I grew up with comics, but they were American comics. Back then, if you were going to argue about your favorite comic group, you either backed Marvel or DC. Chances are you didn’t know other groups existed. At least, none worth mentioning.
Later, in high school, I came across different comics in the library, namely French and Belgian ones like Asterix the Gaul and The Adventures of Tintin. Japanese manga also started showing up at my local comic book store due to the underground popularity of anime shows secretly subtitled and distributed by fans. I began to realize that the medium could be so much more, and that the world was bigger and more diverse than I had realized. Comics were different things to different people.
Sadly, one of these franchises never hit my radar back then. I didn’t even learn about it until the last few years, when buzz began to grow for a new Luc Besson film: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. While the movie itself wasn’t as good as I had hoped, the history around it source material got me digging into some of its original comics.
The series was first published in 1967 and ran until 2010, featuring the adventures of a pair of time travel agents, Valérian and Laureline. Valérian is your classic dark-haired hero agent type who follows his orders even if he has doubts about them. His partner, Laureline, is a fiery independent and intelligent woman who is more willing to question those orders.
This series started out at the same time the original Star Trek series was on the air. But while that show was proud to have a female officer on the bridge, this series had the two heroes as equal partners. Laureline is as likely to save Valérian as the other way around.
For this review, I read the first volume of Valérian—The Complete Collection, where we not only see the first few books to be published, but get some insight on the creators, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, and learn about how they met and how the series evolved over time.
And evolve it did. The first book, Bad Dreams, actually makes me think more of an SF version of an Asterix comic (not surprising since it was published in Pilote magazine, the home of Asterix). It’s drawn far more cartoony than later issues, and the content is far more goofy. It does, however, establish the origin of Valérian and Laureline’s partnership.
Valérian is a time agent in a utopic version of the 28th century, who is sent back to 11th century France to stop a rogue scientist from messing with the timeline. He’s eventually rescued by Laureline, and in the process of helping him accidentally learns that he’s a time traveller. As a result, she’s brought back to his present and made a time agent as well.
The series reminds me of Doctor Who mixed with Star Trek, in that their adventures in this volume range from the distant past to the (more-or-less) present, to the future (well, their present. Time travel is confusing).
The second and third books in the volume, a two-parter called The City of Shifting Waters, takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the late 1980s, after nuclear explosions had melted the polar ice caps and flooded the coastal cities. Valérian and Laureline have to navigate a flooded New York and later a Yosemite Park ravaged by earthquakes. This is where the artwork begins to shine. While still cartoonish, it’s more grounded and often visionary, painting a vivid picture of a half-submerged New York.
The last book in the series, Empire of a Thousand Planets, is where most people agree the series finds its voice. Despite the similarity of titles, this is not to be confused with the recent film. Instead, it focuses on a single star system with numerous inhabited planets, but no access to hyperdrive technology as of yet. Valérian and Laureline are sent to assess the system and its inhabitants in a kind of covert First Contact scenario, but things go wrong for them quickly.
This is where the SF imagination that is synonymous with the series really springs to life. Sometimes every single panel on a page is filled with complex imagery, and even the less dynamic panels still carry a lot of subtext, fleshing out the alien world the pair of agents are exploring.
While I can’t say the early issues will hold up today for new readers as well as they did when they were first published, I can’t help but appreciate the series from a historic point of view. Valérian and Laureline clearly broke new ground in a way that most people in North America were unaware of, yet ended up feeling the effects of it indirectly. Many have speculated that Ralph McQuarrie was influenced by Jean-Claude Mézières’ artwork when creating concept art for the first Star Wars films. And Luc Besson’s earlier SF film The Fifth Element clearly borrowed its sense of style.
I recommend checking out the series, however—if only to remind you that there is far more to the comic book world out there than Marvel and DC.
BONUS: There was also a French animated series of Valerian called Time Jam. This is the first episode.