The Incal Classic Collection
written by Alexandro Jodorowsky
illustrated by Moebius
Reviewing such an esteemed book as The Incal, a work of art most contemporary writers and illustrators hold in such high regard, is a somewhat daunting challenge. It is a difficult text to approach without acknowledging the prejudices of time and evolving storytelling conventions. Furthermore, as such an influential text, ignoring the testimonies of not only various comics industry professionals but also luminaries of cinema and science fiction literature as not to cloud or influence one's own interpretation is also perplexing. Attempting to contextualize the work within the period of its creation or within Jodorowsky's own canon is one analytical tool some first time readers may choose to pursue.
The Incal is the offspring of a seven-year collaboration by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius between 1981 and 1988. Originally released in French by Les Humanoïdes Associés, the 2011 collection includes all six Une Aventure de John DiFool stories--L'Incal Noir (The Black Incal), L'Incal Lumière (The Luminous Incal), Ce Qui Est En Bas (What Lies Beneath), Ce Qui Est En Haut (What Is Above), La Cinquième Essence: Galaxie Qui Songe (The Fifth Essence Part One: The Dreaming Galaxy), and La Cinquième Essence: La Planète DiFool (The Fifth Essence Part Two: Planet DiFool). Additionally, the edition also restores the colors by Yves Chaland on The Black Incal, Isabelle Beaumeney-Joannet on The Luminous Incal, What Lies Beneath, and What Is Above, and Zoran Janjetov on the remaining two titles.
In terms of story, the first chapter of The Incal is potentially the most entertaining for its originality and humor. Jodorowsky wastes little time delving directly into the story with little explanation or prologue as a low-level private detective, John DiFool is suddenly cast to his death by a gang of mysterious men. It is only after a few pages of high adrenaline, fast-paced action that DiFool explains the origins of his predicament to both police agents and a homeo-whore he has purchased. The greatest revelation among the tales of debauched sex acts between Kill Wolfhead and Nimbea Supra Qinq or the 800-pound charging beasts within the city sewer systems is DiFool's discovery of the Incal, a cigarette-lighter-sized device that immediately casts him a transformative light. To say that strange happenings and bizarre occurrences follow would be a gross understatement as DiFool's pet, a concrete seagull named Deppo, ingests the Incal and gains the ability to speak and is revered as a prophet, an invading army of bird people known as the Berg Empire arrives to capture the Incal, and DiFool is taken captive by the Supreme Highness, who also seeks the Incal. Characters enter and exit the stage with the same fluidity and pacing as Jodorowsky's story unfolds.
While Jodorowsky builds ample suspense at the unknown nature of the Incal with these recurring incidents, the story itself moves so quickly that little attention or time is given to developing a narrative foundation. As a result, some audiences may feel The Incal is little more than a graphic novel that jumps from adventure to adventure with little to no connective tissue linking the disparate installments together. Part of the problem is the absence of character and plot development beyond very brief, surface-only explorations. The grand scale and epic nature of Jodorowsky's script, however, leaves little room for such breaths and instead relies upon the emotive power of Moebius' illustrations to reinforce any narrative weaknesses.
From the first four-paneled page of "Night at the Red Ring," Moebius' visuals are more than a contribution to Jodorowsky's story—they are the story. The collaboration between Moebius and colorist Yves Chaland is simply brilliant and calls to mind the iconic work of Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant on All Star Superman. The economy of Moebius' line art is one of his greatest features throughout The Incal, but perhaps best displayed and conveyed by Chaland's hues and palette that do not overwhelm the ink work. Unlike the contemporary tendency towards more photo-realism in comic art, Moebius, like Alex Toth, not only possesses amazing storytelling skills through his illustrations and a great sense of and appreciation for design and the layouts of the pages, but also a simplicity in his line. Even in the most chaotic and populated sequences, Moebius does not waste his line and instead gives life to the most mundane, background feature or figure in a panel. Yet, even in intense, close-up profiles or focused shots, the potency remains vivid. His mastery of panoramic scale and dimension either in a full-page spread or in the smallest, landscape oriented panel will envelop and overwhelm audiences. In not trying to do so much, his lines evoke a greater sense of power and humanity.
There is a certain unyielding nature to The Incal in its progression and unveiling that at times can be distracting. While some audiences may fault Jodorowsky for lacking an attention to character detail and development beyond mere genre tropes, and instead having his players move rapidly from one universal threat to the next, the pacing and beauty of the story rest more on Moebius here than perhaps other partnerships they have shared. As a conceptual work of graphic literature, The Incal succeeds on a grandiose, universal level. It is a cinematic comic story before cinematic comics existedbecause of its sheer scope. One result of this approach is a litany of forgetful characters beyond a select few acting in memorable sequences. Another outcome is a tour de force assault on the visual senses by Moebius that more than compensates for the story lapses. In fact, while the specific identity or motivations of the various parade of characters may seem lacking, Moebius' superb designs burn them into the readers' collective imaginations, making The Incal a surprising and stimulating experience to behold.