Science Fiction’s Under-Appreciated Feminist Icon

The French comic series Valérian and Laureline, newly adapted into a summer blockbuster, gave the genre one of its first protagonists to powerfully own her womanhood.

Valerian and Laureline on the cover of the new anthology series Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1  (Cinebook)

“The first woman I fell in love with was probably Laureline,” Luc Besson, the French director behind the forthcoming film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, said last year. “She was totally free and badass, and ... was a very modern heroine at the time.” Besson was talking about one half of the duo at the center of Valérian and Laureline, the legendary sci-fi comic series his new movie is based on. Written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, the comics debuted in 1967 and follow the two eponymous “spatio-temporal agents” who work for an organization called Galaxity, and, later, as mercenaries. Valérian and Laureline travel as partners—both professional and romantic—through space and time to resolve conflicts and foil villainous plots.

In the 50 years since its inception, Valérian and Laureline has had a significant influence on sci-fi, including films like The Fifth Element and the Star Wars series. Part of the Franco-Belgian genre of comics known as bandes dessinées, the series is immensely popular in Europe, and Valérian and Laureline are among European comics’ most iconic couples. Yet the series—new special anthologies of which are being published this summer—remains little-known in America. And despite the adoration of fans like Besson, and predating sci-fi heroines like Star Wars’ Princess Leia and Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Laureline herself rarely receives the critical attention she deserves. Arguably the heart of the comics, she’s a remarkably powerful, and believable, feminist figure who still resonates today as a “very modern heroine”—though Laureline first arrived in an age when women in sci-fi were rarely presented as more than crude stereotypes.

Feminist science fiction has a notable history, but the genre has long been dominated by stories written by, and solely featuring, men. I can’t help but feel awkward reading one of the most celebrated short stories of the genre, Isaac Asimov’s 1941 tale “Nightfall,” which contains no women at all beyond a passing mention of them as child-breeders. When, in 1938, a Canadian reader named Donald G. Turnbull wrote in to Astonishing Science Fiction—a major magazine for the genre—to say that “A woman’s place is not in anything scientific,” Asimov applauded him. “Three rousing cheers on Donald G. Turnbull for his valiant attack on those favoring mush,” the author wrote. “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames.” Asimov lamented that women were added superfluously to such stories, which made them “sloppy.” “Notice, too, that many top-notch, grade-A, wonderful, marvelous, etc., etc., authors get along swell without any women, at all,” Asimov wrote in 1939 in another letter about sci-fi.

In the decades preceding Valérian, it was easy to find stories in the big sci-fi magazines that featured worlds in which caricatures of women “battled” against men. For example, Thomas Gardner’s “The Last Woman” (1932) imagined a planet populated almost entirely by “intensely masculine” men, who had fought a “war of the sexes” against “women ... feminizing civilization” after a council of eugenicist scientists “decided that Woman must go.” Other stories excluded women altogether. From the 1920s onward, predominantly male fans pondered, in letters published in the genre’s top outlets, whether women were even capable of appreciating science fiction.

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Laureline thus appeared in an age that needed her. In the simplest sense, she was a female protagonist in a genre that sorely lacked such characters. But more meaningfully, she was, from the start, a radically impressive figure who set the bar high for women in science fiction. No mere beautiful figure, Laureline has a piercing intellect, a near-indomitable pride in herself, an endearing but acid wit, and formidable fighting skills. And yet she resists being an archetype of female perfection.

Laureline’s creators did not stumble upon this winning combination of traits: Her character has its roots in feminist movements and texts, including Simone de Beauvoir’s foundational work The Second Sex. “You do not read [The Second Sex] with impunity,” Christin told the comics’ artist, Mézières, in 2001 when asked about the inspiration for Laureline. He added that “feminism in the United States” in the mid-20th century and “the rise of women as real protagonists in all fields” had also caught his eye. Mézières gave credit to Jean-Claude Forest’s earlier Barbarella comics, which were one of the few of the era to feature a notable female lead.

But whereas Barbarella, who famously champions free love, reads perhaps more as burlesque, Laureline feels fleshed-out and human. And while the early Wonder Woman comics by William Moulton Marston lost some of their feminist power through their heavy-handedness, Laureline is tough in a more accessible way—without needing superpowers. Indeed, when the series begins, Laureline is not a futuristic elite agent, but, rather, an 11th-century peasant. In the comics’ first story, Bad Dreams (translated into English for the first time this year), Valérian travels back in time on a mission to the Middle Ages, when he meets Laureline. She discovers that Valérian is from the future, a potentially timeline-altering secret that prompts him to take her back to Galaxity, changing her life—and science fiction—forever.

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I discovered Christin and Mézières’ comics in my twenties. At first, they reminded me of many things: the French artist Moebius’s fantastical sci-fi in The Airtight Garage and Edena; Star Wars (which Christin famously claimed stole design elements from his comics); and one of my favorite video-game series as a teenager, TimeSplitters, which also, half-comically, sent galactic agents into the past to battle cross-temporal villainies. But Valérian, which appeared before all these works, still seemed tonally unique.

