Jean Giraud, or Mœbius as most American fans know him, was a rare gem in the world of comic books and fantasy illustration. Throughout his long career, he was an artists’ artist; one his peers admired as a virtuoso talent and craftsman. As he grew and evolved as a creator, he manifested various distinct styles and abilities, which he applied to one of the most diverse bibliographies the medium has seen. Giraud did extraordinary artwork for film production as well, applying his unique imaginative spark to a medium he’d already indirectly inspired for years.
Born in 1938 in the suburbs of Paris, Giraud began his career at 18, initially doing western comics that recalled the Hollywood films he’d loved as a child. Giraud had been a fan of the great Belgian comic artist, Joseph “Jijé” Gillain, and his early work shows the influence of the older man’s style. Giraud was fortunate enough to meet his idol, who eventually took him in, taught and mentored him throughout the first stages of his career—even filling in for the young artist when he struggled with deadlines in his formative years.
Giraud’s first big success was Blueberry, in 1963, with writer Jean-Michel Charlier. The long-running western Giraud returned to throughout his life, introduced one of comics’ first anti-heroes, the titular Lieutenant Blueberry. Early stories featured a cleanly delineated line style, reminiscent of his mentor’s. As the series progressed, Giraud’s art became increasingly gritty and atmospheric. The transformation reflected the cinematic evolution of westerns themselves, from the clean, open spaces of early John Ford epics to the intense gaze and worn-out look found in the work of Sergio Leone.
Blueberry was a hit.
Though Giraud would continue to work on the character on and off for decades, even after Charlier’s death when he took on scripting duties, he didn’t coast on the achievements of the series. Though he sometimes rebelled against the popularity of the character, he realized that the financial success of Blueberry made his other endeavors possible, giving him the freedom to seek further artistic outlets.
A longtime fan of science fiction, Giraud explored opportunities to branch out into the genre. He created a unique artistic approach for his futuristic creations, adopting the pseudonym Mœbius for it, as if to further distinguish it from his former work. It took years for some fans to realize the vastly different stories and art styles were the work of the same artist.
In 1974 Giraud, under the Mœbius sobriquet, teamed with fellow artists to start Métal Hurlant (“Screaming Metal“). The influential magazine would go on to be translated and published in the US as Heavy Metal, introducing mainstream American fans to a world of comics most had been oblivious to before its first issue hit stands in 1977. Two of Giraud’s greatest science fiction stories began serialization in the pages of Métal Hurlant, Arzach and The Airtight Garage.
The first four Arzach stories feature no words. Arzach, a stoic warrior mounted on an enormous pterodactyl, flies over strange, often desolate landscapes, inspired by Giraud’s own experiences in the deserts of Mexico. The images and scenarios seem to emerge from dreams or subconscious fantasies. Despite a melancholy that permeates the art, it projects an unforgettable lyrical quality that has inspired many artists in both Europe and the US.
Giraud/Mœbius used surreal images in Arzach to manifest subconscious themes, leaving the narrative open to the reader’s interpretation. In contrast, The Airtight Garage was a lighthearted tour through the things he loved most—and which deconstructed the act of creation itself. The story twists and doubles back, even contradicting itself, as it unfurls for the reader. The plot is non-linear, and how one chooses to interpret each panel determines how one perceives the overall story. It’s as much a meditation on what it’s like to have an idea and create something from it, as it is a story itself. Most critics regard the piece as a work of genius, and in several ways, it mirrors its creator.
One of the qualities that set Jean Giraud apart during his prolific and diverse career was the apparent ease with which he created. He never forced things—no line was misplaced or overworked. Despite drawing in different styles and continually evolving as an artist, the work always seemed effortless. There are mesmerizing videos of him confidently drawing or painting, his hand precisely synthesizing what his mind imagined.
The technique is flawless. The speed with which he works is hardly believable. The work simply emerges finished, complete unto itself. When you look at his art, as varied as it is, you are seeing facets of the man in their unadulterated form, his most essential self.
As complicated as he might have been as a person, it was always a case of what you saw being what you got with Jean Giraud: Pure art, uniquely itself.