By Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Now, I was extremely nonplussed by the first Valerian book from Cinebook, much to the good natured horror of many commenters and twitterers, who assured me it was a thing of genius, the thing that got them into comics, a genuine classic etc etc. But for me it just fell flat and felt dated, clumsy and absolutely non-engaging.
Many assured me it’s a series that gets better and better as Christin and Mézières got better, after all this was very early in their careers and pretty much their first major series. So I figured it was only fair to give the second volume a fair go.
And you know what…. they were sort of right. Empire Of A Thousand Planets isn’t a classic, nowhere near. But it’s so much better than Volume 1. Not only did Empire Of A Thousand Planets read a lot better, it also felt like a good science-fiction saga should feel like. The writing was stronger and far more interesting, dialogue was less cheesy and the art settled down nicely into a style where the cartoony nature of the figurework contrasted rather nicely with the expansive sci-fi of the alien landscape.
I think my enjoyment of this one, and the improvement of both writing and art may have much to do with the relocation of the adventure into space. This is Valerian and Laureline’s first mission in the stars, and freeing them from the familar landscapes of Earth really allowed Christin and Mézières to let loose with their imagination. Here’s the first couple of pages, a couple of pages that immediately filled me with hope that this was going to be much better than Volume 1:
Or perhaps it’s simply because it allowed Christin and Mézières to work out their love of Westerns in a science fiction context? Because it’s definitely a Western in space. And yes, it’s also very, very similar to many other works. I’ll get to that in a moment.
In Empire Of A Thousand Planets, we find Valerian and Laureline, greatest agents of the Terran Empire’s 28th Century Spatio-Temporal Service, on a mission to explore the planet Syrte, capital of a system of 1000 worlds, in order to identify any possible threat to Earth.
But what they find is a culture almost going backwards; factories, universities and laboratories all shut down, a populous cowed, space flight practically forgotten and a privileged few living in the Imperial Palace’s luxury whilst most of the Syrtians subsist in ghettos beyond the palace’s walls. They quickly discover the cause of so much of Syrte’s problems lie with the mysterious masked quasi-religious order of the Enlightened, a group who arrived on Syrte just 100 years ago, but have quickly established themselves as the ruthless power behind the throne of an innefectual and easily placated monarchy.
Valerian and Laureline go through various adventures, until eventually they ally themselves with Merchant’s Guild; a small, underground group, disaffected and rebellious, who are looking for the chance to overthrow the Enlightened and free Syrte. Valerian and Laureline, and their space-time travelling ship prove to be just the opportunity the Guild were looking for. They’re soon off around the 1000 planets, gathering other rebels in their fight against the Enlightened, eventually leading to a climactic battle on a far off planet where the Enlightened have their base, part of a shipwrecked spacecraft.
It’s a much improved story, full of great science-fiction adventure-serial moments, improved dialogue, greater control of the overwhelming exposition that afflicted the first volume. There are still occasional pages where tiny heads seem to peer round huge word balloons in every panel, but it’s limited here, and the plot is still a little clumsy in places, but what comes through loud and clear is that there’s a sense of fine adventure.
And it’s all backed up by Mézières’ artwork – tighter, more cultured perhaps? The alien world setting really seems to energise the art, with Mézières having a great time giving vision to Christin’s ideas, whether it’s ….. great action sequences such as Valerian and Laureline flying their stolen spaceship through the alien weather systems:
Valerian’s psychedelic interrogation by the Enlightened:
Or perhaps loveliest of all, the brutal shift to a darker tone when Valerian and Laureline explore the ghettos outside the Imperial Palace:
Now, the storyline, of a hero gathering a small band of fellow rebels to overthrow a cruel and brutal regime, is hardly new – think classic Westerns such as The Magnificent 7, which itself was a reworking of Seven Samurai of course.
But The Empire Of A Thousand Planets was published in 1971, and as such setting this cliched story in a sci-fi setting was new and hugely influential. And if the idea of a small group of heroes banding together in some form of Rebel Alliance to battle an evil Empire, amassing a fleet of spaceships in a final assault on the base of the Empire seems familiar then you wouldn’t be the first to suggest George Lucas may have read Valerian and Laureline at some point.
So much so that there’s a little compare and contrast in the back of this book which merely asks “Convergence or Borrowing?“. And arch Valerian fan INJ Culbard has this at his blog – Mézières’ response to the similarities, published in Pilote 1983:
(Princess Leia: “Fancy Meeting you here.”
Laureline: “Oh, we’ve been hanging around here for a long time!”)
Sure, The Empire Of A Thousand Planets is still not the classic I keep being told Valerian is, but the improvement here on the first volume is profound. I can only hope that, as so many of you have promised, this series keeps on this upward curve. Because at this rate, somewhere around volume 5 or 6 I imagine I may well be agreeing with you about it being a bit of a classic. It certainly goes to prove that, occasionally, the first volume of any given series may not necessarily be the best one to start with.