The Chimera Brigade

Earlier this month, I was a guest at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. The theme was the 1889 Universelle Exposition du Paris where Gustave Eiffel built the largest structure on the planet to date. I knew the country that produced Jules Verne had a strong interest in steampunk. I was aware of Jacques Tardi’s Adèle Blanc-Sec comic series and the wonderful movie April and the Extraordinary World, also inspired by Tardi’s work. I also knew the steampunk-flavored animated musical La Méchanique du Coer. I wanted to see what else the French had produced.

It takes a little bit of detective work to find good books and comics which aren’t published in English, especially if you don’t speak the native language. I did come across an article that recommended the novel Confessions d’un automate mangeur d’opium by Fabrice Colin and Mathieu Gaborit. The title translates as “Confessions of an Opium Eater Automaton.” Set in a Paris whose skies buzz with flying machines, it tells the story of a young actress and her psychiatrist brother who investigate a mysterious death and become entangled in a story involving automata and even Queen Victoria. Sadly, the novel hasn’t been translated into English, but I did discover another work by Fabrice Colin. La Brigade Chimérique is a comic Colin created with Serge Lehman and the title translates as The Chimera Brigade. The comic was translated and published in the United States by Titan Comics.

The Chimera Brigade isn’t exactly steampunk in that it’s set well after the Victorian era in 1938, however it’s clearly the product of the same kind of alternate historical roots. In effect, the comic feels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets The Justice Society of America. In the opening chapters, we learn that super powered beings emerged in World War I as Marie Curie worked in the trenches using her radium to help wounded soldiers.

Now in 1938, German super powered beings are posed to take over as the master race while in the Soviet Union a more communist-oriented team called “We” has a different vision for Europe. Caught in the middle is Marie Curie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who is trying to understand how the super-powered beings were created in the first place so she can keep Europe from falling into chaos. The heroes and villains themselves are a mix of historical figures and characters from classic European pulp stories. The writers coined the term “radiumpunk” to describe their story’s genre.

The story can be a bit of a slow burn compared to American comics which need a fight scene every issue. This reads more like a novel where the plot unfolds over time and we get fascinating insights into the nature of superheroes courtesy the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung.

Six issues of The Chimera Brigade were translated into English. As far as I can tell from the French Amazon site, that’s the complete original run. Like many comics, the story doesn’t quite seem complete, however I do see a new Chimera Brigade title listed on the site for publication in 2022. I hope this new story will be available in the United States and will answer some of the questions left from the original story.

Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers