The wee hours of this morning brought the sad news that legendary French cartoonist Jean Giraud, better known by his pen name Moebius, has died. He was 73.
Before today, Moebius was one of perhaps five individuals with a legitimate claim to the title of "greatest living cartoonist". Now he passes into the pantheon of all-time greats. Moebius's influence on genre comics over the past few decades was second to none, and the imprint his work has left on the medium as a whole is rivaled only by names of similarly immortal stature: Kirby, Herge, Tezuka, McCay. His death is sad news, to be sure, but the note of triumph it carries should not be overlooked. So many of comics' great artists die penniless, uncared for, forgotten, ruined physically or spiritually or both by having given so much of themselves to an ultimately uncaring public. Moebius was that most important and valuable of rarities: the recognized great cartoonist. His books sold millions of copies, providing him with a comfortable lifestyle and the luxury to put out work when and how he wanted as he grew into old age. He died shortly after a massive exhibition of his work at the Fondation Cartier Pour L'Art Contemporain in Paris, which devoted vast stretches of museum space to his art. Moebius was treated as great artists should be, and the outpouring of emotion that has already begun to greet the news of his passing is a fitting capstone to a career that touched so many so profoundly.
He was a visionary in the true sense of the word, privy to glimpses into a world that was his alone, but so unique and so virtuosically communicated that it became a vast spectrum of comics readers' favorite destination. In his best work, Moebius took the blueprint for French cartooning established by Alain Sain-Ogan and Herge, and as Jack Kirby did with American comics, brought it to a place only he could see that it needed to go. Moebius was a master of illustrative detail: his unweighted, hatched and stippled pen marks created images so strikingly clear that pictures on similar themes in other comics seem muddy and vague by comparison. But detail never bogged down a Moebius drawing: his way with texture was matched by a crisp simplicity of form and light, airy compositions that created an open, habitable space that was constant in everything he drew. His color sense, as refined and bold as that of anyone to have drawn comics, birthed brightly shining, massively tangible vistas, so real and yet so far from what we see out our own windows that the immediate impression upon opening a Moebius comic is that the smell of the air has changed; the paper underneath one's fingertips has grown softer. The background of any given Moebius drawing is at least as interesting as its story content -- the interplay between his highly saturated hues and the stray marks indicating the expanse of a world beyond calls to the imagination in a way that few artists have ever been able to.
Moebius's stories share his drawings' untranslatable quality: rarely aware of themselves as narratives, even more rarely creating fully satisfying arcs, they function above all as vehicles for their author's drawings and expressions of his philosophy of mental, physical, and spiritual purity. Characters strive for goals that frequently remain unattained, settings flicker in and out with little explanation, dialogue is dissertive rather than conversational, and nothing much reaches a satisfying conclusion. At his best, Moebius the writer reads like a truer chronicler of real life's meanderings than the rules of good storytelling can provide us with; other times, his ideas remain frustratingly veiled, clearly visible to the man who originated them but not quite communicated to readers in a way that can be deciphered. Moebius is not as good to read as he is simply to look at, but somehow this takes nothing away from his work. There is an element of eternal mystery to his comics, something they could never quite say to us. Moebius will forever remain a partially closed circuit, a private dialogue between creator and creation. Always the visionary, he never explained. He simply said it like he felt it.
However, the biggest mystery about Moebius isn't contained in his work, but his audience's rapturous reaction to it. Doubtless, he created some of the most impressive comics of all time, but the lust, the hunger for more, that touches seemingly everyone who's seen a Moebius picture, can't be explained by that alone. Others, few though they are, have reached Moebius's level of achievement. But I have stood behind the comic shop counters in this country's three biggest cities of art and culture, and the question far and away most likely to be asked by people in off the street, who've never visited the place before and have no interest in anything else the medium has to offer them, is "You got any Moebius?" Not a specific book, or a period in his career, or a character he worked on: anything his pen ever touched will do.
Moebius is more than his stories, more even than the specifics of what his images depict. Those colors, those marks, those rounded and expressive forms, touch something very deep in people. I've thought it through for the better part of a decade, and my best guess is this. Moebius fused all the hallmarks of genre comics -- intricate spaceships, ancient monoliths, monstrous creatures, superpowered demigods, beautiful maidens, unexplored landscapes -- to lines that made every surface look a bit aged, a bit used, long since gone over by multitudes of human hands or feet, and to colors so bright and crystalline that every panel seems ripe to be reached into and touched. He presented the worlds of fantasy and escape that comics readers across the globe have lived their whole lives in, not as we've seen them elsewhere, but as we imagine them -- scuffed up and worn around the edges from the time we've spent inside them, but still forever shining with the promise of new wonders yet to come.
Goodnight, maître, and be well.
(More on Moebius here, here, here.)