An exotic voyage inside the international comic strip success
of an erotic adventuress, the sexiest woman in outer space.



"Barbarella recognized Lythion by its three satellites. The galactic charts showed it as being a relatively hospitable planet. Beneath the spaceship, a continent unfolded, which at first appeared to the traveler to be nothing but a volcanic desert. Suddenly, nestled in a giant crater, Crystallia, the great greenhouse, appeared..." 

Thus, began Barbarella's adventures in the French magazine V. The strip's "father," Jean-Claude Forest, was born in 1930, near Paris. A graduate of the Paris School of Design, Forest made his mark in French art circles during the late '50s and early '60s. His illustrations appeared in numerous French newspapers and periodicals. Additionally, he had become well known to the SF world through his many covers for genre paperbacks and magazines. It was this contact that led to the creation of Barbarella.


"George Gallet, the editor of the science-fiction imprint Le Rayon Fantastique for which I was drawing covers, was also in charge of a quarterly adult publication called V Magazine," Forest told French comic journalist Guy Delcourt. "One day, he asked me if I wanted to do a strip for him -- no holds barred! Twenty years ago, we were living in a time of complete censorship in the comics. In fact, that's why I was doing mostly illustrations and book covers. Everything was forbidden, and in particular, the female form. Fantasy was also frowned upon, because it was felt that it would corrupt the morals of children.

"Gallet had asked me to do a kind of female Tarzan, Tarzella, but that idea didn't particularly interest me. It led me to come up with Barbarella. For the next two years, at the rate of eight pages every three months, I told her adventures, going with the flow of inspiration, without any pre-planning."

The first saga of Barbarella in 1962 is comprised of eight episodes. The young heroine is introduced as a space wanderer in a solar system far from Earth. Crash-landing on planet Lythion, Barbarella becomes involved in a war between the Crystallians, who inhabit a giant greenhouse, and the barbaric Orhomrs, who live in the frozen wasteland outside. With a little bit of love, she prompts them to make peace with each other.

While attempting to leave Lythion, Barbarella is hijacked by a race of undersea people led by Medusa, who steals Barbarella's likeness. From that point, the sexy space woman's adventures take her through the den of Strickno, the sadistic hunter, and the icy region of Yesteryear, which has patterned its civilization after Earth's 19th century.

Traveling via underground mechanical mole, Barbarella reaches the realm of Sogo, ruled by the sadistic Black Queen. The last four episodes are entirely devoted to Barbarella's battle against the queen, and her final victory over Sogo's evil.

Two years after the start of Barbarella's publication in V-Magazine, French publisher Eric Losfeld, who specialized in fantasy and erotic literature, offered to collect the stories in book form. Published in 1964, the album was a phenomenal success. It quickly sold more than 200,000 copies, despite the censor's ruling that the book could not be publicly displayed.

Dubbed the "first comic strip for grown-ups," Barbarella attracted rave reviews from a varied assortment of magazines including French literary weekly Arts ("a modern epic"), Newsweek ("a mythic creature of the space age"), and Playboy ("the very 'apoptheosis' of eroticism").

"I was really surprised by its success," remembers Forest. "Two years before, some friends and I [among them French film director Alain Resnais], formed a comic-strip appreciation society. When Barbarella came out, it was natural that we talked about it in this small group. But, in fact, it spread beyond the members. It was a sociological phenomenon. Nobody had planned it that way, but Barbarella became the catalyst of a collective need."

Barbarella was the first female hero to enter French comics since World War Il and the country's first science-fiction character. Her liberated attitude gave her a fragile, yet invincible aura. She became the incarnation of the '60s budding eroticism, as did Brigitte Bardot in the movies (according to Forest, the resemblance to the French actress was not a coincidence).

Forest had also cleverly captured the spirit of the American comic strips. "In the beginning, my inspiration was from the Golden Age American heroes such as Jungle Jim, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician," he recalls. "In those days, heroes were very important to the stories because they were human. When Barbarella was born, she was in their image, not like today's superheroes."

From the beginning, the strip aimed at an adult audience who had presumably read and retained fond memories of the same characters who had inspired Forest. And in response, the artist liberally sprinkled Barbarella with humor and Lewis Carroll-like imagination.

Among the bizarre creations present in the first album are: pirates living inside a giant jellyfish; a gang of vicious children who employ carnivorous dolls as instruments of torture; air-sharks who devour people as they climb up the labyrinth in which they're forced to live; an exquisitely handsome blind angel; and an amorous robot named Diktor (after a close encounter, Barbarella remarks, "Diktor, you have real style! " To which the robot replies, "Oh! Madame is too kind. I know my shortcomings. There's something a bit mechanical about my movements!").

Space Woman Cinema

With such success, it was inevitable that the exploits of Barbarella be translated into film. Forest remembers how it came to be. "One of [producer] Dino De Laurentiis' agents happened to be in France," he explains. "It was a woman who had read and liked the book, then proposed it to De Laurentiis. He bought the rights and offered the role to Jane Fonda. According to what [her husband] director Roger Vadim told me, her first reaction was to throw it in the garbage can, saying that this kind of thing wasn't for her!

