The Story Behind 'Valerian,' the Most Important Sci-Fi Comic America Hasn't Heard Of

Introducing the source material behind Luc Besson's 2017 space opera.
Jean-Claude Mézières/Dargaud

Valerian, the comic strip serving as the basis for Luc Besson's forthcoming 2017 movie of the same name, is far from being well known in the United States, despite being one of the best-selling French comics of all time — and, it turns out, an inspiration for a number of far more famous sci-fi projects, including Star Wars and Besson's own The Fifth Element. Not bad for a onetime traveler and his redheaded love interest.

The series, created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, debuted in the anthology magazine Pilote — also home to Asterix and Moebius' classic Western Blueberry — in 1967. Its lead character is the eponymous Valerian, a handsome "spatio-temporal agent" tasked with protecting the 28th Century's Terran Galactic Empire from time paradoxes and problems caused by errant time travelers.

In fact, Valerian: Spatio-Temporal Agent was one of the series' alternate titles during its four-decade run; another was Valerian and Laureline, placing the hero's partner (in both professional and personal senses) on equal footing. Of the two leads of the strip, Laureline is by far the more interesting; while Valerian is a straightforward — if somewhat occasionally dim — hero, Laureline was born in the 11th century, ending up in the 28th after saving Valerian's life and demanding to return to the future with him. (More ambitious and less passive than her partner, Laureline was, according to Christin, inspired by the feminist movement of the late '60s.)

Valerian ran for 43 years, with the series being collected into 21 volumes, as well as an additional short-story collection and accompanying encyclopedia of the various characters, concepts and eras visited during that time. Along the way, the strip reinvented itself on occasion; the characters went from authority figures to freelance time travelers when their home time period disappeared thanks to a time paradox, for example, while the relatively uncomplicated adventure of initial stories became more nuanced as time went on, with Christin working in more political themes and influences.

The subject of influence is a tricky one when it comes to Valerian; it's widely considered to be a major, if almost entirely unrecognized, influence on George LucasStar Wars movies (as can be seen in these comparisons), and thanks to Mezieres' early '90s work with Besson, directly on The Fifth Element. The artist also has claimed to see elements of his work on the strip in Conan the Barbarian and 1996's Independence Day.

Whether that's just wishful thinking remains unclear, however; for all its success in Europe, Valerian has never managed to cross over to the U.S., in part because of an entirely irregular release schedule; multiple publishers, including Heavy Metal, NBM and iBooks have released parts of the series before abandoning the run due to lack of reader interest (or, in iBooks' case, bankruptcy).

With Besson's movie set for release two years from now, it's possible that American audiences could finally have a chance to warm to Valerian — assuming, of course, that some enterprising publisher decides to pick up the English-language rights and try to make it happen one more time.

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