We’ve been pretty hyped recently about the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, in part due to its visually gorgeous trailer, and in part because it was written and directed by Luc Besson, the man behind classic sci-fi film The Fifth Element. While many of us are no doubt familiar with the 1997 film starring Bruce Willis as a futuristic taxi driver and Milla Jovovich as Leeloo, the woman he must help, you may not have heard of the French graphic novel series that inspired it: Valérian et Laureline (Valérian and Laureline). The Valérian series was hugely popular in France and Europe, cited as an inspiration for Star Wars and Avatar, and a favorite of Besson growing up.  His journey to bring it to the big screen was a labor of love, with Besson going so far as to fund a portion of it from his own pocket.

Valérian and Laureline was the brainchild of writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières, friends since childhood who, after a stint in the United States, felt that science-fiction was a relatively unexplored genre in French comics. Taking inspiration from classic sci-fi literature, they created a futuristic version of Earth where humans have the means to travel through time and space. The series was initially called Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent, and its first story, “Les Mauvais Rêves” (“The Bad Dreams”), was published in the popular French comic magazine Pilote in November 1967.

The comic’s two protagonists, Valérian and Laureline, will both feature in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. In the comic series, Valérian was born on Earth in the 28th century. In the year 2713, he joined the Spatio-Temporal Service, an order of agents who protect the planets of the Terran Empire and guard against temporal interference. Valérian was originally intended by Christin and Mézières to be an anti-hero, a contrast to the goody-two-shoes, ultra-masculine heroes who were popular at the time. He makes mistakes, he doesn’t always win, and he has flaws, such as being loyal to a fault.

Laureline, Valérian’s partner, was originally born in France in the 11th century. She appears in the first story, “The Bad Dreams,” where she discovers Valérian trapped in a forest. After freeing him, she offers to guide him on his journey. When she discovers that he is a time-traveler, he is required to take her with him in order to prevent contaminating the timeline. He takes her back to the 28th century, where she herself becomes a spatio-temporal agent. Christin and Mézières wanted Laureline to be a different type of heroine to the typical bimbos and damsels in distress seen at the time, and after positive feedback from readers, she became a main character. Together, she and Valérian travel through space and time, their adventures told in stories that frequently explore thought-provoking issues thanks to Christin’s interest in politics.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the comic’s sixth volume, “Ambassador of the Shadows.” Valérian and Laureline serve as guards for an Ambassador from Earth as he visits Point Central, a space station that serves as a hub for many different cultures. When Valérian and the Ambassador are kidnapped, it’s up to Laureline to find out what happened and rescue them.

The movie isn’t the first time that the series has been adapted for screen. Time Jam: Valerian and Laureline is a French-Japanese animated series based on the comics that debuted in 2007, after several earlier failed attempts over the decades to create an animated series.

The final chapter of Valérian and Laureline was published in 2010. Both Christin and Mézières stated that they concluded the series because they don’t want it to become weak or fall behind modern comics,  but they haven’t ruled out bringing the characters back in other forms, such as novels. In the meantime, Cinebook is releasing English-language translations of the comics.

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