Reviews of The Incal (1980) and related work

The Incal (1980Sequential art with text)

Jean Giraud (artist), Alejandro Jodorowsky (writer).

Read in 2020.

John Difool, a lowly “investigator” of the Technocity on Ter (Terra) 21, is swept up in a torrent of upheavals surrounding the two Incals, mysterious pyramidal artefacts of galactic significance.

Giraud’s work on the first few pages is similar to The Long Tomorrow (1976): Brilliantly evocative stuff following a sleazy private-eye Picaro through the weird hyperurban future. Jodorowsky injects his mystical allegories into it: The phallic ships, the black and white Incals which are the world eggs of mythology and which split Difool into imps of Empedocles’s four elements, from which Hippocrates and Galen derived their prototypal humourism. The two creators use their wide canvas to rework their thoughts on their own doomed adaptation of Dune (1965), complete with a mentat (here “mentrek”), a leveled combat-training robot like the one Alia uses in Dune Messiah (1969), and a scheme to breed the saviour of the galaxy.

There is much of the cartoon in this seminal series. It often feels like Paul Grimault’s darkly absurd “Le diamant” (1970). The “garbage eaters” of volume 3 are as goofy as Wizards (1977), and there’s a tyrannical “Necrodroid” in place of Necron. The talking “concrete seagull” sidekick Deepo is a Disney-esque stereotype. “Wolfhead”, a minor cynocephalus character, bridges the gap from Disney to Jodorowsky’s medieval mythscape and the world of contemporary cinematic special effects through Chewbacca in Star Wars (1977). It is funny. Having defeated the “War Star”, which is the equivalent of the Death Star, Deepo asks Difool if he’s OK, and Difool replies “No, I’m hungry!”

Difool the everyman veers deliberately off model as he takes the hero’s journey, while the Metabaron starts out as a superhero with the superiority of Herbert’s Muad'Dib. The female characters have even less depth, despite the plot centrality of two androgynes, one of which resembles Aristophanes’s jocular account of the primordial human race in “Symposium” (ca. 385–370 BCE). The corruption of this latter androgyne by “the darkness” in volume 4 corresponds roughly to Baron Harkonnen’s takeover of Alia. It’s all a little like Zardoz (1974), liberated from the need for a moviemaking budget.

By 1980 standards, even the appearance of depth must have been impressive in a comic, but it is not the main source of The Incal’s lasting appeal. Fictional religion is a recurring motif but never reaches the depth of feeling exhibited in Dune. The science fiction is very soft. The worldbuilding goes nowhere fast, all the way to pranic energy (“Their telepathic waves test positive on all three levels! We have nothing to fear from them!”). The satire is never sharper than a few scenes poking fun at television and parliamentary democracy. By the half-way point, the death count is literally in the billions, but for lack of sincerity, there’s never much emotion.

For me, the main attraction is Giraud’s designs and superb analogue draftsmanship. They, and not Jodo’s writing, are what give the work its lyricism. The artist’s compositions and backgrounds, in particular, soar above anything that was going on in US comics, but the characters are good too. Just look at that wordless panel of a homeless berg with a runny nose in volume 6, page 8; that’s great stuff. Despite some generic greebling, Giraud’s more lively, more varied and more imaginative than Ōtomo’s more realistic Domu: A Child’s Dream (1980), and he doesn’t choke. Even the sound effects and the strong colours are well integrated.

References here: “Hanshin: Half-God” (1984), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).

sequential art text fiction series

The Metabarons (1992Sequential art with text)

Juan Giménez (artist), Alejandro Jodorowsky (writer).

The history of a family of wealthy, noble warriors in a human spacefacing empire. One of these, then called only “The Metabaron”, is introduced as a mercenary in the last chapter of the first volume of The Incal, and stays on as a major character therein.

Another unique creation. Giménez’s artwork is amazing throughout, less cartoonish than Mœbius and similarly worthwhile in itself, though the compositions are not as bold. Jodorowsky’s writing is thankfully constrained by the cosmic resolution of the original: Although he does introduce another animal-themed invasion from another galaxy (the donkey-like pthagureans of volume 4 instead of the bird-like bergs of The Incal), the drama must still be smaller in scale here: The final alien threat is literally mutant lice. The Incal’s picaresque is eliminated, though its frantic pace is preserved.

The mismatch in quality between art and script is extreme. In its continued oscillations, the writing sometimes achieves a harmony of the most superficial melodrama (including a star-struck lover dying of tuberculosis!), derivative science fiction and occasional flashes of psychoanalytical inspiration, but most of the time, those bad ingredients taste awful together: Rapidly cycled threats of rape, incest, suicide and holocaust. The golden planet’s human court and parliament exist only to be trumped by the oh-so-badass family.

You don’t need to read the original first. There aren’t many plot callbacks, though there are “concrete seagulls” like Deepo in what seems to be their natural habitat, we see the birth of the “emperoress” (here named “Janus-Jana”), flowers are created by magic a few more times, etc. The story is told by The Incal’s Tanto and another (new) family servant robot in a framing device that recurs far too often. They correspond to the backbone duo of Star Wars, with which The Metabarons also shares total disinterest in science, technology and extrapolation. In all three works (Star Wars, Incal, Metabarons), robots are human in their thinking and perhaps literally created from human organs, as one technopope states in The Incal. It’s total kitsch. Prefixes like “techno”, “paleo”, “maxi” and “meta” are added at random, merely to suggest something other than everyday life, though sometimes it’s just everyday life:

We will soon see if you deserve the name of Metabaron. This archaic machine was a slicer for the mysterious food our ancestors called “ham”.

The more mysterious “epyphite”, the family’s secret, is not an epiphyte but goods stolen from Dune (1965), having some of the narrative functions of melange, though not the same in-universe functions. There’s a “robo-killer” in volume 2 that is even more like Alia’s training device. A recurring enemy, the Shabda-Oud, resemble the Bene Gesserit but are relatively flat villains. Doña Vicenta’s eyes are Hayt’s eyes, and so on. Giménez’s more baroque art is more worthy of Dune than Giraud’s, but does not fully transcend the writing.

References here: Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).

sequential art text prequel fiction series