Comics don’t get more singular, more French, or more oppressively unforgettable than Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane tales, says Matt Bielby
The fantastical work of Philippe Druillet
Roger Dean – painter of weird alien landscapes for album covers by bands like Yes and Asia – was quite the name in the ’70s, and his twin book imprints, Paper Tiger and Dragon’s Dream, brought us album after album of the most exciting fantasy art of the period.
Alongside these, too, came the odd eye-opening album of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée. Now, a new group of artists who’d gathered at Pilote magazine – and who since had formed their own publishing house, Les Humanoïdes Associés, together with a new magazine, Métal Hurlant – were turning the world of comics upside down. Amongst the ringleaders were “Moebius” Giraud, and photographer-turned-artist Philippe Druillet, with his Lovecraftian themes, AE van Vogt influences, and striking, scratchy, occasionally baffling Baroque page designs. Druillet’s figures were often dwarfed by bizarre space-architecture, vaguely EuroGothic but equally often resembling Far Eastern temples.
Druillet’s early works revolved around a red-eyed Han Solo-type called Lone Sloane, hero of a number of late ’60s short stories and then a 1973 graphic novel, Delirius, created with writing help from pal Jacques Lob.
When the English translation was published by Dragon’s Dream (the UK version contained the original Les Six Voyages de Lone Sloane tales, each around eight pages long, plus the graphic novel) it was like nothing we’d seen before: dark, inky, oppressive and thrilling. This was Gigeresque before Giger had even entered the zeitgeist.
A rebel among his kind
Sloane is a rogue and habitual spectator with almost godlike superpowers, dragged into a strange alternative dimension by a flying sentient throne called “The Seeker”. Here he finds himself buffeted by a vast power struggle involving robots, dark gods, space pirates and other yet weirder alien monsters, eventually rocking up at Delirius, “the planet of a hundred thousand pleasures”. Imagine an unshaven Silver Surfer, more angry and less woe-is-me, exploring a Gigeresque Las Vegas, and you’ll be part-way there.
Though Sloane is memorable, and his story a fascinating one, the truly unforgettable aspect of Delirius – and Druillet’s work in general – is its peculiar page design. Unlike almost all Anglo-American comics (the occasional artist like JH Williams III or Jae Lee aside), his work is best experienced page-by-page (or spread-byspread) rather than panel-by-panel. Often a building or figure will dominate, with everything else squished into tiny, oddlyshaped panels in the corner or along the bottom. Individual frames will be circular, or triangular, or no-recognised-shape; pages (or just individual portions of such) will flip from the horizontal to the vertical and back again; and the colouring, in heavy greens and rusty reds, yet further intensifies the vivid, oppressive feel, the bleakness only very occasionally leavened by moments of lyricism. Despite the vast vistas and epic scope it’s hard to think of another strip as claustrophobic as this one.
It’s long been noted that American comics care mostly about strong, dynamic figure work, European titles about the location and backdrops, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of Druillet. Where his colleague and soul-mate Moebius had a gentler take on the human condition – funnier, more ironic, often lyrical – Druillet’s work resembled a grandiose howl of pain and confusion, his tiny human figures lost in a chaos beyond their comprehension.
Throughout his tales, the solitary Sloane struggles to keep his feet while beset by forces infinitely more powerful than himself, often standing on the edge of epic battles between the forces of chaos and order, with
chaos always looking to be on the verge of victory. But slowly, and almost despite himself, he becomes more proactive, a determined, vicious and self-serving force in his own right.
And if he’s not especially likeable, neither is anybody else, for virtually everyone we meet – human, alien, god or monster – is cruel, destructive and selfish. The short Lone Sloane tales are parables about lust and greed, of a sort – when our hero eventually returns home he finds an Earth bereft of people, populated only by monsters – while in Delirius he becomes a rebel on a planet of joyless, taxable pleasure. Here, his underground movement only succeeds in causing total war, and when the chaos brings hidden treasure raining from the sky the people destroy each other to get to it.
Unlike Moebius, Druillet had enjoyed no formal training; he was a self-taught artist who struggled to get what he imagined down on paper, his eye for graphic design often stronger than his sketchy figure work. When his first Lone Sloane short, “The Mystery Of The Abyss”, was published in 1966, the reaction was mixed: letters came in to Pilote complaining about this scrappy, baffling work. Still, his reputation, and his craftsmanship, grew with every story. Spectac le And Sca le What makes him so exciting is the sheer spectacle he could command. Yes, in terms of sequential narration he’s often confusing or frustrating, but look at the compensations – nearly every page is some sort of incredibly detailed and vivid graphic poster, heaving with symbolism and haunting imagery. Some of the most fun are those based on the impossible architecture of Dutch artist MC Escher, but the most spectacular are all his own: a vast bridge through space, the arches resting on planets with screaming space gods supporting each one; a huge temple, the centre of it on fire, swarming with venal worshippers; the planet Earth surrounded by three Uranus-sized bronze warriors. It’s hard to be exactly sure what Druillet is getting at some of the time – “people are crap” aside – but the power of his stuff is immense, the mystery fascinating. Why’s this no longer in print? Goodness knows; you’re probably best off tracking down an old copy on eBay, or hoping you luck out at a car boot sale.
Above: Druillet was nicknamed the “space architect” and his fantastical backdrops were a mishmash of Art Nouveau, Asian temples and Gothic cathedrals.