Moebius: The Visionary’s Visionary

The passing of Jean Giraud this weekend has shaken many science fiction and fantasy fans who are familiar with his work, and thanks to the nature of the internet and social media, intrigued many who are not. To the uninitiated the attention may seem baffling — why such an outpouring of sadness and love for a seemingly obscure French comic book artist? The answer is both simple and surprising: Giraud — or Moebius, the pen name his fans prefer to use for him — may not have been a household name himself, but his influence over the very biggest SF names and works is undeniable.

Any science fiction or fantasy fan looking at his work today will find it hard not to be thrilled and delighted, but the full impact of his importance does not hit you until you put it into a historical context. There’s an undeniable familiarity to his work now, its combination of detailed, realistic industrial design and the unearthly fantastic feels like it has been the standard since the 1980s — which in many ways it has — and it makes it hard to comprehend that Moebius pioneered this style and approach back in the early 1970s. That’s years — and frequently decades — before some of the leading lights in comics, video games, anime, manga and big budget Hollywood movies would catch up with him.

Let me get something out of the way before we continue — I’m a huge Moebius fan. I have been for many years. The last couple of days have been incredibly hard for me. Only recently I’d been discussing with’s editors about writing an article about the man and his work — something I was looking forward to so much — but now I sit down to actually do it I’m filled with sadness. It was hard, too, to decide which direction to take; writing a biography or cataloguing his work would not only be a daunting task for such a prolific artist, but would somehow reduce his importance to just a list of events and publications. Instead it feels more apt to try and show how influential his work truly was by picking a small selection from some of the best known and loved genre works from the last four decades that drew — both directly and indirectly — on his prophetic talent. And — wherever possible — I’ve tried to let the great man’s work talk for itself.

Jean Giraud had been writing and drawing gritty cowboy comics — to great success and popularity in France — since the beginning of the 1960s. Not long after this Moebius was “born” — a pseudonym Giraud gave himself for drawing science fiction, but as quick as it appeared the pen-name vanished. It was nearly a decade later before he would revive it, as one of the founding members of the seminal French magazine Métal Hurlant — or Heavy Metal as it would later be known in English (although the direct translation is the far more appropriate seeming Howling or Screaming Metal). It was here that arguably Moebius’ most influential work would be published, but it would take a few years and an intriguing chain of events for the rest of the world to take notice.

In 1975, The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Never Made went into pre-production. The experimental and often controversial Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky had the rights to make a movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune — forget David Lynch’s awkward and unsatisfying 1984 version, this would have been — on paper at least — an insane spectacle on an unprecedented scale. Jodorowsky had assembled an incredible team of creative talent to put the project together — writer and effects expert Dan O’Bannon, legendary SF book-cover artist Chris Foss, biomechanical artist HR Giger, and Moebius himself. Between them they produced piles of incredible artwork and designs, many of which would not see the light of day for decades. Needless to say the overly-ambitious project collapsed before even an inch of film was shot, but in the pre-production workshops powerful friendships and allegiances were formed that would ultimately change the face of science fiction filmmaking.

Of course just two years later another sci-fi spectacle would actually manage to hit the screens. In 1977, Star Wars would destroy box office records the world over and change the public’s perception of what science fiction was. But to anyone familiar with Moebius’s works — even retrospectively — it’s hard to look at Star Wars and not see the influence of his early Metal Hurlant strips. It’s there in Tatooine’s sparse deserts littered with decaying technology, in the dirty-spaceship interiors of the Millennium Falcon, and in the Jedi’s robes and Han Solo’s scruffy attire. But most tellingly it is in the first panel of page eleven of Moebius 1975 strip The Long Tomorrow, where what looks almost exactly like an Imperial Probe Droid can be seen clearly in the background. The vertical cityscapes from that same story can also be seen to be a clear influence on the designs for Coruscant in the the Star Wars prequels. Lucas would write an introduction to a collection of Moebius’ work in 1989 — sadly I have not read it — but it must be assumed he was an early fan. The two would work together finally in 1988, when Moebius would contribute concept art to his fantasy movie Willow.

