The Empire Of A Thousand Planets (Cinebook Review 4)

Dark, infinite expanse of the Universe…

Blazing suns bathing unknown lands in light…

How many billions of civilizations,

How many billions upon billions of beings

Might call you home?

Continuing my exploration of the French and Belgian comic world, courtesy of the smashing Cinebook and their English translations, I decided to jump straight into Volume 2 of the classic science fiction series Valerian And Laureline.  (If you haven’t read my previous review click here to catch up.)

Whilst I had some problems with the first volume I did very much enjoy the artwork and sense of adventure.  Volume 2 leaves its predecessor in the dust, rocketing off for a rollicking space story of first contact, conspiracy and revolution.  Oh, and along the way it prefigures key elements from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (still nigh a decade in the future).

The set up is simple.  In the 28th Century, Earth has become aware of Syrte, a second galactic civilisation that spans a thous- well… you read the title. Space/Time agents Valerian and Laureline are despatched on a vital mission to make first contact and determine whether the Syrtians are a threat – or could become one.

Lets get the bad out of the way quickly.  The dialogue remains stilted and seems to be almost redundant.  I can imagine enjoying this just as much as a silent comic, soaking up the images and stitching together my own sense of plot rather than the heavy handed exposition-heavy blurb that appears in most of the word balloons.  It is a shame as a shade more subtley could have made this a real masterpiece, but if you can push it to one side there is a hell of a lot to appreciate in Mezieres artwork.  He spends the first four pages setting up the Empire, giving us glimpses of the exotic peoples, locations, vehicles, monsters and villains – all doused in vibrant yellows and oranges and reds, with blue shadows.  We can instantly see that this is a different kind of book to Volume 1;  widescreen and technicolour.

The sheer quantity of ideas on display as our heroes make their way through the markets and alleys of the capital planet beggars belief, from wig pets and living jewels to twin suns, psychodelic shells and solar ships.  All are drawn with a passion for detail and set amidst an urban chaos filled with movement and life.  Later we will see icicle rain and floating flowers burst free of the creators mind.  Truly these are worlds of wonder, and throughout the book I was reminded of just what gave me a kick when I first discovered science fiction.

Similarly lost amongst the alien delights Valerian and Laureline quickly get themselves into trouble, drawing the unwelcome attention of the Enlightened, a religious group who hold the Empire in their grip.  Doh!

It is here that the brain is first tickled with thoughts of Star Wars.  The Enlightened one has a helmet that flares out at the bottom like Vader’s.  There are twin suns in the sky (I went back to check.)  As the story progresses we’ll notice that if you take off the fins the space/time craft looks a bit Falcon-like, we will see Valerian trapped in a block of orange I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-carbon-ite and then our brains will kind of flip.  It’s there to see it if you want to (and there’s no doubt that Mezieres did) but don’t get hung up on it.  This book is far more John Carter of Mars or ‘Flash’ Gordon on his first trip to Mongo in terms of its pulp stylings and breakneck action.

And what action!  Most every panel is a joy to behold but Valerian and Laureline seem to be flung through the pages of the book, gabbling their exposition and occasionally flirting between awful captures and daring escapes before finally leading a mis-matched fleet against the opressing forces of baddie-ness who hold a terrible secret past.  (Don’t worry, the Enlightened bloke isn’t anyone’s father.)

For the type of tale and the medium of the time it was, I am sure, perfectly acceptable.  My brain was a little too awhirl with it all, however.  I suppose it ultimately felt as though Mezieres had too many ideas or perhaps just too little space to cram them into.  The plot could have been expanded so much more: stretched over three volumes it would have made for a really satifying story filled with character development, intruigue and thrills.  As it stands it’s a definite improvement on the first volume and a truly visionary trailblazer for sci-fi imagery.

4/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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4 comments

  1. geeksyndicate /

    Glad to hear this Dion. I bought the first book and was less than impressed with it which was a shame because I had previously read an adventure that happens way down the line and was very impressed by that.

  2. spacerboy /

    And it gets better for each volume published!

  3. Sérgio Amorim /

    “It is here that the brain is first tickled with thoughts of Star Wars.”

    “It’s there to see it if you want to (and there’s no doubt that Mezieres did) but don’t get hung up on it.”

    This comic was originally published in 1971, so…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_a_Thousand_Planets

  4. Sérgio Amorim /

    Oh forget it. I read just snipets of this review and thought you were implying that this was a Star Wars influenced comic on that chapter.

    Reading this properly I see that I was wrong.

    My bad

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