"Vadim corrected her, saying that, on the contrary, it was extremely interesting, and that something original and exciting could be done with the subject. Vadim was interested himself. I believe that, even today, notwithstanding the audience response, Vadim still defends Barbarella. He says that it's one of the films that he found the most interesting to shoot.

"The fact is: When I was on the set, Vadim was always there. Everybody kept telling me that this was incredible. Apparently, he rarely involves himself with the day-to-day production. With Barbarella, he was always there on time, and he was the one saying, 'Action!' Therefore, I believe that it did interest him"

Forest worked eight months on the picture, closely participating in the set design. "I was completely involved," Forest recalls. "At that time, I didn't care about my strip, what really interested me was the movie business. The Italian artists were incredible; they could build anything in an extremely short time. I saw all the daily rushes, an incredible amount of film. The choices that were made for the final cut from those images were not the ones I would have liked, but I was not the director. It wasn't my affair.

"My own reaction changed over the years," Forest comments. "When the film came out, I felt it was still interesting.

"Later, I couldn't stand it. I thought it looked flat, a failure compared to what I had seen on the set. Recently, I've seen Barbarella again, and now I think it looks kind of 'kitsch.' There is a naivete, like in some old science-fiction films, such as Forbidden Planet. If you look at the movie with a certain distance, despite what we've seen since, I think Barbarella is still interesting."

Space Woman Sequels

After the success of Barbarella, Forest developed a sequel, Les Coleres du Mange-Minutes (The Wrath of the Minute-Eater). Since he didn't want to be typecast as an erotic artist, he emphasized its elements of science fiction and poetry. This shift in style was a mistake.

"It was a terrible disaster!" Forest exclaims. "I didn't want to go deeper into eroticism, I wanted to manifest my freedom. Besides, I'm against pornography. My intention was to remove Barbarella from her public image. The result was that I sold the book in some foreign countries, but not in France or the U.S. It was finally published here almost 10 years later!"

The Wrath of the Minute-Eater (a nickname for time) doesn't contain much sex, which explains its initial commercial failure, but it is superior in every other respect to the first tales of the space woman. In Wrath, Barbarella is in charge of the galactic Delirium Circus, which journeys from planet to planet in the spaceship Big Bug.

Having fallen in love with her latest acquisition, a handsome merman named Narval, Barbarella takes him to the planet Spectra, which exists in a time zone slower than the rest of the universe. There, she discovers that Narval has deceived her, and intends to conquer Spectra for his own people. Other adventures follow. Barbarella encounters a princess whose fate is linked to a pack of magic Tarot cards; pirates who travel on flying kites; green-haired amazons; arctic people living inside giant chickens; a beautiful female android and the Black Queen of Sogo in a time-traveling Eiffel Tower!

The picaresque nature of The Wrath of the Minute-Eater, however, did nothing to persuade publishers that Forest was not a sex fiend. "For two years, I couldn't find any work," he quips. "Because of the film, I had some money, but I was considered a distinguished erotomaniac by the comics industry! They wanted to give me things to do, but they were afraid of my reputation. They thought, 'If it's Forest, there will be sex in it and we'll be in trouble!  I got out of this situation by doing a free, poetic version of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island."

The album, Mysterieuse Matin, Midi et Soir (Mysterious Morning, Noon and Evening), portrayed the adventures of a group of galactic travelers shipwrecked on a question mark-shaped island. As in the Jules Verne novel, the heroes are always aided by a mysterious unseen figure. At the book's end, the reader discovers this Captain Nemo-like presence is an aged Barbarella!

The characters of Mysterieuse eventually reappeared in another of Forest's series, the adventures of Hypocrite, thus helping to form the tapestry of a vast, intertwined universe.
Meanwhile, his space heroine regained her youth and returned to star in a new adventure,
Le Semble Lune (The Moon Child), published in America by Heavy Metal. In this saga, Barbarella explores a dream dimension and finally gets married to a planetary master-architect named Browningwell (who resembles Forest). She even has a baby -- Little Fox. Barbarella also serves as the model for a giant space-sculpture.

The Moon Child was to be the last Barbarella tale involving Forest on a solo basis. "I don't mind writing her adventures," Forest explains, "because she's a flexible enough character so that you can do different stories with her. Besides, she has a certain humor, a certain turn of mind which I gave her, and still enjoy. But drawing these stories bores me to death! So, I gave it to a friend of mine, Daniel Billon."

The first Billon/Forest Barbarella story, Le Miroir aux Tempetes (The Storm Mirror), appeared in 1982 with another set to follow. The Storm Mirror is a complex time-travel adventure in which a man-fish, who fives 360,000 years in the future, observes events from the past in order to amuse himself.

Like The Spirit, Barbarella is often more of a spectator than a participant in her adventures throughout space. Nevertheless, she remains always in control of her own destiny, emerging as the first, true modem heroine on the comics scene. 

This article was previously published in STARLOG #92, March 1985.  Reproduced with permission.
(c) 1985 J.-M. & Randy Lofficier