The following essay was originally written for, and published in, The Comics Journal #300 in 2009, as a special instalment of my Euro-Comics column “Continental Drift”; it was subsequently published on TCJ.com, but on a particular iteration of that website which is no longer online. I therefore now reprint it here in minimally edited form, on the occasion of our recent episode of Radio Rackham on Moebius’ Hermetic Garage.
Spanning more or less exactly the life of the Journal, Moebius’ greatest invention, the Hermetic Garage, has been a constant in his creative life. A set of concepts to which he has returned intermittently through his career and which has found new life in his most recent bookâ€”an exhilarating return to form.
It begins with a breakdown. The top is blown off the Rigger when the Engineer Barnier tries to hook it up to a particle projector. Now everything will be askew when Jerry Cornelius returns. There is something eminently fitting about this episode. Two throwaway pages drawn in a flurry by Moebius, with no particular intention of continuation. The year was 1976, the venue was the sixth issue of the seminal comics magazine Métal Hurlant, and the incident triggered a revelation of comics.
Editor-in-Chief Jean-Pierre Dionnet encouraged the artist to follow it up and to create from it a series. Thus the year of the Journal also became the year of the Garage. The second episodeâ€”entitled “Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius”â€”appeared in the following issue. In it, we see Cornelius’ tanker truck rolling across the barren tundra towards the capital city of Armjourth, promising a reckoning when it arrives at is destination. Cornelius, an immigrant from Moorcock’s Multiverse, acts out the disembodied part of mysterious foil to the series’ primary protagonist, Major Grubert, who makes his appearance in the third episode.
The Major had previously appeared in a number of short pieces published elsewhere, but this was his as well as Moebius’ first outing in a longer series. The Airtight Garageâ€”as it is called in the tone-deaf English translation, which loses entirely title’s esoteric connotationsâ€”continued serialization for the next three years. (It has since also become known as Major Fatal). The Rigger blown, the story ran its aleatory course. Like much of Moebius’ work those years, it was part of his ongoing response to a transcendental experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico more than a decade earlier, and was developed in accordance with the propitiously skewed perspective provided by the ongoing use of cannabis. Manifesting its creator’s attempts at ‘automatic cartooning’, a steering principleâ€”at least initiallyâ€”was to dispense with the plot at the beginning of each episode to start afresh somewhere else, with different characters and a different drawing style, but simultaneously to retain enough common elements to make the whole ultimately accrete into something greater than the sum of its parts, epic in scope.
Moebius, who under his given name Jean Giraud (b. 1938) had been drawing the western strip Blueberry to the solidly crafted scripts of Jean-Michel Charlier for over a decade, had simultaneously been experimenting on and off with a more freeform approach to comics in short pieces published at first in the seminal counterculture magazine Hara-Kiri, then in its spiritual offspring L’Echo des savanes and Fluide Glacial, as well as the home Blueberry itselfâ€”the well-established humor- and adventure comics magazine Pilote, run by Charlier and Astérix co-creator and comic genius René Goscinny.
Here, he published in 1973 the story “La Déviation” (‘The Detour’) in which he, his wife, and their young daughter leave on vacation in their small car and soon find themselves on a dreamlike trip through the creator’s mind. Eschewing the fluid brushwork of Blueberry, he rendered it exclusivelyâ€”and almost obsessivelyâ€”in pen and ink, obtaining the uniformity of linework and concomitant sense of artifice that was to characterize his work as Moebius. This story was a watershed for the artistâ€”its basic conceit of self-discovery through drawing and the motif of the journey as the central structuring device have been constants in his work ever since, and especially in the Garage.
Frustrated by the creative constraints they experienced at Pilote, he and fellow artist Philippe Druillet joined with Dionnet (and business manager Bernard Farkas) to found Métal Hurlant in 1974. With this new science fiction-oriented platform, Moebius stepped up his game in a number of groundbreaking short stories, including the freewheeling SF & sex romp “Le Bandard fou” (‘The Horny Goof,’ 1974)â€”his most acutely “underground” pieceâ€”and the silent adventures of his most iconic creation, the stoic bird rider with the pointy hood, Arzach (1975:76).
The Garage is a map of creation. It goes beyond world-building to explore the creative act itself. The grand metaphor it proposes is the Hermetic Garage of the titleâ€”a meteor shaped into a womb-like world by a fallible demiurge, the Major, residing outside it in his phallic space vessel, the Ciguri, with his sorcerer wife Dame Malvina. The details of this creation myth are rich, but simultaneously clearly on-the-spot improvisation for the occasion. Like any self-respecting model of human consciousnessâ€”most prominently Freud’sâ€”the structural concept of the Garage is a division into three levels, passing from the unconscious to the super-conscious. By virtue of his visual inventiveness and attention to detail, the Garage becomes a journey through this inner space, describing its territories, its flora and fauna, its peoples, its monuments and cities, its workings. Traveling at the speed of the reader’s discovery.
