Only Humanoid:

The Jodorowsky Paradox

The Incal

Writer: Alexandro Jodorowsky
Artist: Jean Giraud

Watching Jodorowsky’s Dune (an excellent documentary about the never completed adaptation of the Science Fiction classic into film) I was struck by how good it appears to be, in theory, and how little I would have probably cared for it had it actually been produced. True, it is quite hard to imagine a worse adaptation than David Lynch’s version of Dune, but watching Jodorowsky throwing idea after idea into space- captivating audiences with grand visions of single scenes, character descriptions, and poetic notions of radical filmmaking – I began to believe that his version would have been the worse of the two. And the thing is – I would have still watched it.

I’ve watched one film by Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) and read several of his comic books (The Incal, Bouncer, Hannibal Cain, Diosamante) and watched some documentaries, all without actually liking any of it. I don’t like Jodorowsky (well – his work), and I still return to him again and again. I always swear that this work is the last that I’m going to pay for, only to spot a new, and hideously expensive[1], volume of his on the shelf and going for it. This all started with The Incal.

I knew of The Incal long before I actually knew what it was – I was dimly aware that it was a well regarded epic, a high point in European comics (and comics in general). I also knew that it wasn’t available in English (unless one had vast amounts of many and willingness to trust in various eBay dealers). My curiosity towards the project and its celebrated creators (almost as famous as Jodorowsky was the book’s late artist Moebius) was in a slow build for quite a while when the announcement came that that book was to be printed, fully and in English; at which point I called my local store and said that they can either reserve a copy for me or face my wrath.

The Incal was my first exposure for Humanoids output, for Moebius output and for Jodorowsky’s comics output. I was disappointed – not even in the grand “what a piece of crap this is” scale, but in a small “well – it’s kind of okay, I guess”; which is quite an odd thing to feel towards a book that aims so high.

The Incal is the story of a lowly (in all the ways that count) private detective John DiFool – who lives on a far flung future Earth, merely the tiniest part of a galaxy spanning empire. Events conspire to place in DiFool’s hands “The Incal” – a tiny mystical object of great power, which makes him the target of every power faction in the universe: corrupt politicians, rebels, mad cultists, alien invaders, etc. The books are built in like a raising geometric series – every part of the story throws DiFool into new dangers and raises the stakes of the threat (personal, local, planetary, galactic, universal), with the main ‘joke’ of it being that DiFool starts as an unlikely hero (weak – both mentally and physically) and refuses to learn to better himself. As all the other characters around him strive towards personal betterment DiFool constantly whines and moans. He would like nothing more than to relax on his own with cheap alcohol and robotic prostitutes, but the various companions he gathers around him are convinced that he is the destined savior of the universe.

It’s not a very clever gag – and stretched as it is across such a long book it wears its welcome. The device also hurts Jodorowsky’s more serious attempts at spiritual presentation. One cannot take Jodorowsky’s attempts at mysticism seriously[2] when the protagonist seems to come in with an added laugh track and slide-whistle sound. Imagine Moore and Williams’ Promethea with the protagonist replaced by C3PO and you might get the gist of it[3].

The main reason that, despite all its narrative flaws, The Incal cannot be considered bad is Moebius’ art (the man was just as good they said he was). Moebius brought seemingly effortless grace and realism to whatever riduculous character and landscape. The Incal takes place over a dozens of locations and features a cast of hundreds and Moebius makes it all work. His work has the creativity we associate with Kirby but an elegance all of its own; if the mark of a great comics artists is the ability of reader to comprehend the story with all the words stripped out Moebius aces that test, which is quite an achievement considering how out there some of Jodorowsky’s ideas are.

That’s the thing, really, while the plot is simplistic there are many incredible scenes and ideas: a city housed in a giant jellyfish, a massive battle for the right to impregnate an alien queen, a long pursuit presented as a reality TV show (a decade before the idea was tried in real life). Each artifact is interesting and worthwhile as is. You can see why Jodorowsky wanted to use them. Nevertheless, they fail to build into a focused narrative. The work is a collection of interesting ideas held together by duck tape. A lesser artist would have probably doomed that book all together.

Watching Jodorowsky’s Dune, one sees Jodo pitch a brilliant idea after a brilliant idea such as a metaphorical virginal birth re-imagined as a science fiction experiment, daring casting choices (i.e. Orson Wells as the villainous Baron Harkonnen), and avant-garde soundtracks (specific 70s pop bands for each planet). Jodo never talks about how all these things were meant to come together though. He just kind of assumes that they would by the final completion.

Dune was Jodorowsky’s dream project in the sense that a lot of it was formed in his dreams. He never actually read the book, but was inspired to make the movie when he heard a friend talk about it. He was determined to make the film his own thing rather than an adaptation of someone else’s vision, at one point saying that he intended to ‘rape’ the novel in order to make it his own. The thing about dreams, though, is that while they make some sort of twisted sense to the person dreaming them they have little to no value to anyone else.

A lot of the ideas that became unused as the movie failed to start found themselves manifested in the various comics that Jodo went out to do later (comics being a fine medium for averting budgetary problems). Reading The Incal, for me, was pretty much the same as listening to somebody going on and on about a particularly vivid dream. It may be interesting in the abstract, but it is worthless to me a piece of art. All the strangeness and grandness of The Incal never quite amounts to anything.

[1] This one deserves a point by itself: Humanoids comics tend to be on the expensive side (what with most of them only coming out in Hardcovers and heaving very limited print runs), and knowing the scarcity of the material they feel justified in asking for $45 for a regular sized book, but nothing justified the price for the upcoming Final Incal collection – which comes down to a ridicules 100$. I understand it is to be a bigger sized volume but most publishers would at least offer you the option to buy a regular sized version at decent price instead of forcing customers to purchase the last part of a series at huge price hike (and probably at a severity that would make it impossible to shelf next to the previous volumes of the series – because people who buy comics are known for not caring about presentation). Still, that’s okay. If you don’t have a $100 to spare you can wait for the alternate version which would only cost you $590!

[2] Though, I must admit, someone as dully rationalistic as myself is probably the wrong person for this type of material.

[3] Considering how uneventful Promethea became midway through its run, such a change of pace would have been welcomed.

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Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

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The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century


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