33: All Roads Lead to Armjourth: a historical and archaeological investigation of strata within the hermetic garage






(episode 13, Metal Hurlant #18, June 1977)



Although the Garage is set largely on a world of three levels, formed within an asteroid, movement between these levels is neither very complex nor hard to follow. The third level is the lowest, the first the uppermost; but most of the action takes place on the second level, whose capital is Armjourth. Grubert’s starting point is his spaceship, outside of this tripartite world.

     Early in the story, Samuel L. Mohad is sent from the spaceship to the third level. When his vehicle is destroyed, he and a companion make their way through a lock to the second level, heading for Armjourth. There they later meet up with Grubert, who got to Armjourth by a different route. Toward the end of the story, Grubert crosses to the first level in the company of Jerry Cornelius. Cornelius spent most of the story racing across the tundra on the second level, arriving in Armjourth only four episodes before he catches up with Grubert. Barnier, the character whose actions set the story in motion, also spends most of the story on the second level.

     As simple as all this may sound, it was not always so. When the story was originally published, it was on the first level that Samuel Mohad started his journey. And Armjourth was originally capital of the third level, not the second. As late as episode 21 (Metal Hurlant #26, February 1978) traces of an original uncertainty remained, which needed to be sorted out ahead of the first book publication in 1979. (Curiously, the 1979 adjustment to that episode was dropped—accidentally?—from the second edition, in 1981. It was restored in the translation of 1987, but is still missing from the French edition of 2018.)

     To clarify how the original conception took shape (and show the extent to which it was subsequently altered) is the modest purpose of this note, which will be of interest primarily to those with a taste for this kind of detail. Except where clearly indicated, what follows describes the story as it originally appeared in Metal Hurlant.



Armjourth is first mentioned in episode 2. Jerry Cornelius is crossing the tundra, en route to Armjourth, the mysterious capital. It’s in episode 3, however, that I’m given an initial indication that locations within the story may exist on different “levels”. The writing’s on the wall in the background of the first panel: “3D NIVEA[U]” (= 3rd LEVE[L]). The text also draws my attention to two further details: a sculpture of Tar’haï origin, and, beyond that, the terrible steppe. I’m told on the next page that the vehicle in which Barnier is seated is very popular in the region of flat steppes of the third level. The obvious implication is that Barnier is on the third level.

     Since I already know Barnier’s making ready to flee before Jerry Cornelius gets back, and that Cornelius is heading toward Armjourth, it seems reasonable to suppose Barnier is fleeing from Armjourth—and that Armjourth, Barnier and Cornelius, along with the Tar’haï sculpture, the terrible steppe, and also the guards who are evidently looking for Barnier, are all on the third level.

     But how many levels are there? Aboard the Ciguri, in the same episode, when Malvina informs Grubert, that their secret base has been invaded, he responds by asking, “ALL THE LEVELS?” And when he charges Samuel Mohad with an important mission in episode 4, Grubert says, “YOU’LL GO DOWN THERE TO VERiFY WHETHER ALL THE LEVELS HAVE FALLEN iNTO THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY...” Sam repeats this formula—“ ALL THE LEVELS”—to Okania on the next page. It’s not immediately clear how many levels there are.

     The action in 4, however, takes place, unequivocally, on the first level: the gigantic robot carrying Sam and Okania—Star Billiard—sits down under “THE VEiLED AND iMMOBiLE SUN OF THE FiRST LEVEL.” In addition, it’s reported in 5 that the Major’s spy has been spotted on the first level. This seems clear enough.

     What’s not so clear is which level Grubert’s on, once his journey gets underway in episode 6.



The résumé in episode 5 lets me know Sam and Okania have reached the second level, but not until the end of episode 6 do I learn something definite about it: Sam and Okania are crossing the great fertile prairies of the second level in a train, travelling toward “SAT-TCHiT-ĀNANDA”, the capital.

     This may come as a surprise to some readers familiar with the Garage; but in 1976 it was not yet established that Armjourth (toward which Jerry Cornelius is heading) was on the second level. Indeed, in episode 7, the résumé is explicit in stating that Cornelius is heading toward “ARMJOURTH, LA CAPiTALE DU 3eme NiVEAU”.

     Yes, that’s the level on which I might reasonably suppose Barnier is taking flight. And since Barnier is fleeing ahead of Cornelius’s return to Armjourth, this merely confirms what seemed obvious in episode 3—that Barnier and Cornelius are on the same level, the third.

     The action in episode 7, however, takes place on the second level: a mysterious airplane (later identified as the Airplane of Destiny) halts the progress of the second-level train by dropping a bomb on the tracks. In the following episode, guards of the sort seen earlier, in episode 3 (on the third level) accompany a ticket inspector on this train.

     At this stage, I had no reason to suppose the guards might not be present on any level. When I first read the story it didn’t even occur to me to wonder about it. I was content to wait until I was told what I needed to know. It’s only in retrospect I’ve begun to wonder whether the appearance of the guard in episode 7 might be an early sign of the later confusion of the second and third levels.



