A Change of Path: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Incal”

By Anthony PalettaAugust 26, 2013

A Change of Path: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Incal”

THERE ARE PLENTY of writer-directors. But the author-director, producing work for the page and the screen? That’s a much rarer breed. A few novelists have directed films, but generally this has proven a diversion, and the only reason on earth to ever cite Michael Crichton, Norman Mailer, and Susan Sontag in the same sentence. It’s only a small number of polymaths — Marguerite Duras, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Genet among them — whose talents have been evenly spread between cinema and the page (not to mention the stage). The Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky belongs in that company.

Jodorowsky is known primarily as a filmmaker, chiefly for the early 1970s psychedelic masterpieces El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). His latest film, Danza de la Realidad (2013), an adaptation of his autobiography, debuted at Cannes last month and, based on reviews, it’s a vital addition to his canon of film marvels. Yet, from film world coverage of Danza de la Realidad, one might easily get the impression that Jodorowsky has simply been unoccupied since his last film, 1990’s Santa Sangre. Knowledge of his work beyond the cinema remains regrettably thin, even among Jodorowsky’s DVD-box-set-and-bootleg-owning hardcore fans.

In fact, in his 80-plus years, Jodorowsky has had seemingly no idle moments. Born in 1929, he’s been engaged in artistic pursuits in Europe and South America throughout his life. In his early years in Chile, he worked as a mime, clown, and theater director in Santiago. In Paris, he joined Marcel Marceau’s troupe and directed Maurice Chevalier’s music hall comeback. In Mexico City, he founded the Panic Movement with Fernando Arrabal, reviving the spirit of Surrealism with an additional coat of absurdity, and met Ejo Takata, a Buddhist monk who would become his long-term mentor. He also wrote dozens of plays.

It’s difficult to vouch for the comparative consequentiality of most of that voluminous catalog beyond his film work. But if anything comes near meriting such praise, it’s his 30-plus years of graphic novels. Jodorowsky’s catalog ranks as one of the finest in the field, but most of these works were unavailable in English for decades. Now, thanks to the publisher Humanoids, we have a wealth of material to bolster the ever-increasing regard for Jodorowsky’s multimedia body of work.

Jodorowsky’s early films attracted art world attention, but it was with El Topo, often described as an “acid-western,” that vaulted him into the world’s consciousness. The movie attracted fans like John Lennon, who convinced Apple Corps president Allen Klein to distribute the film. Klein served as producer on Jodorowsky’s next film, The Holy Mountain (for which Lennon and Yoko Ono provided financing), a dazzling journey of spiritual discovery. (The trailer states, correctly, that “nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film,” and that it is “outside the tradition of criticism and review.”) Jodorowsky refused to direct Klein’s next desired project, an adaptation of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, and Klein, seemingly out of pure spite, blocked the distribution of El Topo and The Holy Mountain for 40 years.

After Jodorowsky’s falling out with Klein in the mid-70s, he launched into a years-long saga of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune for the screen. Along with Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Orson Welles’s Don Quixote, and Brian Wilson’s Smile, Jodorowsky’s never-realized Dune adaptation ranks high among the pantheon of lost masterworks. (This doomed project was the subject of Frank Pavich’s recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune [2013].) The cast was to have included Orson Welles, Alain Delon, and Charlotte Rampling, as well as Salvador Dalí as the Emperor of the Universe. Pink Floyd and Magma were enlisted to write distinct scores for different planets. Most importantly, Jodorowsky assembled a team of designers unequaled in terms of their future influence: Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, and most importantly, Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius.

The Dune project was ill fated. “After two years of intense work in Paris,” Jodorowsky detailed in his book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (2008), “just when it seemed that Dune was finally about to be completed, the producer abruptly aborted the project.” Yet, as Jodorowsky told Moebius: “Failure does not exist. It is a concept of the mind. Instead let us call this a change of path.” After proposing to Moebius that they recycle their work on Dune for a series of original graphic novels, Jodorowsky was visited by a vision:

I dreamed I was flying in intergalactic space. A cosmic being formed by two superimposed pyramids, one black, the other white, was calling me. I moved toward it and found myself submerged in the center. We exploded. And that’s how my subconscious mind introduced me to “El Incal.”

The Incal series (1981–1989) became Jodorowsky’s first graphic novel masterwork. The director wasn’t entirely new to the comics world; he had been drawing a goofy series called “Fabulas Pánicas” in El Heraldo de México in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jodorowsky’s own drawing style is somewhat rough hewn, yet packed with energy. Moebius, on the other hand, is a master of light and detail, and it is little surprise that Jodorowsky was eager to collaborate. After a brief sortie with a short story entitled “The Eyes of a the Cat” (1978), they embarked upon the first volume of The Incal. An exploration of the science fiction form far beyond both his and Giraud’s earlier efforts, it incorporates ideas from Herbert’s Dune as well as Jodorowsky’s screenplay, and ideas from his boundlessly bizarre imagination poured onto the pages of the French comics anthology Métal Hurlant.

The Incal opens in media res with the protagonist John DiFool seized and tossed off of a balcony into a full-page, endlessly tiered urban abyss described in a caption as “Suicide Alley [...] a direct nonstop fall straight down to the great acid lake, which dissolves everything it touches.” It’s unclear who built the city on top of the acid lake, but it's certainly clear that you wouldn’t want to hit it. Luckily, DiFool is caught by a police cruiser. He’s taken in for questioning, during which we learn that DiFool is a “Class ‘R’ licensed private investigator” who had just been on a mission escorting an “aristo from the uppermost level” on a carnal jaunt to the lower “crimson ring” for a romp with “Wolfhead” — like every society, from the Divine Comedy to Metropolis, the fortunate reside at the top, while bestiality and pits of acid are to be found lower down. Later, a monster dies in front of DiFool in a corridor, handing him a small box as he expires. After opening it, DiFool passes out, and later awakens to his bird Deepo preaching to nearby masses.

