By Jean-Claude Forest and Adapted by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Barbarella reads like a dream-logic driven explosion of playful fantasy adrift in a sea of soft science fiction and sexual curiosity. It is an episodic, 1960’s fueled force of creativity that will have you gleefully scratching your head and turning the head through its sheer force of will. It is, in other words, cuckoo bananas bonkers insane while simultaneously being both a distinct product of its time and lovingly filled with new life courtesy of DeConnick’s adaptation that reinforces (or perhaps re-imagines) the titular adventurer’s agency and desires. Collecting both the original Barbarella graphic novel (only ever once translated into English previously) and the never before seen in English follow-up, The Wrath of The Minute Eater, Humanoids has put together a stunning package that delights in laying bare Jean-Claude Forest’s id laden classic in all its artistic majesty as paired with a strong new voice that never undermines the original intent. And again, it is as wacky and fun of a sequence of events you could possibly imagine for stories that star giant carnivorous ears, blind angels, 19th century-dressed aliens and aqua-men with affinities for their “sexy, sexy wonderfish.” No, wait. It’s way crazier than whatever you’re imagining.
For those not well versed in Barbarella lore, the basic conceit is that a beautiful young woman explores the cosmos and has sex. Okay, okay, it’s obviously more nuanced than that and distilling it down into that simplification is certainly giving this seminal work short shrift. It’s not quite what some academics would label science fiction in its “true” sense, but much more a psychedelic space adventure series that features the determined will of an independent woman who often finds herself in situations akin to those found in the exploitation genre that followed decades later, of which DeConnick’s own Bitch Planet puts under a microscope. Barbarella itself is nowhere near as debased and outwardly problematic as those films, instead it’s filled with a much more lighthearted sense of wonder and titillation. It’s Little Nemo meets Tracy Morgan’s Astronaut Jones with a sincere cheekiness that endears more than it repels. Forest was still telling a story via magnificent cartooning stories here that focused on the truest parts of what it means to adventure into the unknown while imparting a sexual exploration and ownership that was just finding its legs in the throws of the budding Sexual Revolution. The inescapable difficulty is that these stories were ultimately still presented through a male perspective. Enter Kelly Sue DeConnick who imparts a grander scope to Barbarella’s motivations and self-identity, while remaining true to the tone of what’s there on the page in front of us all. Her role here, keep in mind, was take both the original French and the English translation (for the first book only) and adapt (not translate) them into something new. The result is certainly interesting and going so far as to call it a “feminist” rendition is possibly inaccurate, it is startling refreshing to see how these new words interact with the images they now find themselves co-mingling with.
The opening book, titled simply Barbarella, finds our adventurer crash landing on the planet Lythion and then moving emphatically from one danger to the next. By the time you reach the closing tale, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember how any of this came to be, but the episodic nature of each conflict and how they lead into each other is part of the charm. This was originally a serialized tale and it shows, but the whimsical nature of how events interlock and give way to new villains, allies and conquests is unequivocally enchanting. Fantastical ideas are abundant, not the least of which are the labyrinthine city ruled over by a Queen who lives in a pleasure castle where new perversions are invented daily. Again, there’s less social commentary told through the lens of science fiction and instead an affluence of innovative concepts and world set in yesterday’s vision of outer space. What is immediately apparent is that Barbarella herself is the one driving all the action. She’s the one who evaluates the situation and assigns a moral compass to guide her towards what is right and wrong and what must be done about it. She’s not helpless, or at least, even when placed into a compromising situation at the behest of others, she’s still fully realized as someone who’s making the assessments and acting on them. The text here feels more stunted, slightly trapped by its time in the way exclamations describe the surroundings and most basic form of expressions, perhaps because of the existing translation or perhaps not. Whatever the reason for its distinctly pulp feel, DeConnick still instills a playfulness in lieu of haplessness to Barbarella’s speech and the narration that certainly steer the events in a significantly more modern way than one might expect. The episodic nature is a double-edged sword, at times feeling challenging in the way similar to listening to a child piece together a story of seeming non-sequiturs, but almost always enticing you with an addictive feeling of curiosity as to how something could possibly still be coming after the tidal wave of events already occurred. It is a blitzkrieg of space opera that tangos with the most innocent of eroticism and one that delights, courtesy of Forest’s loose liberating pencils and DeConnick’s sharp, occasionally restrained, narrative.
