One of my Desert Fathers of comics is Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius. A wizard, a visionary, a creator able to drag you into his worlds of glimpsed detail, he just threw you down onto the streets and gullies of his stories. Whether it's the dust in your throat and the smell of horses and sagebrush in his cowboy epic or the soaring alien landscapes of his inner-space operas, YOU ARE THERE. There's junk in the gutters and trash cans of the kind that an anthropologist could spend lifetimes sorting out, if that were the only clue to the reality of the worlds Moebius created. He gave the spaceship NOSTROMO its garbagey, lived-in feel for the movie ALIEN. For TRON he made the costume design elegant and functional in turns and he made a digital prophet in the form of a Sphinx. He's one of my pantheon, one of the greats, and I never tire of what he does well.
But then there are the things he does not do well. Maybe it's just my taste. But I have a problem with one of my favorites.
I'm rereading THE GARDENS OF EDENA, or reading it with all its scattered bits and bobs together for the first time. It's a beautiful new hardback from Dark Horse. I gather that Stel and Atan, the two goofy protagonists, arose out of a need to draw a bunch of illustrations for Citroen. I loooove Stel and Atan, especially when they do go putting around the stars or weird planets in an incongruous little car... they're good partners, veering from weird adventure to weird adventure. They seem gender-neutral, or gender-not-the-point, at any rate. They are not lovers. They seem masculine in some ways, feminine in others, and it was really refreshing! I love a lot of Moebius's other characters: he does good 'dorky everyman' without making that everyman emasculated and hopeless, and his sexy characters are loads of fun too. But Stel and Atan were different. They were friends. They could only be together because they liked each other, and worked well together, because there was no sexual dynamic between them at all.
For a while.
Then Moebius decided that the way to go forward past their dashed-off origin situation-- sketches for Citroen-- was to imagine them as having existed in an 'artificial' society, artifice here having the negative connotation commonly held. Stel and Atan are quite young, and yet take for granted a ridiculous degree of medical intervention as necessary for health. They've both had multiple organ transplants, including many hearts and lungs. They both have implants that protect them from infection and other illnesses, but also regulate their hormone levels (producing their asexual appearances and hairlessness, and presumably dealing with graft-vs-host disease from their transplants, but that's neither here nor there). See where this is going?
Well, one misadventure leaves them stranded on a beautiful world with the slightly eye-rolly name of 'Edena' or 'Aedena,' depending on which book you're reading. Planets called Eden are a hoary old space-opera trope. Anyway, Aedena is beautiful beyond belief, and our two friends get stuck there. They've never eaten fruit off trees or consumed water out of the hole in the ground, and find the idea more than a little disgusting. Moebius wanted to show them relearning to live in a natural world, reconnecting to ordinary human rhythms. They're utterly at sea. Is Atan's dizziness and delirium early on due to hunger? Dehydration? An infection that his implants fought off? They're afraid and uncomfortable. Over time they figure some things out. But again, you see where this is going. Stel puts on some muscle. Atan, though, is sure this world is making him sick, because he's lost a lot of weight and isn't as strong as he used to be. When they finally strip down at a river's edge for a bath, you can see that Atan has lost a lot of upper-body muscle, a bit of weight overall, and has developed breasts as well as blond hair.
All that would be FINE. If Stel didn't try to rape his friend of years and years. Atan crowns him with a rock and runs away. Stel is sorry, but done is done. They spend a lot of the next adventures alone... but we're sticking much closer to Stel.
Stel is as lost as he ever was in the wilderness that is Aedena. The temperate forest part they landed in is as perfect as if it were a tended garden, which is, if I may say, just as 'artificial' as the world Stel and Atan grew up in. The landscape they travel through changes to jungle and finally to desert, and seems much more wild and unkept, though there are still many suggestions of keepers. Stel proceeds on his road to nowhere, becoming more ripped and masculine, having more weird dreams that are clearly not dreams, the big one involving finding Atan, who is now completely damseled, held captive by a metaphysical monster which fate worse than death blah blah blah blah horrible. Of COURSE when Atan meets Stel in the dream he's wearing a pretty blue dress and has his long shampoo-commercial tresses smoothly brushed. Of COURSE he wants to make love NOW. It makes me grit my teeth to call Atan 'she,' to hear both characters append an 'a' to her name to feminize it. Stel has changed every bit as much as Atan has, and YET he does not change HIS name. And the fact that Atan was a partner, fully engaged in whatever ridiculous things they were doing, and is now just another princess in a tower, this is enfuriating. Atan might well connect with femininity and decide to call herself 'she' and change her name. But it's never presented as a choice she made. It just happened. And Stel is the one to start using feminine pronouns and calling his erstwhile friend 'Atana.'
Atana is beautiful. So beautiful. Of course.
Then we catch up with Atan in real life, still far from wherever Stel happens to be, trekking, as he is, just moving for the sake of moving, and we see that Atan has gotten all ripped and Jungle Queeny. At that point I was willing to put the Anger Finger down and go "OK. That was just Stel. Of course his identity colors his dreams. Let's see where this goes." Well, where that goes is that both Stel and Atan are captured by citizens of an even more 'artificial' society than the one they came from: people who wear protective gear so all-encompassing that they consider an uncovered human face as grotesque. The whole human body is taboo to them, at all times, in all places. Nudity includes the face and hands, regardless of gender, and is Not Done. Being captured by these people is more or less the end of Atan's identity as an individual.
This capture takes place in part three, "The Goddess," and, yep, you guessed it, Atan is the goddess in question, and Atan remains basically comatose for most of the rest of the book. Two-thirds of the book... and naturally Stel keeps trying to find and yawwwwwwwwn rescue her. And even though some parts of this book have burrowed deep into my consciousness (as long-time readers of my own work will see), I have never been able to read it much past the middle of "The Goddess." I gather that the bigger forces at work have nefarious plans. Don't much care. What I do care about is that Atan's agency is destroyed bit by bit until it seems as if... he doesn't even exist? He's just Stel's anima, a projection of his dreams? And Stel, having left Aedena, at the end will travel back there to be united with that anima, which he claims to love? Mmmph.
Stel and Atan could have been so much better. I would have loved them so much more if they had just retained their solid partnership, no matter how their bodies changed or whatever they did. I might even have been able to excuse the attempted rape on Stel's part; neither of them ever had any sex ed, because it's implied neither had ever expected or been expected to use their junk for anything. If that awakening had been handled EVER so many other ways, they could have been great. But mostly what guts me is that in the end they're not just puttin' around the brightly-colored landscape in a battered Citroen, laughing and heading for the next bizarre work-for-hire or other misadventure, rolling their eyes at their provincial former friends, who now think they're grotesque and don't understand why they don't get surgery to go back to "normal."
I miss them as friends. I don't think they gained anything deeper. Their friendship was better.