I began with the first full-length story in the series, The City of Shifting Waters, which was the earliest to imagine Valérian and Laureline on a large-scale adventure. Initially published in two parts, the story took place in a New York City after a global nuclear catastrophe in the 1980s, flooded and controlled by seafaring bandits pillaging abandoned department and jewelry stores. Valérian, sent into this past timeline to investigate a suspicious incident amid the chaos, is later saved by Laureline, who has been secretly trailing him. Valérian finally encounters her in a dark room on a ship and tries to fight her, thinking she’s one of the bandits; though Laureline seems poised to beat him, she laughingly reveals herself, after which the pair set off on the mission together. The art in these early stories is simplistic in comparison to the majestic shadows and dreamlike scenes of later tales like On the Frontiers, but what drew me in was Laureline.

The young female agent subverts not only the expectations of the 20th century in which the comics appeared but also of her own medieval period. Indeed, the first time Laureline appears in the series is to save Valérian, not be rescued as a damsel in distress. Although the Dark Ages were less lightless than often rendered, had Laureline remained in her own time, she likely would have been required her to submit to the men around her. As de Beauvoir wrote of the constructions of gendered behavior in societies, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”; Laureline was always strong, but her power bloomed when it was given room to. This sense of becoming is perhaps most visible in the sixth volume, Ambassador of the Shadows. With Valérian kidnapped by violent aliens, Laureline must save him, and the day, on her own; it turns into the first of Laureline’s solo tales, highlighting her ingenuity and resilience.

Laureline is the star the series orbits around, even though Valérian is the comics’ titular character and the one most likely to be on covers by himself. To be sure, Valérian is lovable and credible even in his cartooniest illustrations, a straightforward male hero. But as I read more, he seemed to me almost as soporific as his namesake drug compared to his partner, even as he completes his missions.

The series is not bereft of soft sexism, but most of it comes from other characters. The stunning Laureline is frequently sexualized by male strangers; all the same, she is both aware, and unashamed, of her sexuality, using it to her advantage when need be and putting down those who reduce her to her looks. It’s certainly cringeworthy whenever Laureline is called “little Laureline” by various characters, and yet, throughout the comics, she consistently proves she is anything but “little.” When Laureline is captured by a deadly male former galactic agent, Jal, in On the Frontiers, it initially seems like she needs Valérian to rescue her; however, the moment Jal calls her a “doll,” she hits him and breaks his grip on her own. She isn’t unbeatable, but remains a formidable force.

Despite Laureline’s capability, the series, ultimately, is about partnership. Romance rarely formed the backbone of the comics’ narratives, and yet the couple’s relationship was nonetheless striking for the 1960s: Because they are not married, they were considered an “illegitimate” couple when they first kissed in the story The Empire of a Thousand Planets. Their extraordinary solo accomplishments notwithstanding, Laureline and Valérian know they’re stronger as a team. Laureline does not join her partner because she is weaker and needs him; rather, she works as his equal and, often, as his teasing superior.

The duo’s deep connection doesn’t undermine Laureline’s sense of purpose. In On the False Earth, Laureline is forced to watch disturbing videos of clones of Valérian dying on a mission, and she’s chastised by her commander, Jadna, for her distressed reactions. Jadna insists Laureline is only suffering because she is still beholden to “male supremacy,” to orienting her life as a woman around men. Laureline, fragile here and yet wiser than Jadna, thinks furiously, “You stupid cow. If you think for a minute it’s because of male supremacy I love my man ... ” This is the series’ less mechanical—and more empathetic—feminist message: that people can acknowledge patriarchal and systemic oppression without policing who they love.

For his part, Besson appears to want to capture Laureline and Valérian’s comical yet cool, marvelous yet mundane, dynamic in his film adaptation, which opens in the U.S. on July 21. “I’m trying to remain faithful to their nature,” the director said in a conversation with Christin and Mézières in the first of the publisher Cinebook’s new anthologies. In addition to the couple’s complex relationship, I especially hope Besson translates the full magic of Laureline to the screen. While Cara Delevingne, who was cast as Laureline, presents somewhat of a visual departure from Mézières’ drawings of the red-haired heroine, I’m more curious to see whether her character will embody Laureline’s memorable blend of valor, verve, and vulnerability.

Though science fiction has more women writers and nuanced female characters today than it did 50 years ago, the genre still needs more Laurelines. She showed readers like me how resilient we can be, whether wading across centuries, or taking to distant earths. She helped transform her comics—already visually arresting at their peak—into art in a broader sense, an art guided by examining what it means to move through the many regions of the self, the silent icy deserts and loud alien landscapes far from any starships like one’s own. Because even when all its characters are aliens in unfamiliar worlds, science fiction has always been about looking at humanity. And while the genre still has room to grow, these comics, by exploring what it means to be a person—and, in particular, a woman—in spaces and times far from those of their readers, show one path forward that certainly works.