Okay, so Book One sounds bizarre, yes? Well, it’s a damn operational manual compared to the insanity writ large in Book Two, The Wrath of The Minute-Eater. Let’s get weird. Page One, Panel One: Barbarella is running a galactic circus called the “Circus Delirium” that features the “sexiest and most dangerous acts.” Remember Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show”? Well that circus has got nothing on Barbarella’s jam. It just gets increasingly more bizarre from there and it is unimaginably great with every page turn. Gone is the more static dialogue in favor of an enrapturing natural and flowing speech from all characters, which appropriately mimics the increased sense of freedom amongst the characters. It’s sharp in its humor and infused with more innuendo than the opening chapter as Forest’s ideas erupt orgasmically from panel to panel. Time displacement, impossible creatures and crafts, internal emotional conflict and unbridled passions overwhelm you in this chapter that highlight DeConnick being in full, comfortable control of both the character and Forest’s sense for delirious exploration of both genre and mind. Trying to describe the plot would be a fool’s errand, but to do it injustice, it essentially follows Barbarella and her crew to the planet Spectra which exists in a different temporal dimension, because the merman in her circus invented a device that….nevermind. Suffice to say that it is unlike virtually anything that has followed in the forty-plus years since its creation and calling it anything short of a marvel would be insufficient. DeConnick’s ability to dig deeper into Barbarella’s psyche than previously seen is a revelation of examination as it explores motivations previously untapped as our hero (and she is very much this story’s hero in the realest sense of the word) experiences a brief bout with depression and uncertainty while also owning her carnality handsomely and as confidently (and as unquestioned) as any traditional male protagonist. If you feel lost at any point, good. Go with it and bask in the wild, unpredictable nature instead of trying to rationalize any practicalities. Much like Barbarella herself, unleash yourself and confidently look towards the next impossibility.
Throughout it all, Forest’s art is a liberating force. It’s messy and heavy, as though he couldn’t keep himself focused on the task at hand because he was simply too excited to move on to next grand idea. All his character’s have a weight to them but move as wistfully as phantasms. Shoulders transitions to forearms transition to pointed, airy fingers in one brush stroke, sitting atop magnificent tresses of hair and pouty lips. Often characters’ features look similar and fairly indistinguishable from one another if it weren’t for their charmingly designed costumes and accouterments, but where his art really shines is in the breathtaking vistas of foreign worlds. As though Dr. Seuss dropped a small mountain of acid, Forest’s planetary landscapes are inescapable spectacles of grandeur filled with only glimmers of the vague familiarity of our world. Events are largely laid out fairly tight, but when he chooses to open up a reveal (a castle, a desert, a city or a ruthless storm at sea) it is always appropriately impact. There’s such a unique balance of the harsh and the breezy, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s so mesmerizing. Perhaps, much like the complex perspective of the stories themselves, there’s a blending of the traditional masculine and the traditional feminine in his style that makes it so unique. While the first book has the accompaniment of a single, well-utilized blue, the second is pure ink on paper and while the color is missed, very little is lost.
Barbarella and The Wrath Of The Minute Eater is not for everyone and at the same time, it almost needs to be seen by everyone regardless. Bringing Kelly Sue DeConnick on board to instill new life and perspective into an occasionally problematic work is a stroke of obvious brilliance and, especially in Book Two, she doesn’t disappoint in her ability to both match the original tone from whence it was borne while empowering its character with new-found relevance and perspective. Forest’s original art and story are well-preserved and everything that made this a masterpiece is on full display. The insanity is inexorable and intoxicating, the new adaptation is energizing, and the art is brutally addictive. An absinthe-infused, teasingly erotic journey into the unknown via a determined and sanguined heroine, Barbarella stands tall on this and any other planet as nothing short of stellar storytelling.