maandag 13 oktober 2014

The Incal

I'm trying to broaden my horizons. I know quite a bit about American comics, and have quite a few classics from that side of the Atlantic in my collection. But my knowledge of Manga is not that deep, and though I grew up with European comics, I mostly just know the gag strips and the boy’s adventure comics like Asterix of Spirou. Which is of course disgraceful for an internationalist and multiculturalist like myself. Hence why I googled for a couple of "best off" lists, and picked up a few classics. Among them The Incal.

So what did I think about it?

Uhm… I'll tell you after the jump!

Let’s start at the beginning. The Incal is the story of John Difool, a private eye from a science-fiction city who ends up in the possession of a... a... let's call it a magical thingy, the Incal. As the thingy begins to cause all sorts of havoc, from getting birds to talk to triggering divine enlightenment in people, the rich and powerful of the universe set their eyes on John. And so the story spreads from the city to the planet, from the planet to the universe, and eventually beyond reality itself, and from John running from assassins to a galaxy-wide political intrigue, to a quest for universal enlightenment.

But in a comic the story is but one part of it. There is also the art. And good god, what art it is! An absolute classic by Moebius, one of the greatest comic artists European comicry has ever produced.

(A small selection to showcase the sprawling sci-fi landscapes, facial expressions, unique designs and action sequences. Being from Holland my copy of The Incal is in Hollish, so please excuse the bizarro language and just enjoy the pretty pictures)

I had seen Moebius’ stuff before on Blueberry and Silver Surfer, but here he can really cut loose. Full on sprawling sci-fi locations, trippy journeys into other dimensions and all the other bizarre stuff Alejandro Jodorowski has thought up for him to draw. Whether he is asked to draw robots, aliens, sexy ladies, conjoined foetus-emperors or just two people sitting and talking to one another, Moebius is incapable of drawing something that is not gorgeous. And it doesn't just look good, his designs are also a perfect fit for the sprawling world galaxy we are presented with here. Starting out in a dystopian city where the suicidal jump into an acid lake by droves, and where the prostitutes are genetically engineered according to your specifications while you wait, the story just keeps on expanding. First the planet is further explored and we get an evil techno-pope and a society of mutants, then we zoom out and the events start to involve the entire intergalactic empire. The next part introduces a second intergalactic empire full of bizarre aliens, and finally the story just goes beyond… beyond everything really. The universe, reality... it gets really trippy in the end, let's put it that way. And Moebius as fantastic designs for everything. Whether it is dystopian squalor, high sci-fi opulence of LSD-style spirit journeys.
Finally, the panel-to-panel flow, the cinematography of the comic, if you will, is also pretty good. There is a handful of wonky panels, but overall it is good work, cutting between wide angle overviews and tight close-up shots when necessary.

So it's quite clear my apprehension at the begin of the review has nothing to do with the art. Let's turn to the story then. The Incal grew out of Jodorowski's never realized plans for a movie version of Frank Herbert's Dune series. Sometimes that shows. We never get a good explanation of what a "Mentrek" is, but those familiar with Dune will just read "Mentat" instead, and know exactly what is going on. But the influences are never so blatant that it feels like a rip-off. Jodorowski has taken all the stuff he found interesting in Dune and build upon that, filling out the setting with much more than just riffs on Herbert. The worldbuilding is very impressive, as is the way things just keep building and building. But that's where my first problem with the story comes in… the setting is very interesting, but it is also so huge that a lot of things get introduced, but never elaborated upon. I’ve already mentioned the Mentreks. Apparently there is this whole organization of living-computer advisors, but it gets only mentioned in passing. Worse, two mayor characters are apparently sisters who once fought for control of an underground society of humongous rats. That is all the backstory we get, the rats are in one scene, and then it is never mentioned again. Which is a bit frustrating. Just throwing sci-fi ideas out there to flesh out the world I can get behind, but when it comes to the backstory of main characters things really should have been elaborated on.

In a way you could see the above as a compliment: the setting is so good I want more! (And yes, I am tempted to pick of Metabarons or Megalex, other series in the same universe) But my main problem is with the characterization. While I'm not a big fan of pure dramas or romances, I absolutely adore good characterisation in my sci-fi or fantasy epics. A quiet moment between to characters can make you love them far more than any action sequence can, and a realistic conversation can ground a story, making to most out there fantasy world seem realistic. That is part of why I like Alan Moore and Josh Whedon so much. Unfortunately, those kinds of scenes are few and far between in The Incal. Most character development seems to come from epiphanies. For example: in one scene the main cast is brought together: a child and it's estranged mother, warring sisters, old enemies holding grudges. Prime material for some good dialogues and character development, you'd think. But what happens? They sit down, a glowing light talks to them, they meditate and all is forgiven. From that moment on they are a band of inseparable friends. Now, that scene might be forgiven. The work was clearly influenced a great deal by Jodorowski’s spiritual beliefs, and faith and religious epiphanies are a main focus of the book. But it’s not just the interactions with the Incal that go this way. Non-religious character development goes the same way. John Difool meets a lady, and he’s immediately smitten, even though she says nothing but her name. At first I thought this meant a mind control plot was imminent, or something similar. But no. Apparently that is just how things go in this story. But what is even stranger is what happens next. The characters have barely any scenes together. The only character interaction between them is one short scene that has her rejecting him. And then, a book later, they are genuinely in love. Completely out of the blue. All the character development apparently happened behind the scenes.


(No, you didn't miss anything, that's all of the character interaction between those. Clearly a love story for the ages.)

In the end, for me The Incal is just to.... spiritual, I guess the word is. Apparently the idea for the Incal came to Jodorowsky in a vision. And that's my problem with the book. It's not about the characters. Most of them are cyphers, and while main character John Difool does have a clear personality, he's just there to blunder from scene to scene. It's not even about the plot. The real point of the story is to showcase Jodorowsky's beliefs, which are all about psycho-magic, Buddhist influences, "breaking the boundaries between the conscious and unconscious", and more stuff that is just really hard to follow. Now, I do have a philosophical streak in me. And if you are so inclined you can have a lot of fun theorizing over the implications of The Incla (Perhaps grab a few interviews with Jodorowsky assecondary literature first though) But that doesn't save The Incal as a read.

The stuff I said earlier, about good characters grounding a sci-fi or fantasy story? Well, the same can be said of a philosophical treatise. If you want to convince people of the Zen ideas that came to you in a vision, it would help tremendously if you use rounded characters that confront the ideas in a realistic manner. After all, these are not ideas the general public has a lot of experience with. But instead we get ciphers, who are converted when a magic thingy shines a special light on them. And as a result we, the readers, are left just like John Difool, "the eternal witness", stumbling from scene to scene, not really getting what is going on.

But at least we get to see some damn pretty pictures while doing so.


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