Valerian and Laureline v1 The City of Shifting Waters cover header

Valerian and Laureline v1: “The City of Shifting Waters”

I’m treading carefully here, because I know how beloved this series is in France.  Wish me luck.

 

The Back Story

Valerian and Laureline v1 The City of Shifting Waters cover

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?

Valerian page 3 has a lot of lettering, covering 80% of the page

This is the second page. I suppose there’s an argument for dumping the exposition at the top and letting the story play out, but this won’t be the last time they dump word balloons like this.

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.

Mezieres' art is great when he's not weighed down by the word balloons.

When Mezieres gets the chance to open up, he can amaze the reader. Here, he almost looks to be channelling Joe Kubert.

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.

Valerian panel sequence

You’ll never believe what order to read these panels in! (Hint, left to right to down to left to right to down.  It’s like reading with the Konami Code to guide you.)

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.

Jerry Lewis as the nutty scientist

Hello, Ladies!

 

The Lettering

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:

 

Valencia and bad lettering 1

 

NO:

Valencia and bad crossbar I lettering

 

NOOOOOOOOO!  And I’ll spell it out for you:

Valencia and bad crossbar I lettering

 

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.

Let a professional letterer explain why.

Or another letterer, who mentions it first on his list of lettering suggestions.

Here’s another comics creator explaining it.

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

Both Comixology and Izneo.com offer the digital version of the comic in English.  As I write this, this volume is free on Izneo.  I’m not sure how long that price will be good for, though.

Cinebook also has a print edition of it (for $11.95), though it’s only available at Amazon through third parties currently. There’s a new edition of it coming out in June in hardcover format, coupled with the second book and “Volume 0”, which I believe is an origin story, of sorts.

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #10 of 100 for 2017.)

 

6 Comments

  • JC LEBOURDAIS January 25, 2017 at 7:37 am

    You were right to tread carefully, this is truly a beloved series from the golden age of French BD, one of the landmarks of PILOTE, the cultural phenomenon of the 60’s. We all anticipate this year’s VALERIAN movie from Luc Besson; I sincerely hope it won’t be too much like the FIFTH ELEMENT, which used most of the concepts and designs laid out by Christin and Mézières here, because the story and dialogue of that film were so bland and Bruce Willis is criminally miscast.
    You’re quite right as well when you point out the verbosity, BD in the 30’s to the 70’s was very much a writer’s craft (some Jacobs’ pages from BLAKE & MORTIMER being so full of dialogue that it’s been the subject of many injokes). It’s only from the 70’s onwards that graphic artists truly began blossoming as the driving force of the medium (Moebius, Druillet, Uderzo, Bilal…). Culmination of that era being today, when most new series are rarely more than pretty pictures over dull storytelling (Gibrat, Loisel, Marini, Juillard and so many others) and deadly decompression.
    Sure, VALERIAN is old-school SF, inspired by the likes of Edmond Hamilton, Flash Gordon and early Star Trek but it was really ahead of its time for us poor backwater french teen readers in an ocean of ‘big nose’ tradition.
    I’d love to see you review other highlights from PILOTE like PHILEMON, BARBARELLA or LONE SLOANE, but I’m not sure if these are available in english.

    Reply
  • Patric Nilsson January 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Not only beloved in France, In Sweden too and Denmark and many other nations… I grew up with Valerian, or Linda (Laureline) & Valentin (Valerian) which is the series name in the Scandinavian countries. I think it is the greatest comic book sci-fi series ever. As you point out Mezieres art becomes more expansive and imaginative with each volume culminating imo around the series mid-point with the two double volume adventures “Métro Châtelet, Direction Cassiopeia” & “Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos” and the second double volume “The Ghosts of Inverloch” & “The Wrath of Hypsis”. Masterpieces imo. I am also looking forward to Besson’s adaptation into a live action movie, but are a little worried that it may be too kooky. But I am hoping for a great success, so that all albums can be filmed.

    Reply
    • JC LEBOURDAIS April 11, 2017 at 2:46 am

      I don’t know about kooky, but the worry is that, since all that made Valerian special has been plunder by Star wars and other very well known productions, the general public will find Besson’s film bland and derivative. I remember some of the harsh comments when the Fifth Element came out and that wasn’t pretty.

      Reply
  • The Bluecoats, v10: "The Blues in Black and White" Starring Mathew Brady - Pipeline Comics April 10, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    […] “Valerian and Laureline” follows this pattern even more.  The first three books had glimmers of greatness, but were weighed down by the novel’s worth of captions that was written on top of the art. […]

    Reply
  • The Comic That Inspired "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" - Threadless Blog July 18, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    […] Driving a boat through flooded future New York City in the Valérian comic, The City of Shifting Waters (which looks kind of similar to the lower, smog-choked part of New York in The Fifth Element). Via Pipeline Comics. […]

    Reply
  • Bring It All Together: Valerian and Laureline v12, "The Wrath of Hypsis" - Pipeline Comics July 19, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    […] you read volume one in the series, you have my sympathies. It was not an easy read to slog […]

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