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Barbarella - Jean-Claude Forest

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Genre: Comic Book / Author: Jean-Claude Forest / Original Publication Date: 1966 / Publisher: Grove Press Inc.

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      26.11.2011 14:26
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      Barbarella Psychedella

      "For days on end her rocket raced past airless, lifeless worlds..." Barbarella is a kitsch psychedelic and cheeky French comic strip created by Jean-Claude Forest for V magazine in 1962. It was collected together into a single volume a few years later and became a huge cult hit. The title character is a space wanderer (or astronaut if you prefer) in the year 40,000 AD - but not just any old space wanderer. This is a space wanderer who looks like a supermodel and has erotic baroque adventures on all manner of strange and far out worlds. If Barbarella ended up running a space circus (and she does) you wouldn't be surprised. Our doe eyed heroine's main task here is trying to rescue the scientist Durand Durand from the clutches of the evil Black Queen on the planet Lythion. "Barbarella recognized Lythion by its three satellites. The galactic charts showed it as being a relatively hospitable planet. Beneath the spaceship, a continent unfolded, which at first appeared to the traveler to be nothing but a volcanic desert. Suddenly, nestled in a giant crater, Crystallia, the great greenhouse, appeared..." Once on this hippy trippy bizarre planet, Barbarella becomes mixed up in a conflict between the Crystallians, who live in a giant greenhouse, and the barbaric Orhomrs, who live in the frozen wastes. I think I'd rather live in a greenhouse. The story grows increasingly bonkers with the introduction of Pygar the Blind Angel ("the last of the ornithanthropes") and the "icy region of Yesteryear" - patterned on 19th century Earth. Anything is possible in the world of Barbarella.

      This was considered to be an exceptionally risque and adult comic in its day but it feels relatively tame now with the passage of time - especially if you've read many modern graphic novels. It is though far more shameless than the film it inspired. The filmmakers clearly had to tone Barbarella down to get it onto the screen. At the time the comic was banned from public display when it was condensed into a single volume but it became very popular and was widely praised. The tabula rasa Barbarella, a mixture of eroticism, vulnerability and invincibility was a hugely successful character and a genuine French comic book icon. No small part of the appeal was the fact that Forest deliberately drew Barbarella to look like Brigitte Bardot. The style of Barbarella is free form, improvised. In other words, Forest was making it up as he went along! He wanted no constraints whatsoever on where his imagination would take him or Barbarella in this strange futuristic (and sometimes anachronistic) universe. A very obvious inspiration here is Alice in Wonderland with the anything goes bizarre twists and vignettes. One of the author's more striking flights of fancy has a group of pirates based in a jellyfish. That's a bit impractical I think (!) but pirates in jellyfish are par for the course in Barbarella. You also get nasty children who set carnivorous dolls on you and "air sharks" (an idea that Dr Who might have pilfered) who worm their way up through the labrythrines to eat you.

      I suppose this is all why the famous film version of Barbarella didn't quite work in the end despite capturing some of the look and essence of the comic. No one has ever looked so good in bacofoil and plastic as Jane Fonda (wonder if they asked Bardot to play the part?) but the more extravagant and outlandish gambits of the comic strip were always going to be mission impossible for the filmmakers. When Pygar the Blind Angel flies through the air with Barbarella in the comic amidst puffy white clouds the effect is almost poetic. In the film it just looked silly. Comics are always going to be greater than the films they spawn. Comics can do anything they want without worrying about special effects or people looking silly. Barbarella is a strange comic (don't look for the story to ever make much sense) but an interesting one and very much a product of the sixties. I think the episodic nature of the book - it is a collection of comic strips I suppose - might possibly frustrate those looking for an Alan Moore type narrative but the random obtuseness and offbeat nature of Barbarella is a strength as much as a weakness. One thing that is noticeable here is how the comic strip Barbarella is tougher and feistier than the Jane Fonda incarnation. Not quite so much of a baffled innocent bewildered by everything around her.

      Barbarella is often in a state of undress and has, er, relations, with just about everyone she meets - including robots. "Madame is too kind. There's something a bit mechanical about my movements!" But the strips (no pun intended) are also rather quaint and charming at times. I don't know when something slides over from cheeky into vulgar but Forest flirts with this distinction. Forest regarded Barbarella to be a symbol of growing female liberation and the comic was maybe ahead of its time. It was translated into dozens of languages and drew huge critical praise. One thing that is really clever about the comic I feel is the way that Forest draws inspiration from vintage strips like Flash Gordon. Barbarella sometimes evokes the rocky, red hued landscapes and atmosphere of that famous serial. A very simple art style is deployed with minimal use of colour but the effect is often striking. There is some experimentation too which I find interesting. Forest is not one of those artists where all of his illustrations look exactly the same. He can do big, bold comic book and he can do minimalist. He manages to get interesting effects here from deceptively simple looking panels and backdrops that you often dwell on to enjoy and take in.

      Barbarella reminded me very much of Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones so presumably that book was inspired in some way by Forest. Like Halo, Barbarella has a story arc that continues over three sections and finds her in somewhat different circumstances in each one. The art is of a similar style too. The essential difference is that Halo Jones is an ordinary woman to whom extraordinary things happen. You couldn't really describe Barbarella as an ordinary woman. This is a very far out and sixties comic and often great fun. It has a decent sense of humour and is always imaginative with inventive and effective art. It is certainly worth getting hold of if you are a fan of vintage comics. At the time of writing you can buy a used copy of this for about £20. Probably too expensive so look around or see if a better deal surfaces.

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