In episode 9, Grubert makes an explicit reference to “THE THREE LEVELS”. Readers of English who rely on the 1987 translation are obliged to wait until later; but, having read the French, I know, here and now, how many levels there are. I knew there were at least three; now I know there are only three. In addition, I’m told Grubert intends to make a discreet entry into Armjourth, and I know (because I’ve been paying attention) that Armjourth is on the third level. So, in 9, Grubert is making his way to the third level.

     But it occurs to me that I haven’t been told which level Grubert’s on, as he approaches Mausoleum L33, which has the doorway that will facilitate his entry to Armjourth. Here things begin to get tricky.



I remember the impression made on me by the final panel of episode 9, with its curious, swelling, upward-reaching rock formation, which Grubert is about to enter, surrounded by a spiralling walkway, which terminates in an evidently artificial hemisphere—belonging to an upper level?

     I really wasn’t sure. Few images in the Garage so provoked my uncertainty, but I’m sure the visual cues inclined me to suppose Grubert would be obliged to climb. Two conclusions may be taken to follow from this:


(a) The third level (of which Armjourth is the capital) is therefore the uppermost level; while the first level (with its dim still sun) is the lowest.


(b) Grubert has been journeying (in episode 9, and presumably 6 as well) on

the second level—the same level on which Samuel Mohad’s journey by rail has

been interrupted by a bombing.


Both of these conclusions are open to objection. It may be objected against (b) that if Grubert is able to climb to the third level, there’s no reason to assume he’s climbing from the second level. Why not suppose that Mausoleum L33 incorporates a stairway ascending from the lowest level—the first—through the second to the third? It works for department stores.

     A second objection undermines not only the notion that Grubert is moving between adjacent levels, but the assumption that their vertical ordering is spatial. When Grubert says that what he loves in the garage is the infinite variety of ways to pass between the three levels, it reminds me that Sam and Okania, in episode 4, went down a long set of stairs in order to arrive at a doorway leading directly into the compartment of a railway carriage. Magical doorways between dissimilar spaces have long been assimilated to science-fiction, and if I accept their presence in the Garage—as I have every reason to do—L33’s door might just as well communicate directly between the first and third levels, as between the second and third.

     So, while episode 9 lets me know Grubert is making his way to the third level—in particular, to its capital, Armjourth—it offers no reliable clue as to which level he’s coming from.

     Nor does episode 10, where the résumé simply tells me Grubert is set on changing levels. Levels are not mentioned at all in 11 through 14, and references to “THE THREE LEVELS” in 15, or “SEVERAL LEVELS” in 16, add nothing to my understanding of their orientation. When Grubert asks Sam, in 18, for his “REPORT ON THE THREE LEVELS”, the reference is equally comprehensive and equally vague. With Grubert’s arrival in Armjourth, the different “levels” have been relegated to the background. They continue to radiate a dim glamor of mystery, but no longer promise a key to understanding the action, which is easily followed.

     Yet, all but unnoticed, something has happened.



When Grubert is escorted, in episode 14, into a large building on the edge of Armjourth, he is confronted by the magnificent steam train—the same train whose journey to Sat-Tchit-Ananda, capital of the second level, was interrupted by aerial bombardment. Now it’s stalled on the outskirts of Armjourth, capital of the third level.

     It would surely be possible, playing within the loose-jointed framework of the Garage, to invent an explanation for this; but, without usurping authorial prerogative, the simplest explanation is that the narrative details sustaining the action have here become muddled.



Five episodes later, when Sam, in episode 19, tells Grubert that the first and second levels are controlled by a certain Cornelius, he’s speaking about the two levels on which I know Sam and Okania have spent some time. Grubert, in 21, asks Okania what they saw while she and Sam were crossing the first and second levels. This is consistent with what I know of their adventures in episodes 4, 7 and 8.

     But the résumé in episode 21 also acknowledges (if it does not exactly advertise) that an adjustment has been made. It identifies the present location of the train as the holog “Imperium” of the second level. The holog is on the edge of the city of Armjourth, and Armjourth, originally capital of the third level, appears now to have been relocated to the second level.

     The action in subsequent episodes is (or becomes) consistent with this. When the Airplane of destiny, previously seen bombing the train on the second level, reappears in episode 22, the pilot spots Barnier—and reports the matter (in 25) to the President of Armjourth. The simplest explanation (confirmed in 27) is that Barnier, having fled from Armjourth when it appeared to be on the third level, is now, along with the city from which he fled, on the second level.

     This evolution may be somewhat confusing to follow, but, in narrative terms, the collapse of two levels (the second and third) into just one (the second) has had a simplifying effect. As the different levels cease to be relevant to the action, they also cease to be confusing.



There remains, however, one last hurdle to get over. I noted above that while episode 9 let me know Grubert was using Mausoleum L33 as a means of getting to Armjourth—then on the third level—it offered no clue as to whether he was coming from the first level or from the second. It remains equally true, after Armjourth’s relocation to the second level, that I can’t be sure Grubert came from the first or from the third.

