Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Queen of Outer Space

Jonathan Boorstein
Windy City Banner

Before Barbarella went “psychedella” in the now cult-classic 1968 Roger Vadim film, she was the titular heroine of a suggestive French comic strip, created by Jean-Claude Forest (1930-1998).

Forest was one the more popular cover artists for a French science fiction and fantasy imprint, Le Rayon Fantastique. The editor, George Gallet, asked Forest to create a comic book heroine for V Magazine, an adult quarterly Gallet edited on the side.  He wanted a female Tarzan; he got a female Flash Gordon.

Barbarella debuted in 1962.  Her picaresque adventures were as much Flash Gordon as Alice in Wonderland. Forest’s bizarre imagination not only found reasons for Barbarella to appear naked, sometimes for sex, sometimes not, but also for her to face pirates flying on kites or living in jelly fish; sadistic children whose mechanical dolls have sharp teen with which to bite unsuspecting adults; a society aping the “best” of 19th Century Europe; mechanical moles able to burrow through an entire planet (the sort of idea that would later be called steampunk); and hovering air sharks who eat people who try to escape the labyrinth they are kept in by climbing the walls.

Barbarella tended to be a game, but detached, heroine through all that, as much an observer of her adventures as a participant: engagé, without losing her cool.  Dialogue balloons tended to be filled with witty repartee typical of the period.  Barbarella has sex with Diktor, a robot that looks like an ancestor of C3PO, but less epicene and more anatomically correct.  She congratulates him on his technique.  Diktor thanks Barbarella, but demurs, lamenting that “my movements are somewhat mechanical.”

Barbarella was an immediate sensation.  Two years later, her adventures were collected in a hardcover book, which could not be publically displayed according to the French censors.  Despite being sold under the counter, it managed to become a best-seller.

At the time, “liberated” heroines were something of a rage.  Barbarella’s rivals in comic strips included Captain Kate, an underrated, now forgotten, series, and Modesty Blaise (the only one that actually had any staying power, lasting well past the turn of the millennium), among more than a dozen others.  Film had Caprice and Fathom; television, The Avengers (Emma Peel) and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (April Dancer); and books, Honey West (on which the TV series was based) and The Baroness (which even garnered a good review from the then rather fussy Village Voice).
Barbarella herself was picked by Grove Press and her adventures translated and published in The Evergreen Review, better known for such contributors as Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, and Susan Sontag.  The hardcover compilation that followed in the United States did not have to be sold under the counter.  Not that it became a best-seller either.

Barbarella was drawn to resemble Brigitte Bardot, who was Vadim’s first wife.  The film, of course, starred Jane Fonda, his third and then current spouse, with a script by the director himself and Terry Southern, better known for Candy, Easy Rider, and The Magic Christian.  Forest was directly involved with set and costume design, which would later inspire Jean-Paul Gaultier in his designs for The Fifth Element.  And it is well-known that Duran Duran took its name from one of the characters in the film, Durand Durand.  The reasons for the d-ectomy remain obscure.

The film itself was an immediate bomb, developing its cult status over the subsequent 45 years.  To be rather fussy, it is more of a time capsule that has aged well than a film for the ages.  In his last years, Forest described Barbarella as “interesting”, in the same sense most science fiction/fantasy film from the fifties or sixties might be described as interesting.

The Evergreen Review went on to publish other adult comic strips of which The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist is probably the best known.  Barbarella also inspired Playboy to develop Little Annie Fanny, which has a cult following of its own.

Forest continued Barbarella’s adventures in the comics with the less erotic (and less successful) Wraith of Time.  She also appears in this rather free, very poetic retelling of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, titled Mysterious Morning, Noon, and Night, as the Captain Nemo character.  She is also much older.

In Paper Moon, the only other Barbarella adventure to be published in English in the United States (in Heavy Metal) as Moon Child, she meets and marries an artist named Browningwell.  Her last adventure, Mirror of Storms, appeared in the late 1980’s.

And what did Forest himself think of his famous character?  Some writers grow to hate their creations – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most notably; others are resigned to them – Dame Agatha Christie, for example; and still others maintain a healthy distance – Ian Fleming, of all people.

In Paper Moon, the drawings of Browningwell are self-portraits.

And Browningwell and Barbarella have a child.

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