But back to Dune. After the production collapsed, a distraught Dan O’Bannon returned to the US, his dreams in tatters. Close to giving up, he decided to take one more stab and set about writing screenplay called Star Beast, and managed to sell it to 20th Century Fox. They — somewhat understandably — weren’t too keen on the title though, and changed it. They also found a young — and hitherto unknown — British director to shoot it. It was 1978 and Ridley Scott’s Alien had just been greenlit.

O’Bannon, on board as both writer and effects consultant, went about recruiting friends he had made during the aborted Dune production. Giger was brought in to create the iconic and terrifying creature designs, and Chris Foss to design the exteriors of the spaceship Nostromo. But most of all both O’Bannon and Scott — who is quoted as always having “a pile of Heavy Metal comics in (his) office” — wanted Moebius onboard. Sadly the Frenchman wasn’t able to get involved to the degree the director wanted, but did end up providing the designs for the crew’s worn-out, industrial looking spacesuits — an element of Alien’s distinctive visual style that would become almost as iconic as the creature itself. Intriguingly Moebius’ original concept designs feature a bearded astronaut that strongly resembles Tom Skerrit’s Captain Dallas — but Skerrit hadn’t even been cast at this point. Moebius’ influence was already going beyond mere prop and costume design.

But that had been assured since the very beginning, in reality. Scott wanted Moebius onboard as much as O’Bannon did — and specifically he wanted him to design the Nostromo’s claustrophobic corridors. With Moebius unable to commit the job fell to the extremely talented Ron Cobb, who under Scott’s direction drew on short Moebius strips such as Approaching Centauri and Blackbeard and the Pirate Brain — the later of which features a familiar looking blue collar astronaut trapped in a run-down, messy industrial spaceship that that looks more oil-rig than Star Trek. The same story also features a “burial at space” that is more than slightly reminiscent of John Hurt’s funeral in Alien.

But Moebius’ influence on Scott didn’t end with Alien. Scan back a few years again to Dune. O’Bannon — bored with the slow progress of the doomed project — decided to write and draw a short comic strip. He passed it to Moebius, who found the future-noir detective story fascinating, and asked if he could re-draw it. O’Bannon said sure, and the result is what is arguably Moebius’ most influential work to date — a sixteen page comic story called The Long Tomorrow.

Like so much of Moebius’ work, although it still looks breathtaking, it’s combination of neon-lit noir streets, cramped towering city blocks, airborne traffic jams and scruffy characters seems almost a cliche today. But this was the first time anything like this had been drawn; and the first time science fiction had embraced the visual chaos of realistic urban environments. And the groundbreaking work is not just there in the architecture and mechanical designs; it’s apparent in the fashions and clothes of the city’s inhabitants. Although fantastic, exaggerated and other-worldy the city of The Long Tomorrow comes alive from the page because it feels so real, so layered and built — it is the urban paradise and nightmare of every industrial city from Tokyo to London.

You can probably guess where this is going. Ridley Scott would approach Moebius one more time to work on a project, and yet again circumstances and commitments would intervene to stop it from happening. Moebius would later write that “Ridley asked me to work on Blade Runner, but at the time I was going to work on another film, The Time Masters, so I could not. Now I’m a bit sorry I did not, because I love Blade Runner. But I am very happy, touched even, that my collaboration with Dan became one of the visual references of the film.” As modest as always, Moebius underplays his contribution — his work is clearly the driving force behind the 1982 film’s hugely influential and groundbreaking visual style.

But The Long Tomorrow wouldn’t influence just SF cinema, but also literature. In 1984 William Gibson would publish Neuromancer, the seminal classic that would spawn the sub-genre of cyberpunk and unleash the term “cyberspace” on to the world. Gibson himself sites Moebius as an inspiration, saying “Years later, I was having lunch with Ridley, and when the conversation turned to inspiration, we were both very clear about our debt to the Metal Hurlant school of the ’70s—Moebius and the others…the way Neuromancer-the-novel “looks” was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York…and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk.’ Those French guys, they got their end in early.”

