Scribbler’s Saga #95 – Barbarella

Posted: September 16, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Sometimes diving into original source material for the movie doesn’t work as planned. While I might think the Roger Vadim film somewhat underwritten (see post), turns out Jean-Claude Forest’s original Barbarella comics have many of the same problems and several more. Clearly, the character has somehow managed to be more valuable than the books in which she appears.

The volume reviewed here under the collected title Barbarella started life as French newspaper strips. Think Mary Worth just with fewer “later that day” caption boxes, which help make this story vastly more confusing.

Barbarella crashes on Lythion, a strange planet that seems the product of haphazard kitchen sink world building. First, she bonks her boat into a greenhouse causing winds/decompression that kills off the highly sought after flowers. The dramatic problem: the gardeners in the domed city have dispossessed their neighbors out of key water rights, so crucial for survival in hot-spring settlements described as surrounded by desert.

Barbarella makes out with the leader of a liberal faction seeking a negotiated settlement to the problem. After agreeing to take a message to the opposite number among the dispossessed, Barbarella then has sex with this man. Diplomacy with Benefits. She takes a side for a fair deal where everyone shares in the wealth of the city’s flowers and arms a key uprising from the gun locker on her crashed ship. All is now right and then she leaves town on the next cargo ship to arrive for flowers.

Soon after, Captain Dildano crashes this boat with Barbarella aboard on what appears to be a watery planet inhabited by giant Portuguese Man O’War jellyfish. Said creatures are large enough to be used by their mostly humanoid inhabitants as cities and pirate vessels. The queen of the jellyfish pirates is a Medusa, condemned to immortality fueled by adopting the face of the next woman to roll into town and then killing her, making a case that Earth mythology later landed on the “don’t look, you’ll turn to stone” rule of the Classical creature.

After a highly charged and completely unrequited lesbian moment, Barbarella is finally told to look at the queen and *gasp* she sees her own face. This Medusa is soul sick at the cost of her life and agrees to die. Maybe she feels real love.

Then we have a completely forgettable segment, except for Barbarella and Dildano walking and just barely surviving the ubiquitous deserts of Lythion. Dildano sacrifices his life becoming part of a rapidly acting petrified forest. There’s also a space prince with princess sisters with carnivorous dolls somewhere in here as well.

And then Barbarella uses a borrowed digger boat to visit the completely isolated evil city of Sogo. This section that inspired the movie plays out as a truncated version of the same where Barbarella has sex with the right men and robots setting in motion yet another rebellion against cities dominated by a monster that feeds on evil.

Four main segments. All of which seem too short as seen on the page. I really would like to have seen Mr. Forest take each block and expand them into four graphic novels of the same size as the book kept in print by Humanoids Press (a successor company to the original publisher).

Milk the greenhouse city and the destruction of the crystal structure that fends off the dispossessed and their telekinesis. Milk the Medusa Queen of the Jellyfish Pirates for something, anything. Same with the space prince and his crabby little sisters and their biting dolls. And even though we saw a better version of the Sogo/Black Queen story in the movie, even here there’s not really enough on the page.

To be clear, my major criticism of the movie that the Matmos exuding Pure Evil into the city should affect Barbarella in such a way that a scene of the heroine fighting her way back to being good counts as a Big Scene (an All is Lost Moment perhaps?), also applies on the original page. Why? The segment is too short as written.

In addition to thinking that this narrative structure of shoehorning four adventures into the space typically reserved for one good story just makes things go too fast, this book left me scratching my head about Lythion itself as a imagined world. The planet is described as desert, except when Plot intrudes. In the third section, Barbarella does the Lawerence of Arabia trek in the sand, but this is juxtaposed with the jellyfish sea, or the greenhouse city and, of course Sogo.

Once I figured out that Captain Dildano never left Lythion and that creatures from earlier sections reappeared at the needs of Plot, I started asking the kind of questions that pretty much indicate I’m totally not buying the story on the page. Mostly of the kind an exo-geographer armed with Wikipedia wisdom on the subject might ask.