Where Blueberry required of him adherence to a certain standard of realism, a homogeneity of style, the Moebius comics played more directly to his strengths as a draftsman. Less an observational artist than an inventor, the fantasy world of the Garage accommodated any idea he could come up with and any representational styleâ€”from exquisitely rendered illustrative tableaux to bigfoot cartooning. Almost exclusively drawn in pen, the crispness of the images imbues them with a slightly unreal quality, the sense of perfection that he would later cultivate further at the expense of the anarchic, rough freedom that animates his drawing in the Garage.
In his 1989 in-depth interview by Numa Sadoul, the artist himself says that in contrast to Blueberry, in a Moebius drawing “there is no such thing as a mistake”, which is evident because the world he draws is so emphatically his, shaped to his temperament. Everything in a Moebius drawing is constituted of the same raw, imaginary artificeâ€”an example is the memorable image of the two supporting characters, Sam Mohab and his fiancé, looking out a train window at a small, lumpy, downwards swooping fighter plane. Recalling the western setting of Blueberry, the image would never work in that comicâ€”there is no naturalist rationale for the giddy linework describing especially Sam’s back. These lines follow their own logic and enter into dazzling juxtaposition with the hyper-rendered, wavy hair of the two characters. At such moments the marks converge with their own living, breathing meaning. The Garage is a living construct.
It is an entirely pliable world. The Major can be a square-jawed hero one moment and a dithering buffoon the next; genres intersperse unassumingly (from SF to gag-based humor to colonial adventure to western to straight-up superhero comics); ever-changing episode headers pay homage to everything from Little Nemo in Slumberland to The Spirit. Inconsistency is a ground rule in the Garage, but is always contained within the lyric fathom of the artist. Individual images are enhanced by the insertion of symbolic imageryâ€”a painting of satyr poised over a fallen rose, cropped by the panel frame to show us only his lower body, the Major dreaming of a submarine-shaped tomb, skullsâ€”the meanings of which remain open but affords the work a visual richness far beyond the narrative itself.
Strongly influenced by the mad Will Elder, Moebius adds a flourish of sight gags to his richly rendered backgroundsâ€”at different times, we are visited, for example, by inconvenient-looking versions of Captain America, The Thing, and Charlie Brown. He also draws images within the imagesâ€”photos, picture books, comicsâ€”often reflecting or referring imprecisely to the narrative itself and thus emphasizing its nature as a construct. At other times a visual idea assumes a punktum-like poetry of its own. There is a moment where a woman, eyes heavily shaded, looks down at three bloodstains on her white dress, one companion pointing double-fingered to the blemish, the other’s dome topped by a neat black curl. This happens in a panel where the separately framed protagonistsâ€”the aforementioned Sam with a gaping exit wound in the back of his head, cursing “Shit! Shit!”â€”orient themselves towards the right of the frame in which a big “TANG” erupts. The poetics of the comics image laid out with eloquence and humor.
Into this world of meaning walks the Major in his pith helmet, carrying his overnight bag, ultimately to ascend to a higher state of consciousness, and to the third level of the Garage, along with his counterpart, Jerry Cornelius. There they face the nihilist threat of the mysterious Bakalites, before the plot twists and folds back upon itself andâ€”in one of the great endings in comicsâ€”lands the Major in the Parisian metro. A world he never made. The overarching title of the work, Major Fatal, is no coincidence: the creator does not believe in chance. Everything, including his own improvisation, unfolds according to a plan, and the Garage would remain his most powerful engine for the exploration thereof.
“After that, my ejaculation was over”, says the artist with a laugh in the 2007 documentary Moebius Redux. He refers to the period of “La Déviation”, “Le Bandard fou”, Arzach, and Major Fatalâ€”the four works in which he found himself uniquely attuned to his cultural moment, and indeed the comics which established the matrix for all of his subsequent work. Not only does most of his later work use and develop upon their themes and motifs, the characters themselves reappear in different roles, as if they were players in a Tezuka-like ‘star system’â€”giving the sense of a strangely shared universe.
Although permeated by the esoteric ethos of their writer, this extends even to the books he produced in collaboration with author/ filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky through the eighties and nineties. The most significant of these, the six-volume Incal (1981:88), sees Moebius evolve from the energized cartoonist who emerged from the Garage and the never-realized Quixotic film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Duneâ€”helmed by Jodorowsky and allegedly involving at different times such entities as Salvador DalÃ and Pink Floydâ€”into a more ascetic, spiritually itinerant and ultimately less confident artist. The same period saw his deepening involvement in the cosmologist sect of Jean-Paul Appel-Guéry, and subsequently a profound interest in psychotherapy and instinctotherapy. His time with Appel-Guéry had him attempting to transform his art away from the “morbid and overall negative feelings” that he felt had hitherto permeated it. And in the years following his departure from the sect, this developed into a search for a more “objective” mode of drawing, a search for purity through sublimation of the ego, with echoes of Buddhist thinking.
