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by Zvi Gilbert

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It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Perhaps a picture is, but most of the time, a comic strip panel isn't. Yer average sooperhero panel is worth maybe five or ten words, yer standard alternative black and white strip panel, no more than fifty. It's only getting into the real draftsmanship masters of comics -- Jim Woodring, Jamie Hernandez, Bill Elder -- that the words-per-panel worth goes over the century mark. They're the kind of artists where your eye twists down to the panel and stays there until the last photon is absorbed. (I vividly remember staring at a Hernandez panel for minutes on end, squinting my eyes and shaking my head, saying, "How does he do that?") And only the best panels are worth more than a few hundred words, like those of Moebius.

Moebius (the pen name of Jean Giraud) is a prolific and popular French comic artist working in the science fiction, fantasy, and western genres. Anything that he turns his pen to comes out looking interesting, and when he's in full flight, his strips are as good as it gets in the business. His panel layouts are clean and uncluttered, and he has an unequalled eye for the fantastic. Therefore, mesdames and messieurs, we must all rejoice at the latest bit of Moebiana to reach North American shores: the strips collected in The Man from the Ciguri, published by Dark Horse comics.

The Man from the Ciguri is a sequel to The Airtight Garage. It's difficult to explain exactly what The Airtight Garage is; it's somewhere in between postmodern space opera and absurdist playwriting, but in comic book form. It roughly follows the attempt by Major Grubert to thwart the plans of his many enemies who are trying to take over the world--The Airtight Garage--that Grubert himself created. Serialized in Metal Hurlant (the original European Heavy Metal), Moebius deliberately structured each two- to four-page episode as a false start; he would try to tie the loose ends of the previous episode up and then start a drastically new plot direction. While the results are uneven-- braiding together certain loose ends requires twists worthy of a real Moebius strip--the comic has a giddy falling-of-a-cliff quality, a level of stunning verbal and conceptual invention, and fantastic art. The Airtight Garage was collected and published in a mass-market trade paperback by Epic, a (sadly defunct) imprint of Marvel comics. Epic also published several other collections of Moebius' work.

At the end of The Airtight Garage, the enigmatic Major Grubert walks through a portal to another world, a world very much like our own, and The Man from the Ciguri takes up Grubert's story with his attempt to get back to the Ciguri, his enemies' plans to prevent him from returning, and his loyal crew's attempts to rescue him.

The story of The Man from the Ciguri is as disjointed as The Airtight Garage, with the proviso that the episodes seem to be a little longer, and we already know quite a lot about the story from The Airtight Garage; the universe is more set, and we understand the principal characters and their personalities, from the evil Bakalites to Grubert's consort, Malvina. Moebius' artistic invention and sense of play is in full flight, though, and several of the scenes venture deeper into emotional depths than The Airtight Garage ever did. A particularly surreal murder and a pleasant sex scene are two of the more memorable moments. Fifteen years after starting The Airtight Garage, Moebius has gained skill and daring at portraying characters and retained his artistic talent.

Unfortunately, The Man from the Ciguri is too short, and doesn't come to a climax. The Airtight Garage, while a serial, does have an apocalyptic and cathartic ending, but The Man from the Ciguri doesn't end in this volume. To round out the book, Dark Horse stuck in three short Moebius pieces at the back, one humourous piece featuring the original appearance of Major Grubert ("The Hunt for the Vacationing Frenchman") and two dreamlike wordless pieces ("Absoluten Calfeutrail" and "Double Escape"). However, these three pieces were already collected in the Marvel/Epic trade paperbacks, so many faithful readers will have seen them. There's even some of the original black and white art for The Man from the Ciguri in the back of the book; Moebius decided to redraw those pages when the story was coloured. That's a nice touch; it's fun to compare the two and see how Moebius' conception of the end of the work changed, and how his seduction scene improved. There's also the promise of new Moebius reaching us here (the ads in the back trumpet more works to be published by Dark Horse and Caliber), which will keep me haunting comics stores for the next little while.

It's not all herbal bleane and blue coffee, though. There are several problems with the package that Dark Horse put together. Dark Horse is one of the stronger of the non-major comic companies, and in an industry dominated by Marvel, DC, and Image, it's great that a smaller publisher is reprinting quality European work in North America. That said, this collection of The Man from the Ciguri is not the right size for optimum Moebius stripping. The Marvel/Epic trade paperback collection of The Airtight Garage was about eight by eleven inches; Dark Horse's The Man from the Ciguri is too small: around six by nine inches. I'd pay the extra for the larger size; it's a pain to squint at panels that were originally published in a full-size comic magazine. Maybe it's for reasons of economy, but it's still a bad decision.

As well, the introduction by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier is odd. It's a difficult task to do the what-has-gone-before and summarize the all-but-unsummarizable The Airtight Garage, but the Lofficier introduction is far too linear and doesn't capture the feel of The Airtight Garage at all. It also brings in information that is either made up by the Lofficiers, or referred to in works outside the scope of the Garage. (The Bakalite was trying to uncreate the universe and steal the secrets of the Nagual? I didn't know that.) Their slant on it makes it sound like bad space adventure skiffy comics, when The Airtight Garage is really much funnier, subversive and silly.

The colouring in The Man from the Ciguri can be very distracting, as well. The colourists (not Moebius) tried an innovative approach in colouring the word balloons, something that is rarely done in comics. I don't think it works all that well, and it makes some text very hard to read. Black ink on red or dark grey-blue backgrounds fades right in. Still, there's some subtle and powerful colour work in the murder scenes and elsewhere; I'd just wish they hadn't sacrificed readability for the sake of matching pigments.

It is Moebius, and therefore worth reading and re-reading. I'd like a bigger, less extravagantly coloured book with more original material, but I'll take what Dark Horse puts out. It's about three times the price of a regular comic, but with much more than three times the value. May you all travel safely through the Randomearths, and watch out for the Bakalite.

Stoé Orkéo!

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