My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This classic 1980s science fiction graphic novel is the tale of John DiFool (i.e., the fool of the Tarot, representing humanity’s freedom and stupidity) and his journey to save the cosmos in the company of his sometime lover Animah (i.e., his Jungian anima, or female aspect) and some other probably allegorical figures on behalf and with the aid of the titular Incal, a device incarnating the animating spirit of the universe. Rising from the ruins of Jodorowsky’s abortive Dune adaptation, The Incal is both ludicrous and sublime as a half-satirical and all-visionary tour of variously cosmic locales, from dystopian noir pit-cities to sea planets patrolled by giant jellyfish.
Moebius’s art weaves intricate grounds with cartoonish figures into a dense texture that accomplishes for the novel what the sometimes thin writing cannot—the creation of a world, or, in this case, a universe. Moebius is a giant, and I would not disparage him casually, but I would say that he is perhaps—in contrast to someone like Eisner or Tezuka—a great comics artist without necessarily being a great comics storyteller; his layouts here are often more muddled than delirious, and he even once resorts to arrows to lead the reader’s eye across the confusingly arrayed panels.
The writing often has a similarly counterproductive effect. I actually appreciate Jodorowsky’s casually imaginative “never explain, never apologize” approach to his settings, which I prefer to elaborate expository “world building,” but the characters are just as sketchy, some of them not even rising to the level of caricature or symbol. Given the length and complexity of the saga, the indifference bred by his approach to the characters sometimes makes it difficult to want to pick the book up again for any other reason than Moebius’s delineation of the settings. Jodorowsky, like some other writers who want to communicate occult or magical beliefs (I would also point to Grant Morrison), too often substitutes archetypes for characters. But it easier to have a visionary experience with a work of fiction, in whatever medium, if we can inhabit the narrative by having a convincingly intersubjective relation to the fictional figures. We should come to care about the metaphysics because we care about the characters or narrative, not the other way around—as Dante understood. (My citation of Dante aside, Jodorowsky would no doubt regard my criticism as weak, bourgeois, American sentimentalism: “I shit on the United States of America!” he declares in the BBC Moebius documentary, referring in particular to American comics’s need for heroes and their pathos.)
Finally, I am puzzled by Jodorowsky’s metaphysics as such. Over and over again, the novel invokes the union of opposites—dark and light, masculine and feminine—yet at the conclusion we meet a great-bearded father God. (Perhaps no surprise, given this book’s treatment of sex and gender.) The possibility of progress and evolution is held out, but eventually we discern a bitter cycle in which The Fool cannot move forward. Finally, what are these characters’ journeys even worth intrinsically if they have been so aided and motivated by the deus ex machina of The Incal?
The grandeur of this book makes all my carping and caviling look petty, though. The Incal has been enormously influential on the science fiction and fantasy of our time. Even if I am right that it is lacking in certain particulars (characterization, philosophy), its landscapes and seascapes and spacescapes and psychescapes are so indelible, its mingled tone of scabrous misanthropy and visionary hope so distinctive (this is the basis, I assume, for Pascal Ory’s comparison, in his afterword, of the book to Don Quixote), that The Incal will remain a classic.