Valerian et Laureline: 6 – Welcome to Alflolol


Valerian

‘Welcome to Alflolol’ was another of the Fantagraphics edition of Valerian et Laureline stories from the Eighties. It’s a clash of cultures outing, coding the Establishment and the Counter-Culture into a opposition of civilisations on the distant planet Alflolol, a story of two races that are incapable of understanding each other, one of which is incapable by its nature of comprehending, and the other which is determined not only not to understand but to do everything within it’s power to make the other confirm to its version.
And in splitting up our two spatiotemporal agents and attaching one to each side, Christin and Mezieres not only personalise the conflict, not only emphasise the depth of the gulf between sides but, for the first time, allow Laureline to assert her independence as an operator. Though she gets the short straw in terms of exposure in the story, this is Laureline serving notice that she will no longer be the sidekick.
The set-up is that Earth has colonised a distant, massive planet that they have called Technorog, which they are exploiting industrially. The planet seems to have been abandoned: there has been no sign of its original inhabitants for at least two centuries. The colonists live in artificial domes that duplicate Earth’s circadian rhythms and enable them to ignore completely the natural life of Technorog.
Things start with our familiar pair leaving after a routine tour of inspection. They are divided on Technorog’s merits. Laureline has been put off by the workaholic ethos of the colony whilst Valerian, the trained Agent and the more willing Company Man, is much more forgiving of the attitude. Still, neither are too disheartened at moving on. They request a gap opening in the massive planet’s protective shield. They fly out into space. Val’s all set to start the jump back to Earth but suddenly Laureline is enveloped in and paralysed by a cold blue aura, a cry of distress emanating from somewhere.
Searching for its source, they find a strange, unstreamlined spaceship falling towards the protective shield, which rebounds to the asteroid belt and is wrecked. The Agents follow the ship, looking for survivors.
Laureline is possessed again, floated off to the survivors, a family of gigantic, horn-headed humanoids, big, jovial, unaggressive and positively Rabelasian in demeanour. Each has a distinct mental ability, telepathy, telekenesis etc. They are also incredibly long-lived. And, but you’ve seen this coming, they are the original inhabitants of Alflolol, as the planet was named when they and their friends and neighbours left for a brief trip, about 4,000 years ago.
Now they’re back to return to their old haunts.
All of this has to be explained by the family head, Argol, to the increasingly concerned Val, who can foresee loads of trouble. Laureline’s still effectively a prisoner of the grandmother, who’s dying at the incredibly premature age of 220,000 years. Only once Val saves her life is Laureline back to her old self, only she’s a bit different. Prolonged exposure to the Alflololians has placed her firmly in their camp, to an almost unreasonable degree. Val’s delighted, overjoyed and relieved to have her back, but Laureline isn’t accepting it. She’s an afterthought, as usual. She doesn’t believe in Val’s love for her, especially as she’s found somebody who loves her more. This is the family’s gumun, a furry, four-legged and two-armed beast with a serious case of infatuation (good taste, mind you).
I have to stop and question one thing here. Val and Laureline have been a team, a good team and, we have to assume, lovers for some time, despite their vastly different backgrounds. Suddenly, she’s revolting against everything he stands for and, by extension, him too. Whilst her reaction, and her identification with the big-hearted, unregimented, unconventional Alflololians is entirely in keeping with her less-repressed instincts, this all comes directly after a prolonged spell of being under mental domination. And throughout almost all of the book she’s going to be thoroughly unreasonable about things, until a re-conversion that’s almost a spin on the spot.
So I have to ask myself, how much of this is an imposition on our favourite redhead’s mind?
I don’t expect for one second that that’s what Christin and Mezieres intended, or want us thinking, but it’s in my mind.
And I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Val for the rest of the tale. Val’s in the middle. He knows his duty to Earth. He knows his responsibility to see that the rights of the Alflololians are fully respected according to Galaxity’s directives. He knows just how important Technorog is to Earth’s forces and the Spatiotemporal Service. He also intuits, not that it’s difficult to work this out, that the Alflololians are going to be the equivalent of a whole herd of bulls in one great big china shop.
And he’s the only one who’s trying to see all points of view at once and prevent the whole thing going septic, because the Alflololians can’t see the Earther’s side, the colonists aren’t bloody well going to see their side and Laureline is no help whatsoever. She has gone native with a vengeance and, what’s more, has decided that as Val is not 101% with her and Argol’s family, he is 110% with the doctrinaire Governor of the colony.
To the extent that, if Val were to actually to mention to her that his co-operation with the colony is being blackmailed by the Governor’s threat, completely legitimate in view of Laureline’s total abandonment of her duty as an Agent, to have her arrested and sent to the mines if Val doesn’t play ball, she would simply refuse to acknowledge it as part of her current world-view and indeed treat it as yet further evidence that Val is in league with the colonists.
As tension grows higher, you actually start to fear that it might end up as war, even as you know that, without being the least bit war-like, the Alflololians would wipe the floor with the colonists and not notice what they’ve done.
There’s only one way out of here, and it’s a bit of a cheat. The ever more desperate attempts to make the Alflololians fit in with ‘Technorog’s ways are an absolute disaster and bring production to a complete standstill. At last Val has got the strongest negotiating position and secures an agreement to allow the Alflollians to live on their planet as and where and how they choose, with Technorog fitting in around them.
Except that when he goes to them with his valedictory solution, he finds they’ve all decided to pack up and leave. It’s just not their planet any more. The fact that Val had achieved the kind of solution she had wanted all along, i.e., total surrender, not to mention the chance to be condescending to him, is the key to Laureline’s almost 100% swing back and the gumun’s heartbreak. Mind you, Val does have a practical advantage: he can kiss her and, well, we won’t go there, and the furry thing can’t.
There’s a sting in the tail, of course. Once everyone’s left the planet, the Governor closes the protective shield behind them, and makes it clear it won’t ever be opening to nasty, trouble-making Spatiotemporal Agents ever again. And as Argol and his family no longer have a spaceship, they’re leaving with our reconnected pair for Galaxity, where they’ll be honoured as Ambassadors, and their every wish indulged…

Valerian et Laureline: 1 – Bad Dreams


Valerian

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 clichĂ© 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.