In other words, a development away from much of what makes the Garage great. This is evident in his work through the nineties, permeated as it is by a new age ethos of postulated enlightenment, in which the art is increasingly pared down, the line perfected and serenely still, with lots of crystals, spheres and cosmic jellyfish. It is a pretty arid place, even if certain works such as the initial books in the five-volume parable of the enlightenment of the primordial archetypes Stel & Atan, Le Monde d’Edena (‘The World of Edena’, 1985:2001), and the over-the-top Catholic exegesis Le Coeur couronnée (‘The Crowned Heart’, 1992:98), written by Jodorowsky at his most hammy, have their moments.
The Garage itself did not come through this period unscathed either. This is essentially because Moebius decided to consolidate its world into a more coherent cosmology. First, he signed off on a thoroughly forgettable spin-off series called Le Monde du Garage hermétique (‘The World of the Airtight Garage’, 1990:92), written by his friend and agent Jean-Marc Lofficier and drawn by Eric Shanower and Jerry Bingham. Then he himself returned to it with Major Fatal vol. 2 : L’Homme du Ciguri (‘The Man from the Ciguri’, 1995), which picks up the story at the moment the Major emerges from the Parisian metro.
It does not work. The fact that it is clearly scripted leaves attempts at evoking the improvisatory spirit of the original dead in the water, and the injection of yet another metathematic level in the form of the artist’s long-haired alter-ego from “La Déviation”â€”mutely hunched over the drawing table with his back turned to the Majorâ€”only momentarily serves to distract from the distinct feeling that we are witnessing a number of ineffable, wondrous concepts trotted out for an encore no one asked for. This particular storyline continued in what was intended as a third installment in the series, the first 22 pages of which saw American publication in the short-lived Moebius Comics from Caliber between 1996:97, before it was abandoned.
Through the second half of the nineties and the first years of the present decade Giraud was on the ascendant. His major work of this period was his first independent Blueberry story after Charlier’s death in 1989, “Mr. Blueberry” (1995:2005). Our hero arrives at the town of Tombstone in the days leading up to the showdown at OK Corral, only to be shot in the back immediately and spend the rest of the story bed-ridden in a room at the town saloon, reading Moby-Dick. Here he reminisces about his first meeting, as a youth, with the Apache chief Geronimo. Interviewed by a hack writer from the East Coast, who has come in search of the Wild West, he describes the legendary Apache as his “red whale”, while a myth is in the making outside their windows. In other words, an elaborate conglomeration of clichés in service of what essentially is a rather flimsy story offering little insight into the myths it purports to probe. Sumptuously executed and packed to the gills with playful intertextual references, its very life on the page becomes its point. A delightful folly. Very ‘Moebius.’
In terms of work actually signed ‘Moebius,’ these years were very slim pickings. Slowly, however, and perhaps fueled by the inspired work he was doing on Blueberry, he was rediscovering a vitality of vision and a liveliness of line in a number of self-published, largely sketchbook-based comics. The first where things started clicking is 40 days dans le désert B (’40 Days in the Desert B’, 1999). 70 individual, thematically connected pen drawings are strung together to form a vague narrative. A kind of wide-screen production of R. Crumb’s classic “719th Meditation of Mr. Natural” (1970), it describes an extended vision of creation and death experienced by a lone figureâ€”garbed in the characteristic Moebius pointy hoodâ€”seated in the desert. Like a lot of what came before, the work still suffers from a slightly haughty pretension, suggesting profundity in what seems essentially superficial, but highly imaginative visual ideas. What is remarkable, however, is the development it marks in the artist’s approach towards a clean, yet textured idiom, synthesizing the serenity of his 80s and 90s work and the organics of his underground roots.
The theme of the desert as a kind of Locus Amoenus from where springs creation has been a constant in both Giraud’s and Moebius’ work since the beginning. It is a manifestation of the momentous experience of visiting the deserts of Mexico as a young man in 1955. Through the series as a whole, Mike Blueberry probably spends more page time in the desert than anywhere else, and it is no coincidence that the landscape of the Garage is largely desert. The Desert B is the ‘Désert bis’, or the ‘B-Side Desert’, another concept developed by the artist as a means of self-examination. It is also the setting of his introspective sketchbook series Inside Moebius, of which he has published five volumes so far (2000:8). Combining loose drawing and rich coloring, they are improvisational comics in which he plays bigfoot cartoon versions of himself at different stages in his life off the main characters of his oeuvreâ€”Blueberry, Arzach, the Major, Malvina, Stel & Atan, Geronimo, and others.