1982 would also see another unique looking film released — Disney’s computer-fantasy Tron. Moebius was hired as costume and set designer, his concept art dictating — along with the work of Syd Mead — the film’s beautiful futuristic look. It was the first in a string of Hollywood movies that would employ Moebius as concept artist, from Masters of the Universe to James Cameron’s The Abyss. But perhaps the most significant — if controversial — would be Luc Besson’s 1997 SF epic The Fifth Element.

Rewind yet again to Dune. Despite the project’s failure Moebius and Jodorowsky became close friends, and by the early 80s the director decided he wanted to try his hand at writing comics. The result was the pair’s epic science fiction-fantasy The Incal, one of Moebius works most beloved by his fans. It combines the crowded, vertical cities pioneered in The Long Tomorrow with space opera and supernatural elements — and is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Besson’s film. Moebius was hired — amongst others — as conceptual artist on the film, but was perhaps unaware of the scale his influence would play. Jodorowsky certainly was. The Fifth Element is — if put generously — a love letter to Moebius and his Metal Hurlant colleagues, less generously it takes far more than it credits. The film’s visual style — again not only the vehicle and set designs but also John Paul Gaultier’s costumes — look like they have been lifted off the pages of The Incal, and that’s not all: the film also takes some plot points and themes. There’s even a chapter of The Incal called The Fifth Essence. For Jodorowsky it was too much homage, and after seeing the movie he attempted to sue Besson and the studio for plagiarism. He failed — due to Moebius’ involvement as concept artist — but it’s clear to see the truth every time you watch the film. As such The Fifth Element is a bittersweet experience for Moebius fans — for a start the DVD extras mention him only in passing — but the film remains to date the closest a live action movie has come to capturing the world inside Moebius’ head, and as such is thrill for his devotees to watch.

It wasn’t just Hollywood and Europe that would be touched by Moebius’ influence — somehow Metal Hurlant would make its way to Japan also. Anime legend and Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki considered himself a life-long fan, and the two would become good friends and mutual admirers. In 2004 they held a joint exhibition of their work in Paris, and the two were recorded discussing each others’ work, with Miyazaki saying he discovered his friend’s work “through Arzach, which dates from 1975 I believe. I only met it in 1980, and it was a big shock. Not only for me. All manga authors were shaken by this work…even today, I think he has an awesome sense of space. I directed Nausicaä under Moebius’ influence… We were really amazed when we saw Moebius’ drawings. How to explain that, we had discovered a new way to look at the world.”

And it wasn’t just Miyazaki, Moebius’ influence can be seen in many manga artists’ work — perhaps most notable Ghost in The Shell creator Masamune Shirow and Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo. The latter attempted to produce an anime adaptation of Moebius’ The Airtight Garage in the mid 90s, which sadly never happened. But again the two became friends and mutual admirers, with Moebius drawing images inspired by Akira and Otomo returning the gesture with images inspired by Azrach.

I could go on. For days. There is so much I haven’t covered — such as Moebius’ collaborations with manga artist Jiro Taniguchi, or even his collaboration on Silver Surfer comics with Marvel legend Stan Lee — but I must stop somewhere. One final note though — this June sees Prometheus hit cinemas, and Ridley Scott’s return to directing science fiction for the first time in 30 years. Us fans of both Scott’s early movies and Moebius’ comics waited with anticipation to see whether this would finally see the two officially working together, but no announcement ever came. Sadly it seems now, after his tragic death, that Moebius had been ill with cancer for several years — probably meaning that any collaboration would have been impossible. But one look at the Prometheus trailer — with it’s glimpses of beautiful spacesuits, costumes and sets — and it’s clear Scott has not forgotten his influences.

Moebius: The Visionary's Visionary

Moebius: The Visionary's Visionary

Jean Giraud — who I will always know as Moebius — your work lives on. Thank you.

When he’s not writing for, Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.


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