Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Incal Review

The Incal is a sci-fi epic story spanning six graphic novels, an entire universe, and more than eight years of work by its creative team of Alexandro Jodorowski and legendary French artist Moebius. The series seems to be long out of print in the United States, but I was lucky enough to find a collection that contained all the six graphic novels in a local library. The series, which originally started in 1980, proved to be hugely influential and popular (Jodorowski launched several spin offs focusing on one of the characters, The Metabaron, and there were two direct sequels and a prequel to this story). How will it measure now, thirty years later after it began it's publication? Hit the jump to see my thoughts on the book.


Written by Alexandro Jodorowski
Art by Jean Giraud A.K.A. Moebius

The Incal follows the adventure of John Difool, a Class B Detective, as he becomes involved in a series of increasingly dangerous and ridiculous situations that grow in scale throughout the story.

The book opens with John Difool falling down "Suicide Alley", a section of the futuristic city he lives in, where people go to commit suicide. Arguably, it all goes downhill from there for our protagonist, even if he is rescued from the fatal fall. It all started with a common enough assignment, escorting a lady for a night out in town, but John accidentally comes across an valuable artifact (later revealed to be much more than initially thought), The Incal. Sadly, John Difool lives up to his name and foolishly leaves the Incal in his house while he goes to experience the finer things in life: liquor, cigars, and the company of a homeoslut (don't worry, we'll get to that in second). In his absence, his concrete pet bird Deepo swallows the Incal. This gives Deepo the ability to talk, which he uses to start preaching a message of unity and attracts the attention of the different sections of the city.

John eventually comes back and retrieves the Incal, but the damage is done, he has also attracted the attention of several factions from around the universe that want the Incal for themselves for various reasons. Among those are the Bergs (a avian race from another galaxy intent on conquering this one), underground mutants, the incredibly powerful and corrupt city government, a religious sect, and Animah the Queen of Amok (an underground city) who hires the aforementioned Metabaron to find John Difool.

What unravels is an incredible complicated and expansive story that I could not summarize even if I wanted to. What originally started as a conflict of various factions to get the Incal becomes a planet wide hunt, then a galactic incident that starts a war, and finally fight for the survival of the universe against a darkness that wants to invade it. All throughout the story we follow mostly John Difool and his team of allies (including Deepo, who now talks), as they stumbles out of one problem and into an even bigger one, when it seems that everything is going to be resolved, the ante is raised once again, and they must deal with that instead. Just to give you an idea of the kind of scale they must deal with, the final challenge our heroes must face is getting every living being in the universe to do one thing in unison: sleep.

And then there's the ending. I obviously don't want to spoil it, but it such an extremely weird, out-of-nowhere, punch-in-the-gut ending that had it been in any other story, I would have been frustrated with it. The ending is a revelation about the very nature of the universe and how John Difool belongs in it. Like I said, it is not in any way hinted or telegraphed, it is a major revelation that doesn't change everything that just happened, but it makes you question the events of the book and makes you want to read it again.

Where the creative team really shines is in introducing high concepts of this futuristic world, and every panel, of every page is packed with them. Moebius excels at this, he manages to fill every page with interesting creatures and objects that make you interested in the background. For an example of these crazy ideas, remember the homeosluts I mentioned above? Those are sex workers that people can pay to create with whatever characteristics they want, and obviously have sex with them. It's never explicitly said so, but you see John Difool paying, then choosing the body parts, etc. Another one of the crazy ideas I mentioned above is the "Suicide Alley", that we learn through what the populace comment about it, every suicide triggers more people to commit suicide. Deepo is a pet bird made out of concrete, but it never is explained how it can move or live. And the list goes on and on.

Those concepts are introduced in the first ten or so pages, and hardly mentioned at all later in the book. Most of these high concepts are not analyzed at all, they are just merely mentioned in passing and left to the reader to fill in the gaps, and many of them are not mentioned again. It is somewhat frustrating as you begin the book (or at least it was for me, I wanted to know more!) but once you get used to it, you begin to roll with the creative team's ideas and just accept them as true.

The narrative is not without it's faults. I mentioned just how big the epic is, and the sheer scale of it means that something is bound to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes, secondary characters become background pieces until they are needed, and subplots are so intense and varied that it is easy to forget just what everyone is doing and where they are going. It feels that at times the creative team was more interested in coming up with grandiose metaphysical ideas and futuristic concepts than with the story.

Another aspect of the art I wanted to mentioned was the color. The coloring in the edition I read was more toned down and earthly colors, which was done for this new reprinting, but the original (of which the images I found come from) had far more psychedelic colors, making the world look much more brighter and futuristic by comparison. The new coloring was far better on a technical level, but the old coloring was more fitting to the story being told.

In the end, many of these futuristic settings and concepts may seem a bit dated or similar to what we have seen in other places. If you have seen futuristic movies like Star Wars, Dune or The Fifth Element, many of these themes will seem familiar. As a matter of fact, the creators sued the filmmakers of The Fifth Element because of how many similarities there were (but Moebius worked as an artistic consultant to the film, so they lost the case).

Verdict - Check It. Come in for the pretty artwork, crazy ideas and immense universe, and make sure to stay all the way to the end. The Incal, as a body of work is fantastic, but as a story it becomes too bogged down by it's scope. As an historical piece, it is a very interesting work of fiction, but as a story, it's not as strong as it could have been.

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Anonymous said...

Don't forget Jodorowski is pretty legendary himself. He was the director of odd, surreal films like Fando & Lis, El Topo (I believe the first 'midnight movie') and Holy Mountain. I think he was also set to direct a film version of 'Dune' before David Lynch.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Anon: Yeah, I read about the "Dune" movie he was working in while doing research for this. It was supposed to be like eight hours long, and he had hired the help of people like Moebius, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and a bunch of others. Not surprisingly, the movie ran out of budget before it even got off it's feet. I can't remember where I read it, but part of Jodorowski's motivations to writing The Incal stemmed from frustration over the failure of Dune.

That being said, I'm surprisingly un-knowledgeable about film history, so I didn't know exactly how popular his movies are, hence why I didn't mention it.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I didn't know his involvement in comics so I'm glad you posted this! Wish it was easily available.

Matt Ampersand said...

If you know French or Spanish, it should be easily available. English, not so much.

jared souza said...

Nice review, but I was shocked that you would say the digital colors in the new edition are better and technically superior to Moebius' own watercolor! For shame!
Granted, digital coloring has improved immensely since it's initial proliferation in the early 90's, but it still doesn't hold a candle to the real thing.

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