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This Is Moebius' Brain Off Drugs: Late Artist Gets High On Life

Mind-altering substances have inspired artists for centuries, but going sober isn't usually associated with flights of wild creativity. Perhaps only the legendary French artist Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, could be so tickled, dizzied and generally thrown for a loop by the experience of giving up marijuana. Inside Moebius is based on notebooks he kept after "weed[ing] himself out" in the early 2000s, but it reads more like the work of a teenager doing LSD for the first time. This is Moebius' brain off drugs. It's sobriety as you've never seen it before.

This newly translated volume, the first of three planned for U.S. release this year, was the last long work Giraud completed before his death in 2012. In it, he abandons stable narrative, stable character — even a stable identity — to meander through a vast emptiness he calls "Desert B." The name, as translator Diana Schutz explains in her excellent notes, is a punning reference to the project of going straight. "The French term for 'to weed' (as in 'weeding a garden') is 'désherber', and the pronunciation of 'désherber' is identical, in French, to that of 'Désert B.'" Schutz points out numerous other puns scattered throughout the book, and it's unfortunate that they can't be fully appreciated in English. Her notes are an essential addition.

Desert B looks a lot like the American southwest, site of Blueberry, the iconic Old West comic Giraud drew from the 1960s to the 2000s. As the artist — or, as he points out, an alter ego he's created — wanders around, Giraud uses standard drug-lit tropes: growing and shrinking, flying (or crashing when he tries to fly). When the Giraud within the comic sets out to draw an episode of Blueberry, his desk grows tall and wide and rolls across the desert with his tiny figure poised at its edge. "Blood and guts! Suddenly I'm getting a few ideas," he exclaims.

As Giraud tries to work, characters from his best-known creations turn up to confront or mock him. He brings in Blueberry's Lieutenant Blueberry; Major Grubert from The Airtight Garage, a 1970s serial from Métal Hurlant magazine (which Giraud co-founded, and which had a second life in the U.S. as Heavy Metal); and Stel, one of the explorers from the epic Edena universe of the 1980s.

These figures aren't drawn with the precision Giraud is known for, though he sticks to his characteristic clear-line style. Instead of painstakingly articulating details as in previous works, he recklessly sketches without penciling first. The resulting careless appearance is actually well thought out, he explains in a delightful introductory dialogue. His goal, he says, is to "avoid the overly loose, throwaway aspect of sketching" while obtaining a "fresher, more inventive" look than in his previous work. His success is mixed. The book isn't actually particularly inventive, but he does achieve a sense of freshness. The artwork feels detached, unearthly, airy — in a word, high.

The book isn't actually particularly inventive, but he does achieve a sense of freshness. The artwork feels detached, unearthly, airy — in a word, high.

Throughout the book Giraud-the-character is repeatedly tantalized by the prospect of smoking up, but the mixture of freewheeling style and directionless story makes it feel like the artist already has. There's no tangible renunciation here, no real yearning. Instead, Giraud's emotions skate along the edge of triviality. Even the World Trade Center disaster, which occurred at the time he was writing, hardly affects the mood. Reflecting on 9/11, Giraud draws Osama bin Laden ... who impudently sparks a doobie. "This has to be a dream," the artist frets. "The guy intrudes upon my desert and rolls a joint right in front of me!"

It's not too long before Osama gets his comeuppance, in a reasonably fitting way. But the various characters' encounters with the man who, at the time, practically embodied evil don't illuminate his zealotry particularly thoughtfully. Giraud often cuts short their conversations, along with practically every other vignette, in favor of following some random thought where it leads. The overall effect is playful and intermittently potent, but insubstantial: a puff of smoke.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.

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