Where No Comic Had Gone Before: Celebrating Jean-Claude Forest And ‘Barbarella’
You may not have heard Jean-Claude Forest's name. He's not exactly a legend in American comics circles. But you know his most famous creation. Love her or hate her, you've heard of her. Maybe you haven't read the comic. Maybe you haven't even seen the movie. But you've seen colorful posters of Jane Fonda looking flawless in a variety of impeccably styled costumes that put a sci-fi spin on burlesque. Or is it a burlesque spin on sci-fi? Either way, that's Barbarella.
Forest was born on September 11, 1930, in the suburbs of Paris, and began working as an illustrator in the '50s after getting a degree from the Paris School of Design. He was still in school when he created his first comic strip, The Black Arrow.
He also created The Ghost Ship, before drawing some issues of the French comic book Charlot, which was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, and he provided covers for a successful sci-fi paperback publisher called Le Rayon Fantastique, and produced illustrations for various magazines and newspapers. He was a founder of the French Comic-Strip Club in the early '60s, alongside film director Alain Resnais.
Barbarella, the creation that would make Forest internationally famous, originated in 1962 as a comic strip in the French periodical V Magazine. It was first collected into a book in 1964, and was a huge success, exported and translated all over the world.
Barbarella was controversial in the US, where it was widely discussed as the first adult comic book, although that wasn't precisely true. Producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Roger Vadim adapted it into a film that was released in 1968, guaranteeing Forest's creation's immortality.
A new English version of Barbarella was published in 2014 with a translation by Kelly Sue DeConnick, making the comic more accessible to English-speaking readers than it had been since the 1970s. In rereading Barbarella through a modern lens, it's not nearly as overtly erotic as one might expect. Sure, she loses her clothes a lot, but the gaze applied to her by Forest never feels particularly lascivious. It's not even lingering, and Forest's sketchy art style, combined with the two-color art, doesn't always make it obvious just how naked anyone is.
The most sexual thing about Barbarella is her willingness to have sex. She has encounters of varying magnitude throughout the book with men, women, and robots, all quite tastefully portrayed, with everything explicit hidden between panels. The issues of consent sometimes feel a little murky, as is too often the case in fiction from this time period, but Barbarella's enjoyment of these encounters is never in doubt.
Jean-Claude Forest regarded his creation as the futuristic extrapolation of the modern, free-love-practicing, empowered woman. And Barbarella is never punished for this, which somehow still feels refreshing. For all the danger she encounters in her comic, what gets her in trouble is usually her endless curiosity for what wonders a newly discovered planet might hold, not her willingness to hop into bed with that planet's inhabitants.
If you first encountered Barbarella through the psychedelically colorful film, as most do, the simplicity of Forest's art can feel a little jarring. But when you get used to his style, you find that his imagination is as boundless as Barbarella's curiosity, always building new worlds and giving them unique populations and rules. And interestingly, Forest served as a design consultant on the Barbarella film, so he had a hand in the striking visuals that are such a big part of making it a classic.
Barbarella remains highly influential, and through it Jean-Claude Forest's legacy lives on. Many later characters owe a debt to Barbarella, and not just the obvious ones like Vampirella. There have been attempts for years to get a new Barbarella movie or TV show off the ground, and it seems inevitable that such a thing will happen eventually. Whether a modern adaptation can capture the free spirit of Forest's Barbarella is another question, but some don't think that Vadim and Fonda succeeded either.
Whether we ever see a new Barbarella on our screens, we can rest assured that Jean-Claude Forest's greatest creation is still out there, exploring deep space, toppling planetary dictators, and spreading peace and love throughout the galaxy in her own special way.