3 out of 5
I suspect had I read this in a 1973 issue of a comics magazine such as Pilote, in which it first appeared, I’d’ve been been eagerly looking forward to the space-faring duo, Valérian and Laureline, and their next adventure. At this much later stage in the game – 2020 – there’s plenty of similar work to draw on – which is great! – but makes it hard to assess whether or not this fifth volume, “Birds of the Master,” is notable beyond its existence as part of a classic French comic strip.
Birds of the Master has explorers Valérian and Laureline crashing on a planet, and before getting down to shuttle repairs, following the curious trail of other crashed ships and then getting waylaid into algae-collecting slave labor for “The Master.” There’s a slight class divide between those with whips and those being whipped, but all seem subservient to some degree, collecting supplies for this ominous being, and threatened with attacks by swarms of birds should they step out of line. Valérian and Laureline are able to sneak their weapons with them, and note that, birds aside, most of the security seems to be via willful dedication to this Master, so they don’t seem too concerned with escape, so much as turning this into a mission to figure out what the heck is going on.
Writer Pierre Christin accomplishes the tough, short story form-task of accomplishing a lot of story in relative few pages: we get the whole gist of the setup of this regime, including various cities serving the master and ‘madness pits’ used for punishment, as well as a satisfactory explanation and conclusion to matters, within less than fifty pages. There’s also a good amount of humor, and though the plot could easily be abused for more pointed social commentary – a despot whose word people blindly follow – the writer leaves that lifting up to us, just inserting some smartly pointed dialogue here and there, a configuration which I ultimately prefer.
Artist Jean-Claude Mézières also pulls off the art side of this magic trick, by rather seemingly effortlessly designing a bevy of alien characters and weird concepts that are completely digestible. No page is overwhelming. It’s not a “showy” style, but it’s far from lazy or generic – it’s a special talent, something we see in a lot of European artists, to be able to serve such out-there stories so well without having to rely on pinups and glory shots, and also arting around generally text-heavy narratives.
But: none of this comes across as especially fresh or grabbing. Entertaining and easy to read, yes, but the characters – Valérian and Laureline included – all speak in a kind of stage-like manner that doesn’t really flesh them out beyond a single tone or attribute, and the story is very much designed from the top down; a one-and-done setup. That’s absolutely purposeful, given the strip originally being part of an anthology mag, but I more mean that the world of The Master (and Valérian and Laureline) doesn’t exist outside of what we see. While this could be because of all the other comics I’ve seen and read by now, when I go back and read, say, early Judge Dredds or early sci-fi texts from the 30s and 40s and 50s, I don’t have this same feeling.
Overall, am I interested to read more? Well, if there were a Valérian magazine, I don’t know if I’d take out a sub as I have with 2000 AD. But the flipside to how much is available nowadays means that I have options to read things like this digitally, and I am interested to try out other volumes. After all, this is my first taste of the strip, and there are 20+ other books to choose from…