"It’s significant that this new edition of Barbarella welcomes a woman’s creativity to the work [of Jean-Claude Forest] in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s engaging adaptation," Paul Gravett writes in his foreword to the Humanoids release of Forest’s signature comics. The comment is too vague to be called an understatement, but it at least hints at the challenges of reading (to say nothing of adapting) Barbarella. These stories are sometimes clever, sometimes endearingly dopey, and sometimes frustrating—especially with respect to the brazen sexuality that colors Forest’s work. With DeConnick’s stewardship, this new edition finds a favorable balance.
Gravett’s foreword notes that Forest’s Barbarella arrived during a time of content restrictions in France’s comics market and sold in huge numbers despite being forbidden from public display. The comics also coincided with the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, however limited that revolution might have been. An English translation by Richard Seaver reached readers only a few years after the initial French printings, first serialized in Evergreen Review and then collected in a single volume. By 1968, the film adaptation starring Jane Fonda was in theaters. But before this year’s Humanoids release, English-language versions of the comics had been out of print for decades.
The reasons for the comics’ success are plain. Forest works with an enjoyably untidy line that still captures, with clarity, his modernist spaceships and exotic alien terrains. He does not always draw memorable faces, which becomes conspicuous once a story depends on the shocking reveal of a character’s face, but he directs his characters well in a larger sense, skillfully staging everything from battles to slapstick to come-ons. And there are plenty of come-ons. Barbarella, Forest’s space-explorer lead, pursues sex frankly and freely in the course of her adventures.
Forest couches the sexual aspects of the Barbarella stories within a thoroughgoing cheekiness, and in fact he was ambivalent about how readers received his comics. (From Gravett: “Where I saw humor and the expression of liberty, all they saw was ‘la fesse’ [literally, ‘the butt’].”) But if Barbarella is a figure of freedom, that freedom does not exceed the bounds of Forest’s fantasies. The stories don’t pathologize her actions or frame a dangerous circumstance as the outcome of those actions. And yet it’s never difficult to remember that these comics are the creation of a dude.
In Richard Seaver’s earlier English-language translation, nearly every exchange in which Barbarella proposes sex to a fellow explorer or the inhabitant of an alien landscape has the same perfunctory quality—an introduction or a rescue and then a weak quip. (Whatever follows reliably takes place off-panel.) The presence of these moments amidst the sci-fi goofiness, along with the many ways the comics contrive to tear Barbarella’s clothes off, contribute to a clunky kind of sensuality in the stories. The plot mechanics and the male gaze both make themselves felt.
Kelly Sue DeConnick resolves some of this through a kind of doubling down. DeConnick worked from both Forest’s original, French-language comics and Seaver’s earlier English translation, hence the adaptation label. From the start, her captions and dialogue are livelier than those of Seaver. When assaulted by a monstrous alien plant, DeConnick’s Barbarella cries out about the “death throes of a deflowering bush” (rather than Seaver’s “death struggle of the rose bushes”). While remarking on the towers of a strange landscape, DeConnick’s Barbarella notes they were “erected on what used to be natural steam shafts” (rather than “natural openings for the steam”). The new adaptation is further infused with sex, in other words, and it reads more obviously as a sex comedy. Inasmuch as DeConnick is able to reframe earlier depictions of Barbarella, she goes as over-the-top as possible, and as a result, Barbarella’s sudden propositions to a new acquaintance reads more like equal-opportunity wish-fulfillment.
The achievements of DeConnick’s adaptation are achievements by a matter of degrees. But her choices throughout the comic ripple out beyond their individual panel borders, and those ripples interact with one another—altering the larger reading experience. For one example of many, the previous English-language version features the following exchange:
"You were very lucky, Earth girl. Your wounds weren't too serious.”
“Thank you for saving my life… What's your name?"
While DeConnick’s adaption features these lines:
"You're lucky to have survived, Earth girl.”
“I could get luckier still. Who do I have to thank for my rescue?"
The newer exchange not only includes an additional innuendo, it also positions Barbarella as a less deferential character. A caption later on continues this pattern, shifting from the first quote to the second (emphasis mine):
 'Barbarella felt the alcohol would not be enough to warm her… and she was terribly curious to learn how an Orhomr expresses his affections'
 'Barbarella finds the alcohol insufficient to her needs and turns to Ahan instead for warmth in the form of physical affection'
The stronger verbs of DeConnick’s adaptation suggest a more active—even more demanding—character. These are only minor changes if you ignore the ways in which readers take them together.
The complications of Forest’s work would populate a translation or an adaptation of any sort. Barbarella is a work of cartooning first and foremost. But DeConnick’s adaptation accentuates the strengths of these comics. It’s as close as English-language readers will get to the “humor and the expression of liberty” that Forest desired.