DeConnick’s translation of ‘Barbarella’ imbues the ’60s sexpot with context
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By Courtney Ryan. She’s the ultimate sci-fi babe—a Serge Gainsbourg song gone to space. The so-called quintessential picture of sexual liberation and feminist panacea. She’s Barbarella, captured here in an English-language volume from Humanoids that combines creator Jean-Claude Forest’s original Barbarella series (published from 1962 to 1964 in French men’s quarterly V-Magazine) with his 1974 sequel, “Wrath of the Minute-Eater.”
Forest’s swinging-Sixties style evokes the decade’s free-loving, psychedelic atmosphere as his titular—and often topless—heroine treks from planet to planet, fending off deviously handsome aliens with the seductive powers known only to a sensual Earth girl like herself. Far from a femme fatale, Barbarella is frisky and nimble, meeting each challenge head-on and often sacrificing her body for the good of the people… or whatever species she encounters during her extraterrestrial trysts.
This edition is billed as an adaptation, thanks to the translation work performed by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly). Rather than merely translating Forest’s original French text, DeConnick also worked from an earlier English-language translation by Richard Seaver. A quick comparison between DeConnick’s and Seaver’s versions reveals that DeConnick opted to include more sexual innuendo than Seaver and also rounded much of the original translation’s robotic dialogue into eloquent repartee. Consequently, Seaver’s version is a thin science fiction parody chock full of campy-yet-titillating spacegirls while DeConnick’s version parodies the mid-century fear of female sexuality by exaggerating Barbarella’s lustful demands.
That DeConnick is involved in re-releasing an significant chronicle of the male gaze is important. In his foreword, comics publisher and promoter Paul Gravett scuttles past a direct admission of this, but does write that DeConnick’s “contemporary spin” on the dialogue provides a “fresh perspective, ensuring that Barbarella remains as important a symbol of feminism as she was over 50 years ago.”
Gravett’s claim that Barbarella is a symbol of feminism, an important one at that, is at odds with the book’s introduction, which comes courtesy of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn giddily declares his love for the character based on her appeal as a timeless fetish: “She is designed out of sexual fantasy, and at the same time is a construction of intelligence and wit.”
Gravett and Refn are probably both equal parts wrong and right here. As a character, Barbarella is not feminism, intelligence, nor wit. She is the result of Forest’s sexual fantasies as much as she captures his intelligence and wit. And rather than a timeless fetish, Barbarella is a character that demands context.
Gravett’s foreword also details France’s relationship with American comics amid the post-war moral panic that framed such illustrated storytelling as pornographic and licentious. It was during this restrictive era that Forest sought to liberate his art from Communist prohibition and found refuge in the corresponding sexual revolution that was erupting around him.
What DeConnick’s translation draws out isn’t the escapades of a feminist icon, but rather what must have resulted from Forest’s own Do-si-do with feminism during the wake of France’s sexual revolution. As the male creator of Barbarella, Forest laced his heroine with the characteristics society deemed feminine—vulnerability and sensuality—but also relished in the era’s sudden acceptance of these attributes as displays of strength.
Regardless of how you decide to read it, Barbarella is still worth a thumb-through. Beyond the fact that it’s the illustrious testimony of one horny Frenchman’s flirtation with feminism, Barbarella endures as a worthy read for Forest’s elegant brushstrokes and ability to etch out lush foliage and detailed alien landscapes using simple black and white lines. Then of course there’s Barbarella herself, an imperfect emblem of how feminism has seeped into the mainstream’s subconscious, cheekier than ever thanks to DeConnick’s translation.
Written by Jean-Claude Forest.
Illustrated and colored by Jean-Claude Forest.
Translated by Kelly Sue DeConnick.