Valérian and Laureline is an influential space-opera comic series from France; one of the few popular »French« comics which is not actually Belgian. Long wildly popular in the French-speaking countries of Europe and in Scandinavia, the series is almost unknown in the English-speaking world and has only been fragmentarily published in English, although UK publisher Cinebook has, as of this writing, recently started putting the albums out in their original order*, albeit at a glacial pace. The French publisher is gigantic comics house Dargaud, also home to Asterix, Lucky Luke, Blueberry, Blacksad &c. &c. &c.; Valérian and Laureline was originally serialized in Dargaud's magazine Pilote.
The series concerns the adventures of Valérian, spatio-temporal agent of the future population hub Galaxity, and his assistant, former medieval peasant Laureline, as they travel through time and space (wouldn't you know it) capturing various dangerous and insane criminals, uncovering mysteries and solving the occasional diplomatic snafu. True to (especially French) stereotype, Valérian is a brave, square-jawed idiot, while Laureline is clever and possesses feminine wiles but still ends up helpless and in need of rescue a lot, and/or scantily-clad. (The name Laureline was invented by Christin and Mézières; as in the case of Barrie's Wendy, it has since become popular as a real name.) The adventures start out as simple pulp heroing but gradually grow to be more complex, as Christin started to use the comic as a vehicle for social commentary on the politics current in France at the time. I have yet to find any of the stories unbearably didactic, however, possibly because French politics generally is such dedicated assholeism that there is no bad way to object to it.
The series is written by Pierre Christin, better known to Anglophone comics buffs for various cracky collaborations with Enki Bilal (The Town That Didn't Exist, Ship of Stone), and drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières, who hasn't really done any other major comics work; however, his influence on SF film is hard to overstate. Mézières has done concept art for several films, notably The Fifth Element — which resembles certain V&L albums sufficiently that there was a brief flurry of plagiarism rumors around the movie, until it transpired that Christin and Mézières had been inspired by the latter's work on The Fifth Element and done some comics in a similar style which, due to the long production periods in the film industry, came out before the movie did. There is another notable case of suspected plagiarism, however, which is harder to explain and which everyone is familiar with: Valérian and Laureline (first publication 1967) has a visual style very similar to — Star Wars (first film released 1977). Mézières was reportedly »delighted and infuriated« upon seeing the film, and looking at the aliens and spaceships he has made it his living and life's work to draw, it's easy to see why. George Lucas has — possibly wisely, certainly predictably — opted to say nothing. More recently, the comic was mentioned as a source of ripoffs in conjunction with Avatar, but given the immense number of things that film is supposed to have plagiarized, this may be a matter of simple completism.
The art of the early albums is solidly in the dynamic school of Franquin, but sometimes reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Will Eisner; buildings, a hippie, the exaggerated plasticity of a motion, are sometimes so similar as to be jarring. The finish is entirely different, however: with Eisner, you often get unfinished pencils and almost always monochrome shading; Mézières, like most of his generation of French comics greats, inked with a brush, and had a colorist on hand. Later on, the art becomes more realistic, which honestly makes the characters a bit more dull, although the environments and aliens improve.
Valérian and Laureline encompasses 22 volumes and a TV cartoon; it is considered complete, its authors having ended it in 2010. Due to the absurdly slow pace of the current UK publication (it will take about fifteen years for the whole series to come out in English, at this rate), your best bet if you want to read the comics is to buy the omnibus albums in the original language, available here from Dargaud, and learn French, which will indubitably take you less than fifteen years and may even come in handy — God forbid.