Dedicated to my pal Garth Groombridge, to whom I promised this series at the beginning of 2020.
In the wake of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I loved but far too few others did, Cinebook, the self-proclaimed Ninth Art publishers, put out a series of seven hardback volumes, collecting the complete run of Valerian et Laureline, the forty year long comics series written by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres. Given the chance to read the complete story, I slowly accumulated all seven books.
This was my second attempt at Valerian (apologies, lovely red-headed Laureline). I’d first heard of the series in the Eighties, thanks to the late Kim Thompson, writing in The Comics Journal. Four individual stories from the series had been translated into English and published in slim, individual albums, out of chronological order. I enjoyed the first of these that I found, ‘Ambassador of the Shadows’, but was less enthusiastic about the other three, and ended up not retaining the books.
Some of it was the failure then to appreciate them, but a lot of it was that the series clearly was a series, with a chronological impetus, and to have such a small, and random portion of that, without any ability to fill in all round these elements wasn’t really tolerable. I am very wedded to completeness and a start-to-finish reading order.
So now let’s read that series, from beginning to end, and render unto Caesar my thoughts, one by one, on each story.
To begin, we go back to November 1967, when ‘Bad Dreams’ debuted in Pilote. Christin and Mezieres started a vivid SF series that was going to call for fantastic visuals and countless alien races, planets and technology. They came from the France of General DeGaulle, a France they describe as grey, dull, regimented, hard though it is for us Anglos to imagine from Frenchmen. The escapist note, out of tedious reality into the colour of imagination is as hard to overlook as the Eiffel Tower from anywhere in Paris.
First stories are always difficult. They’ve got to set things up, they’ve got to introduce us to the characters, and hopefully without too much by way of exposition dumps. Then they’ve got to establish a tone as well as construct a plot that will, again hopefully, inspire the readers to want another story and, more importantly, an editor to commission it. When you’re dealing with SF, there’s going to be a ton of exposition to drop on the audience’s heads.
The first Asterix story is a long way from the best. Some creators need time to adjust, to fine-tune, knock off rough edges, recognise what works. There’s a general consensus that ‘Bad Dreams’ is not very good, and I’d agree in part with that. The faults are obvious: Mezieres’ characters, who are all human in this first outing, shade too much towards cartoons, especially Valerian and the First Technocrats. And Christin’s basic plot was already a cliché that SF had long outgrown that far back.
Nevertheless, let’s occupy ourselves with a bit of detail. The background is laid out in a lengthy introductory caption block, rather like the opening of Star Wars (there will be more than one such moments of correspondence with George Lucas’s famous series but as most of these are visual and I’ve only ever watched the renamed A New Hope once and the rest not at all, I doubt I shall spot them).
It’s 2720. Instantaneous spatiotemporal travel was discovered in 2314. Earth, ruled by a Council of Technocrats from Galaxity, has a Galactic Empire and a bad case of laziness. Deprived of the need to work, the population simply dreams (though unlike in Wall-E they haven’t turned all fat and flobby, despite several centuries extra advantage) courtesy of the Dreams Department. Only the Technocrats and their Spatiotemporal Agents, a few hundred or so, remain active and intelligent. These agents guard the timestream from interference.
One such is Valerian.
But there is a serious problem. Xombul, Director of Dreams, has stolen a spatiotemporal ship and disappeared to 1,000 AD where he intends to steal the magic of Alberic with regard to transforming human beings into animals, which he will lead back to 2720, frightening the dreaming population with horrors and forcing the First Technocrats to install him as Emperor. You see what I mean about cliched.
In it’s favour, the story is bright and breezy, not hanging around at any point. Valerian is a fairly conventional hero at this point, black-haired, square-jawed, obviously professional, but given a comic element of being almost unpunctual, which thankfully doesn’t last beyond the first couple of pages.
The famous partnership doesn’t appear until the very last panel of page 10. A silhouette of half the back of a girl’s head, looking down on Valerian, preparing to sleep on an oversized fallen leaf in the forest at night. In the morning, it’s curled itself around him, prison tight. Valerian can only escape with the assistance of the red-headed forest girl and her local knowledge: Laureline.
Valerian’s from the unimaginably distant future, Laureline from less than a millennium in the past. The slim, independent, courageous girl from the Middle Ages shows no sign of concern about the Spatiotemporal Agent, joining him on a quest to find Xombul and keep him from taking Alberic’s spell back.
The pair quickly form an effective team, even after Xombul captures him and changes her into a Unicorn.
And that’s the significant moment. Unicorn’s are magical creatures to begin with, they know things. And when Laureline is changed back, she knows Valerian is a man from the future and, what’s more, she knows that because she knows this, he has to take her back to his future with him. The weird thing is that she doesn’t seem in the least bit concerned about being dragged out of her native era, 1,760 years into a future that’s about as removed from her every experience as could be. Yes, Valerian pops her into the Mnemonic Machine, back at his craft, which updates her quite considerably, but it’s a bit far-fetched to have a girl from the Middle Ages taking what she would have to consider sorcery of the most Black so much in her stride.
Though, as Laureline will go on to take most everything in her stride for the next forty years, I suppose it’s a case of Start As You Mean To Go On.
But when we get back to Galaxity, and Emperor Xombul I, it’s Valerian who saves the day, by bringing back Alberic’s antidote to the magic and instantly destroying Xombul’s power. After 30 pages, ‘Bad Dreams’ is over.
The unorthodox length of the story has made it impossible to reprint down the years, and indeed it’s only availability is in The Complete Valerian Volume 1. The truth is that the first story is primitive on several levels. The rough (in comparison) art, the unimaginative plot, the implausibility of Laureline bouncing from the 11th to the 28th Century without the least qualm. And to pick out an example of the somewhat old-fashioned ideas going in, I’d draw attention to the early scene with three of his fellow Spatiotemporal Agents, before dropping into the past. Valerian, male, Caucasian and three unnamed colleagues: one female, black, one male, Asian, one male, in temporal disguise. The white, male hero.
I may be being a bit too sensitive at this point. I don’t believe either Christin or Mezieres are consciously racist, but in 1967 unconscious assumptions were probably more prevalent than when they had developed the series further.
One final point I’d like to mention is that gulf in attitudes between the positivity and attack of the story overall,and its two characters in particular and the sad and cynical vision of humanity portrayed in 2760, that people have to have their dreams fed to them mechanically, depicting them as lacking the imagination to dream for themselves.
But ‘Bad Dreams’ is only the start. There are forty years to cover. Be back soon.