So the planet is described as being mostly desert but there are seas for jellyfish pirates? Where does the greenhouse city lie with regards to Sogo? And how did all the other settlements of Lythion pull off the isolation of Sogo without the inevitable consequence of the Black Queen opting to invade everyone else on the planet? How does the climate from one section affect the rest of the planet? And many more of similar ilk.

By comparison, Earth has a greater variety of regional climates and cultures than Lythion, but there’s a logic to the distribution rooted in latitude, longitude and ocean and air currents. And since the airplane, we’ve lived on a tiny blue marble that only seems large in the context of going out for a walk. So more than sharing climates where heat in the tropics becomes hurricanes in Charleston, there’s a sense of crowded that affects our politics and cultures.

We worry about ozone holes. We worry about plastic straws in the Pacific Trash Gyre. How about that carbon dioxide, huh? And don’t get us started on those people three countries over who understand us about as well we understand them (not at all) and are suddenly acting out. Earth obviously ain’t Lythion, where the cheek by jowl settings seem highly contrived.

Reading this book wasn’t a complete nightmare of contrived nonsense. Buried somewhere in each truncated narrative segment was a potentially great story if allowed time to breathe. I really wanted to see sixty pages for each, including Sogo. And I’m okay with moving segments off Lythion (Pluton Omicron Six?, Vulcan? New Vatican City in orbit around Ophiuchius Four?), but expanding each story to its proper length also allows you to keep the stories set on Lythion while avoiding the contrived feel.

The best story in the book, Sogo, stands out. While this story still proved too short to do it real justice, I could see immediately why the movie picked this segment and dropped in elements from the earlier stories as nods and callbacks. A monster spewing negative energy until incorruptible Barbarella convinces the queen to immolate the city in a bubbling venomous apocalypse? Works in almost all forms even the truncated version (sort of) seen on the page.

The book is a comic book. A few words need to pass about the art, drawn by Jean-Claude Forest in addition to his writing duties. Frankly, I liked looking at the pictures even less than reading the odd narrative. The panels on the page were tiny with even tinier lettering that already had me annoyed because of buying a magnifying lens to help my fifty-COUGH! year-old eyes get through the book. And the lettering is frankly painfully small. Bears repeating.

As for the pictures going inside these tiny panels, I find the art style loose, slashy and too impressionistic for my taste. True, I’m still learning my art vocabulary to say more, but I found myself wishing for some sort of open-loop time machine that makes alternate realities so I could live in the universe where somebody from the classic Marvel House Style could get his teeth into the Class Five Astronavigatrix. I’d initially thought Jack Kirby, but on greater reflection and discussion at the comic book store, John Romita Sr.

So far, I’ve really ripped into this book. Very little makes sense to my narrative sensibilities. But, there are also the seeds of greatness. I will reiterate that each story segment given more elbow room to breathe might just live up to the hype of the franchise. Sogo would still be the favored child, but the dolls, jellyfish could all steal more limelight.

And I’m absolutely convinced that Mr. Forest’s lasting contribution happened early in the process when designing the character. Barbarella has been asserted as a reflection of his views that the world of comics in the early 1960s needed to lighten up about heterosexual intercourse. The blonde crashes on Lythion and changes the world by strategically having sex with the right well-placed men and getting what she wants.

Barbarella thus ends up being the heroine that everyone can adopt. Men can get onboard in the sense of getting caught looking at Jane Fonda merely changing sexy outfits every ten minutes, while enjoying the story as well. The fact that Barbarella’s primary job is to release the guns from her ship into the hands of deserving rebels counts as a strong woman. And at least a portion of those same women fans might see that she has total control of her sexuality using everything to get her desired results. And the rest…well, let’s not go there.

To recap, I can’t really get behind how Mr. Forest writes or draws faced with a tiny, crowded and claustrophobic mess with few signposts to keep my mind in the game. I asked too many extraneous questions about Lythion’s ecology and politics. But, the pieces could’ve been great expanded into their own stories with greater effect. Sogo shows great imagination that bears comment all by itself. And quite frankly, the character is simply far more valuable than this book in which she first appears. A middling read. Now onto Wrath of the Minute Eaters.

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