TCJ 300: Continental Drift

Posted by on December 29th, 2009 at 4:54 AM

 

The Constant Garage


From The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius Chapter One: A Dangerous Overhaul in Heavy Metal Vol. 1 #7; ©1976 Métal Hurlant.


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 book — an exhilarating return to form.

I.

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 Comics Journal also became the year of the Garage. The second episode — entitled “Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius” — appeared in the following issue. In it, we see Cornelius’ tanker truck rolling across the barren tundra toward the capital city of Armjourth, promising a reckoning when it arrives at its 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 Garage — as it is called in the tone-deaf English translation, which loses entirely the title’s esoteric connotations — continued serialization for the next three years. The Rigger blown, the story ran its aleatory course. Like much of Moebius’ work these 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 principle — at least initially — 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 more than a decade, had simultaneously been experimenting on and off with a more freeform approach to comics in short pieces published 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 of Blueberry itself — the well-established humor- and adventure-comics magazine Pilote, run by Charlier and Astérix co-creator and comic genius René Goscinny.


From “The Detour in Heavy Metal Presents Moebius, ©1981 HM Communications, Inc.


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 exclusively — almost obsessively — in pen and ink, obtaining the uniformity of line-work and concomitant sense of artifice that was to characterize his work as Moebius. This story was a watershed for the artist — its basic conceit of self-discovery through drawing and the structuring motif of the journey 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) — his most acutely “underground” piece — and the silent adventures of his most iconic creation, the stoic bird rider with the pointy hood, Arzach (1975-76).

II.

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 title — 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 fairly detailed, but simultaneously clearly on-the-spot improvisation for the occasion. Like any self-respecting model of human consciousness — most prominently Freud’s — the structural concept of the Garage is a division into three levels, passing from the unconscious to the super-conscious. By virtue of Moebius’ 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 style — from exquisite illustrative rendering to big-foot 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 artifice — an example is the memorable image of the two supporting characters Sam Mohab and his fiancée looking out a train window at a small, lumpy, downward-swooping fighter plane. Recalling the Western setting of Blueberry, the image would never work in that comic — there is no naturalist rationale for the giddy line-work describing especially Sam’s back. These lines follow their own logic and enter into dazzling juxtaposition with their hyper-rendered, wavy hair. 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 imagery — a painting of a 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, skulls — the meanings of which remain open but afford the work a visual richness far beyond the narrative itself.


Image courtesy of Matthias Wivel.


Strongly influenced by the mad Will Elder, Moebius adds a flourish of sight gags to his richly rendered backgrounds — 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 images — photos, picture books, comics — 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 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 protagonists — the aforementioned Sam with a gaping exit wound in the back of his head, cursing “Shit! Shit!” — orient themselves toward 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 and — in one of the great endings in comics — 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.

III.

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 the Garage — 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” — 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 ’80s and ’90s. Over the course of the most significant of these, the six-volume Incal (1981-88), Moebius evolves from the energized cartoonist who emerged from the Garage and the never-realized quixotic film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune — helmed by Jodorowsky and allegedly involving at different times such entities as Salvador Dalí and Pink Floyd — 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. During his time with Appel-Guéry he attempted 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 evolved into a search for a more “objective” mode of drawing, a search for purity through sublimation of the ego, with echoes of Buddhist thinking.


©1977 Métal Hurlant.


In other words, a development away from much of what makes the Garage great. This is evident in his work through the ’90s, 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), partly 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 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 meta-thematic level in the form of the artist’s long-haired ’70s alter-ego from “La Déviation” — mutely hunched over the drawing table with his back turned to the Major — 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.

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