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It's Not Just a Visual Style--It's a Vision

Hollywood has used his work, but a comic-book artist hopes a new film will keep his style too.

October 29, 2000|CHARLES SOLOMON

American readers and moviegoers know the work of Jean "Moebius" Giraud--even if they don't recognize his name.

In films from "Tron" to "The Fifth Element," the influence of the French comic book artist-illustrator-designer can be seen, as well as in such graphic novels as Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." The recently released "Digimon: The Movie" also clearly bears the hallmarks of his style: characters drawn in strong lines with areas of flat pastel color. It's a clean, simple look that diverges from the more detailed designs in other anime films.

Although Giraud has influenced the designs of science-fiction and fantasy projects in the U.S. and Japan, he initially attracted widespread attention in the mid-'60s for "Lieutenant Blueberry," a serial graphic novel set in the American West, which he drew for the French weekly magazine Pilote. As his style matured, he began to write as well as draw his comics and graphic novels, and increasingly turned to science-fiction settings. His visions of the world to come attracted the attention of Hollywood studios, and he contributed designs for "Tron," "Willow," "Masters of the Universe," "Alien," "The Abyss" and "The Fifth Element."

Giraud is currently at work on the story and designs for "Through the Moebius Strip," a computer-animated feature slated for release in 2002 that will be animated in Hong Kong and mainland China. A friendly man who speaks English fluently, the 62-year-old artist talked about work in a recent interview at a studio in Marina del Rey, where he was surrounded by sketches and storyboards for the new film.

Born in Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris, Giraud displayed an early aptitude for drawing. His imagination was fired by the great 19th century illustrators, whose work he discovered as a child. "When I was a boy, we had shelves of books in my room--big books from the end of the 19th century, with red covers and gold on the spine," he recalls. "When I was good--or when I was ill--my grandmother would give me one of them. So the books were connected to a kind of loneliness, but also to a kind of freedom: I was comfortable in my room, discovering. The title of the series was 'La Tour du Monde' (A Trip Around the World) and they were a little like National Geographic, only with beautiful woodcuts instead of photographs. Those illustrations were the first food for my eyes.

"One day, I discovered a drawing that was somehow different from the others--the same, but better. I discovered after a time it was by Gustave Dore," Giraud adds with an enthusiasm that remains undimmed after more than 50 years. "I realized I was already in search not of perfection, but of a kind of hierarchy. When I read comics with other children, I had the same reaction: Look for the best drawings, the best artists, the best stories." Giraud studied at the School of Applied Arts in Paris, where he wrote and drew his first western comic strip, "Frank and Jeremy." In 1960, he began working as an assistant to the noted Belgian artist Joseph Gillian ("Jiji") on another western series. Around the same time, he started drawing darkly funny strips for the French magazine Hara-Kiri, which he signed "Moebius"--technically a term for a strip of paper connected in a loop that permits drawing to flow uninterrupted and cover both surfaces of the paper. In 1963, he and writer Jean-Michel Charlier began the adventures of Mike Donovan, alias Mike Blueberry, a U.S. Army officer who has been framed for murder in the post-Civil War West. The "Blueberry" saga runs to 24 volumes, with an additional 12 volumes of two spinoff series.

After illustrating science-fiction novels in France, Giraud co-founded the magazine Metal Hurlant, the ancestor of the American Heavy Metal. His popular comic series "Arzach," "The Airtight Garage," "The Long Tomorrow," "The Incal" and "The Man From Ciguri" have influenced a generation of artists and illustrators in Europe and America. His American publisher, Dark Horse Comics, reports that Giraud's graphic novels have sold more than 35,000 copies in this country, a very respectable figure for a foreign artist's work.

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