It is based around the kind of exploratory template used in the Garage, where anything can happen. Executed swiftly, however, it downplays the kind of visual discovery central to most of his previous work in favor of character-based humor and occasional detours into personal or political reflection. Osama bin Laden, for example, plays an important role and is alternately confronted with Arzachâ€”who actually talks!â€”and Geronimo. At one pointâ€”much to his horrorâ€”he is turned into a woman and therefore decides to cover himself up in a typically pointy hood. Then he sits there, in the desert, a nexus of nihilism rather than insight. ‘Moebius’ himself experiences literal flights of fancy, Crumbesque episodes of sexual tension, and sequences of infantile regression, all the while whimsically referring to important moments in the creator’s life without revealing much to the reader.
While highly self-indulgent and probably primarily of interest to the dedicated Moebius fan, these books nevertheless exhibits an infectious exuberanceâ€”an exuberance that I am pleased to say also marks his recent and rather triumphant return to the Garage: Chasseur déprime (a wordplay on ‘Depressed Hunter’ and ‘Bounty Hunter’) was released last year as the first of a new series dealing with the Garage. In contrast to the Ciguri storyline, which it seems to jettison almost entirely, it takes the Garage not as a set ‘universe’ but rather a set of rather fuzzily defined concepts that act as creative catalysts to their creator. The approach is not the same as the original story, but that is part of the point. The plotting is less evidently improvised and deal not so much with a developing narrative as a series of variations on an idea and an interconnected set of motifs.
The preamble finds the Major in the pueblo of Chatalong, somewhere in the desert of the second level of the Garage. He accidentally overhears two or three strangers discussing a contract they will put on his head. Evidently ignorant of his iconic appearanceâ€”they are familiar only with the clean-shaven, suit-wearing version from the end of the original, and the Ciguri storyâ€”he addresses himself to them and offers to take out the contract. Arriving in Armjourth to meet his contact, he encounters an ‘overturner’â€”or perhaps ‘fishtailor’ (Moebius likes his silly plays on words). Of the dominatrix type so typical in Moebius’ work, she offers to overturn his mind. He accepts. The central part of the story, thus, is a series of nested dream sequences, in large part laid out in full-page tableaux, in which the Major finds himself alternately in the desert and a Kafkaesque art gallery run by the Overturner and populated by rabbit-like creatures, experiencing again and again menacing transformations, enmeshed in throbbing organic patterns with crystalline skulls emerging in increasing profusion. Towards the end, he meets his aforementioned clean-shaven self, who offers to show him the way out.
Much of the imagery was established in 40 days dans le désert B, but Moebius here adds to the mix a series of motifs derived from Pre-Columbian art, some of it drawn scratchily with what looks like a Rotring pen. These marks, soaking into the paper, constitute a compellingly tactile contrast to the typically cool runnings of the rest of the penwork. The desert scenes offer gloriously textured juxtaposition to the sterile, ruled architecture of the gallery. Emphasizing not only the dreamlike quality of the narrative itself, but also its status as construct, Moebius demonstratively disrupts consistency between panels, changing the appearance of both characters and settings in a manner worthy of George Herriman. Notoriously having long been unable to preserve continuity between panels and episodes in Blueberry, he here makes of this a virtue, creating an ever-shifting world on paper.
As is the case with the symbology of Major Fatal, the imagery here is suggestive rather than enunciative. Where he then employed it in the service of youthful discovery of possibility, Moebius this time around has donned his pith helmet to probe the fault lines of old age. The repetitive dream threatens an abysmal loss of self in the creative impulseâ€”a loss we might understand as the desert Moebius has been roaming these last decades and from which he has now so marvelously returned, but ultimately, and more importantly, the kind of loss we may all fear and need to negotiate in our own lives.
Current editions of the works mentioned: Le Garage hermétique, Les HumanoÃ¯des associés, 2006; 40 days dans le desert B, Ã‰ditions Stardom, 1999; Inside Moebius vols. 1-5, Ã‰ditions Stardom, 2000-2008; Chasseur déprime, Ã‰ditions Stardom, 2008. The quotations are taken from Numa Sadoul, Moebius, Casterman, 1991, Moebius Comics #1, Caliber Comics, 1996 & Hasko Bauman (director), Moebius Redux, Germany 2007. The Hermetic Garage was originally serialized in the American Heavy Metal in the late 70s. It was republished by Marvel/Epic in garishly colored form in Moebius 3: The Airtight Garage, 1987 and Moebius’ Airtight Garage #1-4 in 1993. The spinoff series was published by Marvel in 1990 as The Elsewhere Prince #1-6. The Man from the Ciguri was published by Dark Horse in 1996. Read also my 2012 obituary on Giraud/Moebius at Hooded Utilitarian.