Hid­den Gems

Comics don’t get more sin­gu­lar, more French, or more op­pres­sively un­for­get­table than Philippe Druil­let’s Lone Sloane tales, says Matt Bielby

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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.

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