(For no. 50 I felt I had to do something special, so here’s notes on a comic that I can safely say is better than every other comic I have ever written about)
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MOEBIUS 03 – AIRTIGHT GARAGE
Le Garage Hermétique de Jerry Cornelius
The Hermetic Garage of Lewis Carnelian
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“The Airtight Garage is not a closed work. It’s full of openings into, and correspondences with, other systems. With the expansion generators, all the stories I have ever done can really tak place in Major Grubert’s universe, or a universe that does not specifically belong to Grubert, but works on the same principles. It is a Moebius universe, really, where the whole is contained in the part, the part in the whole.”
– Moebius, in his introduction to the Epic edition of The Airtight Garage.
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The Airtight Garage is a comic that Moebius composed out of fragments, essentially improvising his way through each chapter. It was created over the course of four years, endlessly built out of cliffhangers and sudden changes in tone. There is no direct throughline in the Airtight Garage – it is a series of events literally built to confound the earlier episode. Each time Moebius writes himself into a corner and in the next chapter he is forced to think his way out (similar to the way the original radio version of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy was written). The Airtight Garage was and is an absurd joke at it’s heart – while it is titularly the Hermetique (meaning both “airtight” and “esoteric”) Garage of Jerry Cornelius, the character only appears in a handful of pages of the actual book. Instead it focuses on Moebius’ character of Major Grubert and Barnier, one of Cornelius/Carnelian’s assistants, and a series of spies, confidants, obstacles, and criminals that detour the plot entirely with each appearance, sentence, action. The reference to Jerry Cornelius itself (himself?) is a joke, the pan-sexual non-character existing in multiple variations across multiple books, stories, and being declared fair game by his creator. It is the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius because Jerry Cornelius could literally be anything. Which is perfect.
In fact, you could say that The Airtight Garage is the perfect comic, because it is EVERY COMIC. More than that, it is the only comic I have ever read that feels alive. It digresses against itself, doubles back, thinks, laughs, pauses, lurches, and eventually gracefully dances. This comic breathes.
My first experience with this comic was in black and white – and Moebius, for me is a completely different artist in color. Seeing segments (maybe even as little as just two or three pages) of the book online, my reaction to it was “oh, that’s nice, but this is nowhere near that Incal sweet spot.” Which is absolutely wrong, as Incal is a bona fide classic of the art form but also kind of way too deep into that classical metaphorical storytelling for Moebius to uncoil his myriad skills and styles for. It’s too much of a story – and I love that story but it’s tethered down when the best Arzach stories and the best Grubert stories feel like he’s playing some spaced out Albert Ayler shit.
Every possible genre is touched on in the Airtight Garage, every style – coded references to a dozen artists from Crumb to Eisner to Alex Raymond to Steve Ditko to Corben to Herge to Caniff all pop up. Moebius mocks himself. Moebius mocks Jean Giraud. Moebius draws Jerry Cornelius as Amelia Earhart. Moebius traces a panel from a 1970s issue of Iron Man. Moebius makes fun of Star Wars in the same panel he draws himself. Moebius tells a story entirely with sound effects, pages that are all splashes, pages that have 21 panels. Some pages are lushly delineated with deep shading, verging on overkill. Others are done simply, built out of color. The world is science fiction, but it cobbled randomly from a thousand character types and conflicting designs. Thick, smooth lines show up for the Malvina sex scene, thin scratchy ones for the Major wandering through the jungle on the first level of the garage. Massive changes happen in the space of a panel. Simple actions occur over the course of a dozen chapters. Time is as fluid as the style it’s depicted. That mercurial quality is the strongest quality of Moebius as an artist and storyteller, and this is the comic that revels in that quality the most. The colors can’t be undersold either – they are transformative to the work, and all you need to do is look at the sun setting over two pages, which is so good it’s kind of an insult to call it stunning.
(While we’re talking about influence and homage – it would be impossible to talk about The Airtight Garage and not talk about Frank Quitely’s extended tribute to it in his New X-Men contributions – as well as several other times over the course of his career. In NXM alone, Casandra Nova’s first appearance her design is based on Major Grubert, and the Master Mold scene explicitly quotes from both the Airtight Garage and it’s precursor Major Fatal. The images inside Professor X’s brain are based on the Entrance in Armjourth. And his emergence from the Cerebro chamber is Lark Dalxtrey entering the teleporter. The now-famous opening image of Cyclops and Wolverine fighting the sentinel is from the Archer and Barnier taking down the plane. There are probably more I’m not catching. Quitely attempted to bring not just the artistic merit of one of Moebius’ definitive works, but he also saw that Morrison’s take on the X-Men was a lot closer to the chaos of Airtight. Aside from the notion that Casandra Nova is an explicitly Cornelius-like character, there is an assaulting quality to the X-Men as a concept that can take on a kind of dream-logic in the right hands.)
For me, the most important thing that Moebius does is allow the Archer to deliver a manifesto of his own transformation while shooting down an enemy plane. Barnier: “Why do you wear that mask?” The Archer: “So that I can be recognized. Without it… I am only myself, trapped between impregnable walls.” For Moebius, who had recently decided to revive his pseudonym in order to do more fantastical, personal work from his Blueberry work, this reads like a statement of purpose. It is delivered simply, from a character who has demands for the world around him completely alien to everyone he deals with. There is an (in-story) implication that the Archer is Erik Carnelian/Cornelius, but the Archer is so clearly defined and yet left as a blank slate. That’s Moebius talking, and while this is Cornelius/Carnelian’s story because it is about him, and the Major’s because he is the driving force of the plot. But the Archer hi-jack’s Barnier’s story and what becomes of both characters is that they escape the story entirely. Of course their story doesn’t end conventionally – the idea of a conventional ending, of “saving the world” ultimately destroys the personality and design of Major Grubert, who first becomes an identical duplicate of his enemy Carnelian in order to side with him, then forced to exit the world of his own creation and into the “real” world, which is depicted as black and white. While the Archer is Moebius’ voice, Grubert’s arc is maybe closer to how Moebius sees his own work on the book. He allows himself to go on an extended journey without restriction (but driven by purpose) in a world he has created. But in order to complete the journey he has to not only face the undefined not-him (Jerry Cornelius), but he has to conform to at least some kind of conventional ending, if even to subvert it. Cornelius is killed and Grubert has to put on the clothes of a normal person and hit the escape hatch. He has to go back out into the boring world in order to survive, smiling but beaten, dragging the color with him even as no one notices. Something got out, and this isn’t a comic any more, because Moebius has told us it’s a comic. In his introduction, Moebius says that the ending “introduces a potentially unlimited incoherence factor”. The intersection of real life and something a french guy drew in 4 page chunks every night he felt like it – between real jobs – is the ultimate in incoherence. This is where all comics hope and pray to go, the kind of space they all wish they could create. Every line on every page shows that one of the great masters of the medium just loved to draw, and his obscurantist approach to plot shows that he loved telling stories. The Airtight Garage or whatever it is called, as the name changes too from issue to issue, is a comic that first mirrors real life and eventually meets it.
It, literally, does not get better than this.
– Sean Witzke, February 2011.