I’m treading carefully here, because I know how beloved this series is in France. Wish me luck.
The Back Story
The “Valerian and Laureline” series begins here, with “The City of Shifting Waters”, originally published in 1968. As with so much of comics literature, it portrays 1986 as being the end of the world. Or maybe that was just “Watchmen”…
In 1986, you see, an accident at a Hydrogen Bomb Depot in the North Pole caused the polar ice cap to melt (instead of just being evaporated, I guess?), which caused massive global flooding, resulting in the deaths of millions, the destruction of major cities, and the set-back of modern society to the stone age, more or less.
This series is set 700 more years in the future, in a world where time and space travel are possible. The time between 1986 and 2314 is shrouded in mystery, locked from further exploration, and expected to be ignored while humanity gets on with the future.
This is all for the best. The world is now peaceful, idyllic, and downright leisurely. Judging by the description, it sounds downright Wall-E-ish.
Valerian and Laureline are cops of the time, members of the Spatio-Temporal Agents Service, sworn to protect the timeline from harm. They enjoy picnic lunches together with joyous games of 3D chess. (Thanks, Star Trek.)
This is the story of what happens when the only political prisoner they keep, Xombul, breaks out somehow (details don’t matter, which is funny thing to say when you take a look at this book and see just how many words fill every panel) and gets back to 1986 in an attempt to rule the world.
Valerian and Laureline follow him back in time, winding up on an adventure through underwater New York City, and across the country to the Rocky Mountains. (In-between, while traveling straight west, they manage to pass through Washington D.C.)
Much adventure, danger, and high tech wizardry ensues.
Telling the Story Instead of Showing It
Look, I’m not going to lie to you, this book is a bit of a slog to get through. It’s a product of its time. It feels like B-level science fiction from the dawn of the pulp magazines. They paid the writer by the word, right?
It feels like it’s worth getting through this story just to have an idea of what the series is about and what its origins are, but as a book unto itself, it’s a bit slow.
No. A lot slow.
Writer Pierre Christin uses as many words as possible. And, to be honest, he puts a lot of story in these 48 pages. But the sequential storytelling doesn’t do most of the work. The non-stop captions and characters talking through what they’re doing handles that. Every page is an exposition dump.
This comic is a product of its time. Lots of superhero comics of the same era worked in similar ways. I can’t get mad at it for that, but I can get occasionally frustrated at how slow the book is to read.
There is a lot of stuff happening in the book, and a lot of new and old technology covered. While much of it takes the form of your generic 1960s era science-fiction metallic walls with inset TV and lights and switches, there’s also robots and hovercars and prison bubbles and space stations and more cool stuff.
Jean-Claude Mezieres is a strong artist. This book has moments that will take your breath away in its imagination and its detail. That includes jungles in the middle of New York City, and the aftermath of volcanic explosions. There are chases through mountains and across rooftops and in the air.
He has a strong sense of lighting. There are a number of very memorable images in this book where characters are strongly backlight, with only their edges in light and the majority of them in inky shadows. It lets you focus on what’s happening in the background, where the light source is coming from. It’s a good storytelling trick.
There are also, however, some terribly clunky spots when it comes to panel layout. There are pages where you will get lost and not be sure which panel is next. There are pages where you need to start at the third panel in a given tier and then skip back to the first and second to read things in order. Most of those situations have an arrow to guide you, but it’s still jarring.
There’s a lot of imagination in this comic, no doubt. It’s filled with material that would appeal to its specific audience at its specific time.
Oh, and did I mention that Jerry Lewis plays a nutty scientist/professor type? That’s a trick that works much better in “Asterix” when Uderzo is drawing a famous 1960s celebrity or politician into the comic.
There’s a lot of it. Even the smallest problem will repeat itself a lot in a book like this. It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out when you see the mistake.
For example, there’s a definite comics lettering no-no here:
NOOOOOOOOO! And I’ll spell it out for you:
Don’t use the crossbar-I in the middle of words. Just don’t do it. It looks awful. Sadly, this book insists on it.
Or another letterer, who mentions it first on his list of lettering suggestions.
Good news: By the fourth volume in the series, the mistake is corrected for all future volumes. I only need to suffer through it for a couple more books.
The Future and The Recommendation
I have the first eight volumes of this series on my bookshelf right now. I have four of the latter volumes digitally. I’ve flipped through them all. I’m excited to read them, past about volume 5. There’s a HUGE shift in the look and feel of the book, the further it goes on. Everything I complain about in this book appears to fall away.
Mezieres’ storytelling takes center stage; Christin’s writing volume tones down. The imagination and adventure is still there. The lettering works. The stories move quicker, with bigger panel, more open page designs, and (I hope) more concise stories.
The first volume, though? You’re going to need some NoDoz pills to get through it. It’s rough.
It’s nice to get in on the ground floor and get the background on the series, but I know from having read the second volume already that you don’t need it. They tell you enough in future stories to catch up immediately.
How to Buy It
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #10 of 100 for 2017.)