Sunday, 4 May 2008


There are many interesting animal designs in fiction. A specific supply that may not be well-known in many parts of the world are SF and fantasy comic stripe in France, There, comic strips are found in large numbers in book stores, bought by young as well as adult readers. However, their flavour is different enough from what you will find in other parts of the world to not to call them comic strips or graphic novels, but simply 'bandes dessinées', or BDs for short. I thought I might start with an old favourite, an intelligent creature from the world Glapum't; hence he is called a Glampum'tien in French, which would probably translate to a Glampum'tian in English (I have no idea why the apostrophe is doing there, but presumably it is doing the same thing it always does in SF, and that is make names sound more alien).

Glampumt'ians can be found in the BD series 'Valérian et Laureline', running since the late 60's; it now numbers 20 albums. The scenarios are written by Christin, and the drawings are by Mezières. The protagonists are space/time agents from the future. In the course of the series they have been through many adventures, always with a human outlook on things, a degree of feminism (Laureline is usually the one who solves the problems) as well as mild social criticism. There was never much 'hard' SF in the sense that technology featured much. Instead, the series has always been about people more than anything else. The same goes for the designs of its aliens: great fun to look at, and no-one cares much about their believability. In the course of the series the world was destroyed in 1986 in an album written before that time. As that time approached in real life the story went through some intriguing twists to reconcile the real history of the Earth with the storyline. Even later the previously assumed future history of the Earth, which had become a galactic force to be reckoned with, was more or less erased, so Valérian and Laureline are now on their own.

For those who want to know more, Wikipedia has a section on 'Valérian and Laureline' that includes references to English translations. All albums can be obtained in French through or through (and probably through other outlets).

Time to discuss the Glapum'tians, or Ralph, as he is the only Glapum'tian we get to know. He first appears in the album 'Les spectres d'Inverloch' (the ghosts of Inverloch). Ralph is the individual with the large flat head in the left background. He caught my attention by looking quite different from most of the other intelligent races that inhabit the series, lmost of whom look roughly humanoid. Ralph doesn't look like that; if anything, he is like a cephalopod in having a head that merges with the body without any neck, and his tentacles are attached to the body directly. The painting at the top of the page and the one below provide a better view of Ralph. Both were scanned from the book 'Les habitants du ciel' ('The inhabitants of the heavens'), showing paintings and providing biological details of many species occurring in the series. This is in fact only half a painting; it was a two-page spread, and scannning the entite painting results in an ugly stripe in the middle where the pages come together.

The text in that book describes Glapum'tians as oviparous mammals living on their birthing nest (that's the round shape sticking out of the water); additional texts and drawings refer to this as an egg as well as a habitat, and show it to be a living form. Intriguing (is it an organism in its own right?), but no more details are given.

I rather like the Glapum'tian body shape, which looks rather elegant. As is typical of this series, there is no attempt to make alien species truly alien in the sense that their motivations are out of the ordinary. Quite the contrary, greed, power, influence and sex are common motivations for all intelligent lifeforms here. The same goes for their emotions, easy to read for us Earthlings. This is true for Ralph as well: his eyes betray his emotions exactly like a human's would. But think about the trouble the writer would have if he designed a completely different system: how do you explain it to your public?

The picture here shows Ralph, a natural amphibian, under water. If you start thinking about his shape, you start to wonder how he can be a good swimmer: there are no clear propulsive adaptations in the sense of flippers, a fluked tail, or any flat surface at all. Then again, octopuses don't have such visible means of propulsion either, but they have their own jet propulsion: the siphon. Perhaps Glapum'tians have one too, but it isn't visible...

As far as walking on land is concerned, Ralph's tentacles might work, but they would be very costly from an energy point of view. After all, bones are very useful in that they limit the number of points that have to be controlled by muscle strength, greatly reducing energy expenditure. Anyone who has ever seen an octopus on dry land will understand why a skeleton is beneficial on dry land: the poor octopus resembles a puddle rather than a graceful animal. Still, Glapum'tians aren't the only animals for whom a cephalopod design was adapted to live on dry land. In the television series 'The future is wild' there are land-dwelling cephalopods, including the 'megasquid', walking around on 8 tentacles. The website on The Future is Wild has this to say about their design: "an invertebrate, meaning it has no backbone or skeleton, it has strong muscles in its 8 thick legs. These need to be strong enough to support such a large body." Well, yes, but how and at what cost? Without a good explanation, the question becomes one of guesswork: wouldn't evolution kick in an adapt these 'legs' to become more efficient? Perhaps 'Walking on tentacles' is a good subject for this blog, but not now. Meanwhile, allow Ralph to swim with orcas. He does that, and enjoys talking with them, in the album 'Les foudres d'Hypsis' (the wrath of Hypsis').

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