Few comic artists—few artists, period—warrant the label visionary. Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, was one. He died last week, at the fairly young age of 73, and that’s a damn shame.
Moebius had a genius for graphic world-building that few artists have equaled. His imaginary worlds boast a genuine otherworldliness, an organic wholeness, and a beauty at once sensual and ethereal. Few cartoonists have ever come close to this visionary quality: the sense of peering into another world and yet giving it palpable reality, or surreality, in this one. The worldscapes he conjured invite comparison to those of McCay, Foster, Miyazaki, a very few others—and, outside of comics, the fantastical worlds of Bosch and Escher. Moebius’ work is ravishing and challenging in equal measure: a gift to the eyes, but also an affront to human self-importance and meanness, as well as a cognitive sparkplug.
Giraud came by his world-conjuring ability honestly, via long years of work in the French-language bande dessinée industry, including a de facto apprenticeship with the great Belgian cartoonist Jijé (Joseph Gillain), whose strip Jerry Spring is one of the great Westerns in European comics. In 1963 the Jijé connection helped Giraud land the job of working with renowned writer Jean-Michel Charlier on a new series, Blueberry, which became one of the other great, perhaps the greatest, Western in comics.
Launched in the legendary Pilote magazine, Blueberry became an institution in its own right. Charlier and Giraud went on to produce twenty-three albums’ worth of Blueberry between 1963 and 1990 (the last one finished by Giraud after Charlier’s death in 1989). Giraud then wrote and drew another five on his own, to 2005. He also helped Charlier launch the long-running spinoff series La Jeunesse de Blueberry (Young Blueberry) c. 1975-1985, and wrote another spinoff, Marshal Blueberry, 1991-2000. Throughout much of his career, Blueberry served Giraud as an anchor to the Franco-Belgian mainstream—and he kept it lively by dint of sheer craft, and his willingness to try new things.
However, Giraud adopted another name, even another identity, starting in the 1960s: that of Moebius, worldmaker, author of surreal, dreamlike, and fantastical comics, and conceptual artist. Giraud had recourse to this identity more and more after the late sixties, and indeed he was better known in the U.S. as Moebius than as Giraud (so much so that the few American reprints of his non-Moebius comics tend to be credited to Moebius rather than Giraud).
Moebius sometimes worked alone, as in his original Arzach series (c. 1974-75) or Le Garage Hermétique (The Airtight Garage, c. 1974-80), and sometimes collaborated, as in his many joint projects with writer Alejandro Jodorowsky, among them The Eyes of the Cat and The Incal (1981-88). Besides his comics, Moebius helped create institutions: in 1974 he co-founded, with Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet and Bernard Farkas, the publishing company Les Humanoïdes Associés and the seminal comics magazine Métal Hurlant, an artist-driven experiment that shaped fantasy and SF comics from then on. Métal later (1977) gave birth to the likewise influential American adaptation Heavy Metal, whose present pitiful condition should not blind us to the fact that it was once an important and inspiring magazine. Moebius also worked as a conceptual artist for various SF and fantasy films, among them Alien, Tron, The Abyss, and The Fifth Element. In fact his influence was everywhere.
With a phenomenal delicacy and lightness of touch, but also a robust, fearless imagination and a complete lack of inhibition, Moebius/Giraud overleapt national and cultural boundaries and spread his influence globally. His work is an argument for the transporting effects of facility joined to personal vision: the craft he gained through Blueberry became second nature to him, so that he could leave behind the labored surfaces of conventional comics and go soaring off into the empyrean. Granted, some have dismissed Moebius’ comics as trippy New Age mind-candy of the most self-indulgent kind—and it’s true that he had a yen for spiritual questing (and graphic improvising) that threw caution, and sometimes narrative logic, to the wind. But I say any artist that generative and distinctive is a miracle.
Truly the overlapping worlds of comics, cartooning, and illustration have lost one of their spirit guides. RIP Moebius.
For overviews of Giraud/Moebius’ career, I recommend Kim Thompson’s tribute at The Comics Journal, Tom Spurgeon’s at The Comics Reporter, and Andy Khouri’s at Comics Alliance. For responses to his death, see Spurgeon’s Collective Memory post and Robot 6’s memorial. The Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art ran what looks to have been a stunning Moebius exhibition from October 2010 to March 2011, and you can see some of it at the design blog designboom.