I’ve not yet read the majority of the “Valerian” graphic novels by Christin and Mezeries. Of the three that I have read, though, I see a number of repeated tropes, which have their best effect in the 1975 GN considered here, “Ambassador of the Shadows.”
More than any other French science-fiction comic of the period—if not of all time—the Valerian series evokes what enthusiasts of science fiction came to call “the sense of wonder.” “Shadows” begins with a prologue in which the reader sees dozens of nonhuman and quasi-human races developing on their own worlds, venturing into space, and making contact with one another. All of these assorted interactions, which writer Christin treats more as legend than as history, lead to the creation of a titanic space-satellite, “Central Point.” This grand confluence of races is a trope common to many science fiction subgenres, but is perhaps best known for its association with the space opera subgenre. At its best, the trope conveys to readers a sense of “the extraordinary diversity of the universe,” as the 1981 English translation of "Shadows" phrases it.
That said, American space opera is often though not always dominated by tropes associated with imperialism, in which human beings are seen as the natural leaders of the universe’s nonhuman sentients. At least in the novels I’ve read, Christin and Mezeries consistently reject this world-view, often satirizing the tendency of Earthmen to assume their innate superiority. In a related trope, even though the series is named for a male “time-space agent” in the service of the Earth-rulers, Valerian’s female partner Laureline is often the center of the action, and“Shadows” is certainly one instance of this tendency. Finally, whereas most American space-operas follow very linear plots associated with finding treasures or terminating threats, the stories of Christin and Mezeries tend to be picaresque, with characters lurching from one fantastic situation to another. This quality may have hurt the recent Valerian adaptation, CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, with American audiences. (The film borrows some story-tropes from "Shadows" but is not a straight adaptation.)
Following the prologue, the story’s main action begins with Valerian and Laureline piloting their ship to Central Point. At the opening the two agents only know that they’ve been assigned to deliver Earth’s ambassador to Central Point. The ambassador is never given a name in the English translation: for my own convenience, I choose to call him “A” from now on. Just as the ship is about to dock, A—who continually treats the agents as his flunkies—reveals a secret mission. Central Point is apparently administered by a rotating leadership, rather like an interstellar United Nations, but A and his superiors plan to pull off a coup. Just as Earth assumes the rotating leadership, A will put forth a proposal to bring the various planets into a rigid federation, with the Earth-people as the “keystone.”
The agents’ reactions are telling. Valerian consistently plays the “good boy,” stressing their need to obey their superiors and making excuses for A’s snooty behavior. Laureline is the knowing rebel, who calls “bullshit” on A’s supposed beneficence. However, because of their previous experience with alien life, A chooses to entrust the agents to care for A’s ace-in-the-hole: a tiny armadillo-like alien called a “grumpy converter.” Though the precise nature of A’s coup is never disclosed, A strongly implies that he’s going to use the “grumpy”—a creature able to reproduce great quantities of monetary tokens—to bribe some of the extraterrestrials into voting for the new federation.
The coup, however, never has the chance to get started. Valerian and Laureline escort A to the Earth-segment of Central Point without incident. But just as A begins to address his fellow Earthmen in some minor rallying speech, a contingent of unfamiliar aliens breach the hull, knock down all opposition with “cocoon guns,” and abduct A. Valerian, still the dutiful son, pursues the intruders’ ship, but his heroic attempt fails and he’s simply taken prisoner alongside A, and for most of the rest of the story, the plot-action centers on Laureline. Only at this point does it become clear to a first-time reader that Laureline and Valerian are lovers. Thus the heroine is motivated to find the kidnappers not because of the Very Important Personage they’ve abducted—a personage whom Laureline doesn’t like, or approve of—but by personal affection. At least in this story, the space-opera’s celebration of “the call to duty” is minimized by Christin and Mezeries.
Most of Laureline’s potential allies have been rendered immobile by the cocoon-guns, though she picks up a “comedy relief” sidekick, Colonel Diol, who despite his rank is merely a minor functionary. However, Laureline also has the grumpy converter. She has only to feed it any monetary token, and the grumpy can reproduce the token in great quantities, sort of like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold. Further, just at a time when Laureline has no clue as to who the kidnappers were or where they’ve taken their prisoners, a trio of aliens, the “Shingouz,” show up and offer information in exchange for several pearls of great price. This becomes the leitmotif for Laureline’s picaresque journey. Centaur-men, blob-people, experts in dream-manipulation—all of them are happy to help Laureline on her way, as long as she pays them well. (Mezeries gets more than a little tragicomic effect from showing the little creature continually exhausted by the demands of the aliens, who are at least the equals of human beings in terms of sheer greed.) Only one race, the humanoid Zools, don’t seem interested in gain: having lost their own world, they serve to maintain the interstices connecting the various habitats of Central Point.
Laureline finally sees, through a dream-image, that Valerian and his ambassadorial companion have been taken to “the World of Shadows.” The unnamed inhabitants of this world knew what A and his Earth-allies planned to do, and they engaged the kidnappers to bring A into their midst. Further, they reveal to A and Valerian that they’re aware of Earth’s intentions: to back up their coup with a show of military force. The Shadow-people assert that they’re capable of destroying the Earth-forces with their “extrasensory powers,” but to make things simpler, they subject A and Valerian to brainwashing in order to bring about some kinder, gentler scheme.
It’s never quite clear what the Shadows's design is. Laureline finally reaches the Shadow-World and manages to secure the release of the two hostages without any violence. However, it seems that the authors wanted to show that one didn’t need super-powerful aliens to effect revolution. A gets back to Ccntral Point with his two bodyguards. Yet before he can even give the speech given him by the Shadow-people, the Zools decide to institute a new, more moral regime in Central Point, and the whole Earth-contingent gets kicked off the satellite.
It's interesting that "Shadows," in contrast to the film it inspired, has very little violence. Of course, there's some real-world validity in the idea that an agent seeking information may have to spend more time reaching for his wallet than for his Walther PPK. Laureline, thanks to her access to the almost magical talents of the grumpy, fortunately has no limit on her ability to spend, and the non-violent tone of her adventures might take a different turn if her authors had denied her access to the money-making beastie. The anti-imperialist idea of foiling the Earth-people's coup carries a strong appeal, but it seems muddled by the authors' desire to provide two endings: one in which the Shadow-people monkey with the ambassador, and one in which the Zools come out of left field to further embarrass the Earth-regime. The romantic arc of Valerian and Laureline is underdeveloped given the story's insistence on their strong feelings, and the authors undercut the arc further by having Valerian fail to appreciate Laureline's efforts on his behalf. But on the whole, though the two heroes have their functions within the overall tale, they are less mythic personages than most of the aliens they encounter, or even Central Point-- which is a phenomenon I've written about in more depth in INDIVIDUAL VS. COLLECTIVE AMPLITUDE.