     Perhaps the impression of a vertical orientation has never quite been dispelled. If Sam and Okania came down a set of steps (see 4) to get from the first level to the second (see 5), and Grubert had to climb (see 9) to get to what is now identified as the second level, I might suppose they were converging on the second level from opposite directions, and conclude that Grubert started on the third level.

     The issue is not resolved by what Grubert says to Graad in episode 28: “JE DOiS REJOiNDRE LE PREMiER NiVEAU...” The 1987 translation represents this fairly as “I MUST ACCESS THE FIRST LEVEL...”, but skirts the question of which level Grubert was on before he arrived on the second level.



From this point on, the story moves toward a climax on the first level. Graad mentions the first level in 31; and in 35 Grubert and Cornelius enter the intermediate zone—“THE MECHANiCAL WORLD THAT SUSTAiNS THE ULTiMATE LEVEL”. But the first level of episodes 28 through 36 is no longer the same level on which Star Billiard met its end in 4. In episode 35 and 36, the first level is the upper level, and is identified as the region designed by Lady Kowalski in Le Bandard Fou. It is not the region of desert, tomb robbers and Tar’haï jugglers earlier visited by Sam and Okania.

     In order to maintain consistency, when the serial was collected in MAJOR FATAL (published just as the final installment appeared in Metal Hurlant) a number of minor alterations to the text were made. In episode 4, on page 3, the original reference to “PREMiER NiVEAU” was changed to “TROiSiÈME NiVEAU”. Similar adjustments were made in episodes 5, 19 and 21. In 19 there was a transposition in the opposite direction, from “TROiSiÈME” to “PREMiER”. (Not all of these adjustments have been consistently maintained in subsequent French editions.)

     Meanwhile, in the résumé ahead of episode 7, “ARMJOURTH, LA CAPiTALE DU 3eme NiVEAU” became “ARMJOURTH, LA CAPiTALE DU 2eme NiVEAU”. In the same paragraph, the Major’s spy, Samuel L. Mohad, is approaching “LA CAPiTALE DU 2eme NiVEAU”. Originally this referred to a different capital city; it now reads as a reference to Armjourth, substituted in 1979 for the original “SAT-TCHIT-ANANDA” in the last panel of episode 6. Reinforcement for Armjourth’s relocation to the second level came in the résumé in episode 10, where Grubert was originally “BiEN DÉCiDÉ À CHANGER DE NiVEAU”. In 1979 he was “MAiNTENANT PRÊT À PASSER LE 2e NiVEAU”.



Not every inconsistency can be said to have been resolved by these repairs. Where, in episode 4, Star Billiard sat down under the veiled and immobile sun of the first level, this simply became the veiled and immobile sun of the third level; but at the beginning of the same episode, the statement that the gigantic robot was “CONÇU POUR RALLiER LE PREMiER NiVEAU PAR ONDE PUCHEPULL” remained unrevised. I’m not at all sure the English of 1987 is responsive to the original when it pretends Star Billiard is a giant robot designed to “REACH” the first level; based on what I later see of that level, and how it is reached, it seems an absurdity—and not the sort of absurdity with which the fabric of the Garage is so joyously decorated, but a merely puzzling inconsistency, nestling under the indifference of readers and grateful to be overlooked.



As for where Grubert started his peregrination on the asteroid, that, I think, remains a matter of opinion. After forty years, I’ve changed my mind on the subject. The narrative may be viewed in retrospect as an ascent toward a climax on the first level, but there’s no unambiguous evidence that Grubert started on the same level (the third and lowest) as Sam and Okania. The fact that the dry, dusty region of episode 4 differs from the lush and watery environs depicted in episodes 6 and 9 is no sure argument against the possibility, but the latter are more consistent with what may be seen of the first level on the opening page of the final episode. Grubert’s meditative and placid passage to Armjourth may also be contrasted with the dangers faced by Sam and Okania. In addition, I’m prepared to consider the whimsical appearance of Le Bandard Fou on Grubert’s helmet in episode 9 as possibly (if by no means decisively) indicating that Giraud, at that stage, had decided to identify the setting of this story with that of the earlier story. (The asteroid itself is not pictured until 12, and was not originally mentioned until 16.) Might Grubert’s instruction to Graad in 28 (“JE DOiS REJOiNDRE LE PREMiER NiVEAU...”) be translated as a wish not simply to get to, but to get back to—to rejoin or return to—the upper level? (The French, “REJOiNDRE”, appears to allow both possibilities.)

     For those who might object that, if Sper Gossi were at this time master of the first level, Grubert’s presence could hardly go undetected, I would concede this might explain why Gossi and Batmagoo were waiting for him in Armjourth in the next episode. To those who object that this explanation is fanciful because these characters had not yet been invented—and that, even when they were, Giraud didn’t know who they were—I concede that (anti-time fields and chrono-particles notwithstanding) I’m bound to agree.

     If, on the other hand, it strikes you that everything I’ve written here is already entirely obvious, then I humbly invite you to forgive my stupidity, and look with indulgence on my slow and heavy pedantry.