Warning: this review contains spoilers for the current volume and the entire Metabarons series.
It’s fair to say that Metabarons has now eclipsed Incal as the most famous Jodorowsky-penned sci-fi epic, at least in the United States. For the uninitiated, Metabarons tells a generational tale of a warrior family, narrated by its two trusty robot servants. It’s a rollicking “how do I write myself out of this?” sort of tale, on the far science fantasy end of the spectrum (there’s no real science anywhere in sight). Like much of Jodorowsky’s work, it’s violent, concerned with inter-generational psychology, and has more than a fair bit of women in sexual peril. The series was a spin-off of The Incal and exists in that same universe, along with the Incal prequel and sequel, Megalex, and Technopriests. Illustrated by Juan Giménez, Metabarons was published over eight French volumes (about 50 pages each) from 1992 to 2003.
Its subsequent spin-offs have been less satisfying. Castaka, a two-volume prequel, published in 2007 and 2013, doesn’t add all that much to the story, despite its beautiful art by Das Pastoras. The Weapons of the Metabaron, a one-volume sequel published in 2008, has some beautiful artwork by Travis Charest, but was completed by Zoran Janjetov, whose style clashes with Charest.
A new eight-volume sequel series, entitled simply The Metabaron, began with much fanfare in 2015. For this series, Jodorowsky is credited with the story, while Jerry Frissen is writing the scripts. Jodorowsky tends to write his albums in pairs, and each pair of The Metabaron albums is being illustrated by a different artist. Humanoids is publishing them in English in two-album hardcover collections, which feel quite overpriced at $30 each. (At this rate, the full series will eventually run $120 at full retail.)
The first of these, entitled The Metabaron, Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & the Anti-Baron, was published in October of last year. Illustrated by Valentin Sécher, the volume translates and collects French albums published in October 2015 and June 2016. The star here is Sécher (who also illustrated Khaal, an obvious riff on Metabarons that’s currently being published in English by Titan Comics). But the volume’s story felt lackluster. Pitting the final Metabaron, a product of generational abuse focused on producing the ultimate warrior, against a similar product of fatherly abuse aimed at defeating the Metabaron isn’t a bad idea. But the villain gets so much attention that the volume feels like it’s really his story, and he’s defeated a bit abruptly, without much emotional resonance, leaving us to wonder if there was a point to all this melodrama. But there was also promising framing material, in which the Metabaron’s robot companion Tonto and his enormous impenetrable spaceship, the Metabunker, was destroyed over Marmola, the granite planet of the Metabaron’s ancestors. The story focuses on Marmola, which is running out of the magical anti-gravity fluid that powers this interstellar empire, like the spice of the Dune series.
Humanoids has just published The Metabaron Book 2: The Techno-Cardinal & the Transhuman, illustrated by Niko Henrichon. And while it’s not as good (or as compressed) as any two albums of the classic Metabarons, it’s probably the best material since the original series.
As someone who appreciates the art of Sécher, who illustrated the previous English volume, I didn’t expect to like Henrichon’s art as much as I did. Sécher’s work fits solidly into what’s called a “photo-realistic” artistic style, and it’s easy to get lost in the detail of his panels. But it can tend to be a bit emotionless and static — which is often the problem with more “photo-realistic” styles. Henrichon’s art is much sketchier, and there are panels in which I found this tendency distracting. But his art communicates the narrative very well, and I think it worked better for me. Compare pages by the two artists side by side, and I’d probably prefer Sécher nearly 100% of the time, but Henrichon does a better job of capturing the emotion of the story, which is essential in a science-fantasy story filled with hyper-masculinity that can easily feel hollow. It’s worth remembering that Juan Giménez, while rightly praised for his detailed work, certainly isn’t “photo-realistic.” It’s generally realistic but has exaggerated and idiosyncratic qualities, which might be an important way of undercutting the story’s hyper-masculinity, which taken straight-on can easily become unbearably dull and dumb.
What really distinguishes this new volume for me is its story. Here, the main villain is Orne-8, the Techno-Cardinal of the title, who is revealed to be a woman, in defiance of the Techno-Papacy’s strict sexism. For me, she’s very much the star of the volume. She and the Metabaron fall in love a bit abruptly, but a story featuring the Metabaron in love with the daughter of his greatest enemy, the Technopope, seems straight out of the playbook of the original Metabarons, in which surprise seemed to be the dominant narrative requirement. When Orne-8 becomes pregnant, it feels as if we’re reading one of the many passages of Metabarons in which the Metabaron line seems destined for extinction only to somehow survive.
To be sure, the sexism of the series isn’t absent here: there are a lot of fawning prostitutes seemingly enthusiastic to do their work, despite being sold by a rather disreputable man, and the story treats them as objects, not characters. There’s also an unfortunate caption that suggests that Orne-8′s ultimate identity is to be a mother (because she’s a woman, it seems). It’s hard not to cringe at the apparent thoughtlessness of this material, especially in 2017. Readers who are especially upset by such material probably ought to avoid the volume — as well as Metabarons and perhaps Jodorowsky in general. (And for the record, this is an utterly reasonable response. Let’s please stop pretending it’s tantamount to censorship to point out that a work of fiction, while retaining some merits, also has some serious issues.) This newest volume might be a return to rollicking form for the influential series, but let’s not pretend that’s a form that has dated well, particularly in this regard.
But at least this time around, some of the sexism seems to subvert itself. Orne-8 is able to sneak into the Metabunker as a prostitute, which is problematic but also suggests that she’s able to exploit the Metabaron’s objectification of women. We learn that Orne-8 was notorious for using and killing prostitutes (something the cover unfortunately chooses to reference, out of all the aspects of the story), but in light of the fact that she’s a woman, this sort of behavior becomes cast as a way of overcompensating for one’s own lack of masculinity. Best yet, Orne-8 ultimately becomes the new Technopope, and it’s hard not to be happy at the death of her evil father and at this powerful masculine hierarchy now belonging to a far more competent woman.
Orne-8 doesn’t die at the end, unlike the villains of the previous volume. Instead, there’s a new origin for the planet Marmola filled with metaverse mumbo jumbo that wouldn’t feel out of place in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Never has the parallel between Marmola and the planet Arrakis in Dune felt clearer. In fact, the universe is ending, and galaxies are colliding, causing great explosions. It’s pointless to ask how these explosions cross the universe instantly, or how these collisions weren’t seen ahead of time, in this fantasy version of science fiction in which interstellar distances are even more meaningless than in Star Wars. It’s exactly this sort of wild “anything can happen” ideas that characterized the original Metabarons. If you don’t like one idea, the next few pages will offer two more. Even if that pace isn’t maintained here, that wild tone is. What could be more wild than ending the universe mid-series? Especially when it’s the same universe seen in The Incal and other tales.
One of the traits that defines Metabarons is its use of a framing sequence. The main story catches up to the framing sequence by the end. This new cycle begins similarly, with a flash-forward, and there’s every reason in the first volume to believe that the story will meander through one threat after another until it reaches this perilous forward point in its conclusion. Instead, we reach the same point by the end of this volume. The Metabaron and Orne-8′s armada have seemingly crossed into another universe, leaving the shared universe to die, and I have no idea what happens next.
How very Metabarons.