Some touches are borrowed directly from Dune: the Empress, a “perfect androgyne”; Aquend, a planet composed entirely of water, with a sea full of poisonous algae and a giant medusa, is Arrakis’s seeming opposite; a “mentrek” who betrayed his former master. For the most part, though, The Incal is sui generis, featuring a series of turns of plot incorporating body harvesting, a “female technopope,” an underground rat army, flying leeches, “necro-panzers,” and far more. There are “homeo-whores” designed from a computer menu — a lubricious step beyond the Venusian cosmetics manufacturer in The Holy Mountain who promises that “a customer can have any face she wants.” The city is a near-panopticonical dystopia, replete with endless filmed violence, and standard programming such as Who Wants to Execute a Rebel?

The Incal isn’t only a parade of thrilling grotesqueries: it also has a spiritual core that, according to observers better informed than I, reflects Jodorowsky’s abiding idiosyncratic Buddhism, though it’s doubtful that this has ever been the primary element of interest for most of the story’s audience. More to the point is Moebius’s deliriously intricate artwork. A carnival of detail, turning only occasionally to large-scale panels, it has won numerous accolades for its renderings of the seedy urban future, forests of glass, undersea plants. Moebius’s work is simply some of the most beautiful not merely in his catalog, but in the comics world at large.

Brian Michael Bendis notes in the introduction that “literally whole sections of this work [. . .] have been lifted whole cloth and put into major motion pictures.” Jodorowsky did, in fact, launch a lawsuit against the director Luc Besson for ripping off The Incal in The Fifth Element. Echoes of The Incal can also be found in the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, the decaying futurity of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, The Matrix, and even depictions of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequel films. (This last, admittedly, can be read as payback of sorts: In The Incal, the “War Star” can “atomize an entire solar system in a matter of seconds.” I’m sure that any resemblance to a certain Death Star is purely coincidental.)

Jodorowsky’s next installment of the Incal series was a prequel, of sorts. Before the Incal, a collaboration with Serbian artist Zoran Janjetov, is a considerably more straightforward noir tale of boundless urban corruption that, in the relative absence of spiritualistic elements, dips deeper into exploring the depraved urban fabric of the world of the Incal. Here we find a young DiFool living in the vile demimonde. His prostitute mother, he soon finds, has devoted herself to growing amorine, a drug that restores the ability to love. His father, Olivier DiFool rapidly runs afoul of the law in wearing a fake halo that is the mark of an aristo. Justice is harsh for such transgressions of class — a legal clause “allows the condemned man to choose between a tablet at the morgue-wall, where he’ll sleep away his thirty-year-and-one-day term,” or “remodeling,” which means having his entire memory wiped. Dad chooses remodeling. DiFool soon begins to explore the mystery of just where all of the children of prostitutes end up, and it soon becomes apparent that plenty are interested in ensuring he doesn’t find out.

The prequel affords an opportunity for a rich exploration of media in this society, a near-constant presence that serves up the city’s constant deaths and massacres for gleeful public consumption, all presided over by Diavaloo, a kind of cosmic Jerry Springer. Addiction to amorine is widespread. “Bio-vitasteaks,” lurid bloody levitating flesh, offer “live steaks the customer has to kill himself.” The president is engaged in repeat body transplants, transitioning from the frame of a decaying dwarf to a wizened academic to an amphibious octopus.

The Incal story continues with The Metabarons series (1992-2003), a further collaboration with Janjetov, which incorporates a genealogy approaching Matthew Chapter 1 in complexity. Jodorowsky’s obsession with fecundity runs riot in a lineage that boasts conjoined twins, a child born of his father’s blood, repeat ritual patricide (a tradition of the titular Metabarons), incest in a variety of forms, a poet’s head grafted onto a warrior’s frame, a man’s brain transplanted into a woman’s body, brain tissue from a corpse rendered into sperm. And those are only the elements related to conception. In this cyborg future seemingly any mutation is possible. The limbs of the Metabarons are repeatedly, intentionally crushed through a gruesome variety of means and replaced with cybernetic limbs. There is no “soft” way to become the galaxy’s greatest warrior. The Metabarons also features a micro hydrogen bomb in place of a heart, an adopted ape, and a “tarantulawolf” employed as a nursemaid. There is a planet whose gravity is so ferocious that creatures must crawl flat. There are 300,000 schizophrenics suffering a cannibalistic fit. At a certain point, trying to maintain a grasp on the details of Jodorowsky’s cosmology is futile; one should simply hang on and enjoy the ride.

Now underway is The Final Incal, currently being completed by artist José Ladrönn and scheduled for publication in early 2014, in which John DiFool recovers his memory (like father like son, but read to find out) as the universe faces a threat of a metallic virus. And in a nice moment of circularity, Drive and Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn has just announced that his next project will be an adaptation of The Incal. After a nearly 40-year roundabout journey, the ideas that Jodorowsky conceived long ago for Dune may finally have a shot at reaching screens again. For a sublime vision, though, you need not look beyond the page.


Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. 

LARB Contributor

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, The Awl, The Millions, and a variety of other publications.


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