animation studio, at Marvel or even at [LucasArts]. Mentioning the name Jean Giraud did not cause any of the present pencillers, colorists or storyboard artists to even bat an eye. Yet, whenever I introduced myself as "Mœbius", all of them jumped up to shake my hand. It was incredible!"
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Clean lines



So, what exactly drew such universal praise and admiration? Although many mention Giraud's linework or coloring, they are not unique to him. Giraud was beholden to the French/Belgian comic tradition that valued the "ligne claire" or "clean line" first explored by Tintin's creator, Hergé. This style of drawing depends on clear, strong (out)lines, without hatching. Also there is no exclusive Moebius approach to coloring and lighting, although many artists claim to be inspired by it.

The true appeal of Moebius' work lies not in technicalities. What attracts other artists lies not in how he draws, but what he draws. A Moebius story takes place in a highly imaginative world, often takes on philosophical questions, dares to explore the surreal, and in doing so, constantly surprises its audience. Take Giraud's work with Stan Lee on the Silver Surfer comics. Lee wrote a broad story outline, and was surprised with the layers Moebius added: "(Giraud) made Silver Surfer a very philosophical character. He had come to Earth from another planet and he could not understand human beings."
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Panel taken from the Stan Lee/Moebius collaboration on Silver Surfer.

Hamlet vs. Superman



In the comic, Silver Surfer doubts himself and his mission on Earth, making him more akin to a Hamlet than a Superman. This was a far cry from what US comics offered at the time, where superheroes stubbornly fought the good fight with the spirit and confidence of a John Wayne character. And yet to Giraud himself a hesitant Silver Surfer made perfect sense. "The only way to allow the reader to identify [with a character], is to create a character who resists. Who doesn't understand, and who doesn't want to understand. Who is in total denial."

In other collaborations, Giraud removed himself even further from established norms in comics, or art in general. In The Incal, developed in close collaboration with filmmaker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky, he again used a Hamlet-like protagonist, Jean Difool ("Jean The Fool") who fights for survival in a dystopian space opera. In it, science fiction fuses with fantasy, leading to surreal, symbolic and psychedelic scenes.
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It epitomizes what Giraud had known about himself since he set himself up as an artist, in his early twenties: "Deep down I was in turmoil, I felt different [from other French comic artists]. My mind was teeming with bizarre science fiction, avant-garde ideas, surrealism, sexuality… Totally transgressive."

Exploring the unconscious



Jodorowsky would call this "his shamanic side," the part of Giraud's artistry that engaged with subject matter that went unexplored in comic art, but was dominant in the intellectual Parisian avant-garde that spawned him. "[I had] a lifelong interest in the world of the unconscious, and the parallel universe of dreams. It became the impetus for my work."

In The Incal, this translated to Jean Difool's bizarre spiritual journey that features anything from technopriests to an underground rat army, and from mutant jellyfish to gurus floating on crystals, all kept brilliantly together by fantastic storytelling, paneling, layout and everything else that makes a great comic book.

In interviews, he doubled down on the importance of listening to one's unconscious. "I create forms and ideas, but I'm not responsible for them," he claimed. "I only channel them. I put myself into a trance-like state in which something takes hold. That something might be from beyond consciousness, or from the gods, from some genies or I don't know what. Anything is possible."

This is what Japanese artist and admirer Katsuya Teradameant, when he said: "You can really draw anything, if you apply Moebius' style." Terada's statement refers not to Giraud's stylistic qualities, to "what a Moebius picture looks like," but to how you approach your subject matter, and how free an artist you dare to be.
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Legacy



Today, Moebius is everywhere, a true hero to the heroes who sculpt our modern media. Modern pop culture owes an incredible lot to the French giant, who's cultural impact cannot be overstated. Even in video games, a medium that eclipsed comics in a way, but would not escape Giraud's incredible legacy. He was involved in Halo (drawing a short story for a Halo graphic novel) and designed the Japanese box art for Panzer Dragoon—a fitting artist for a game about a man riding a dragon through a fantastical world.

And then there are the tribute games. Artists involved in games like No Man's Sky, Gravity Rush and Sable expressed how Moebius directly inspired the visual identity of their games. Fire up Sable, for instance, hop on a hoverbike and speed down a desert slope in search of an adventure, and Moebius' comics and design works immediately spring to mind.
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Still from the game Sable. Studio Shedworks count Moebius' comics and design work among the major influences for the 2021 title.

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