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The Incal cover

The recent passing of French comics artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud, much like his induction into the science fiction hall of fame last year, was a painful reminder of just how little of his work is available for today's readers in the English-speaking world. Though Giraud has contributed designs for a handful of famous film and video game projects, absorbing his work through these projects doesn't even begin to reflect the huge impact that classic graphic stories like The Airtight Garage (1976-1980), Arzach (1975), and The Long Tomorrow (1976) had on the careers of almost every significant science fiction filmmaker of the last thirty years—George Lucas, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Hayao Miyazaki, Luc Besson, and the Wachowski brothers, to name but a few. William Gibson has also famously referred to Giraud's futuristic artwork as a key influence on Neuromancer. Indeed, one of the greatest delights in reading the new edition of Giraud's epic series The Incal—recently collected in a single volume by UK publisher Self Made Hero—is that it reveals the huge debt that many iconic genre visual works have owed to it since its original publication between 1981 and 1988.

The Incal is a collaboration between Giraud and avant garde film director Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the early 1970s, Giraud was part of large team of talented illustrators recruited by Jodorowsky in a failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune into a feature film. Though the production never progressed to actual filming, Giraud continued collaborating with other members of the team on different projects (notably Ridley Scott's Alien), and in 1981 he began publishing The Incal, based on a script by Jodorowsky.

The Incal opens with the protagonist, hapless private detective John Difool, falling all the way down from the top of a futuristic skyscraper, in a popular spot known as "Suicide Alley." But Difool's unfortunate fall isn't the result of his wish to end his life—he was thrown there by a group of mysterious masked figures. After being rescued by the police, it is revealed that Difool has accidentally came across a mysterious object known as the Incal, which the powerful, warring political factions in the galaxy are after. He is dragged against his will into an epic, dangerous journey across many exotic locations, in the course of which he gets into fights, has sex with beautiful women, and finds himself responsible for the fate of all mankind, when all he wants is to return to the (relative) peace and quiet of his house in the slums.

While maintaining an almost breathless pace in taking its protagonist across the universe in a space opera adventure, Jodorowsky and Giraud's story never stops mocking its own genre. It is a Flash Gordon-style fantasy with a protagonist who is the biggest antithesis to Flash Gordon one can imagine: hideously ugly, physically and mentally weak, selfish and self-centered, and above all, a person who rarely takes action, but mostly stumbles into situations, sometimes saving the universe by accident, other times pushing it a little closer to its doom. This essentially turns the plot of The Incal into little more than series of deus ex machinas, as Difool is simply thrown from one scene to the next. At their worst, these scenes make the story feel aimless; at their best, they make the reader wonder what kind of an absurd mess Difool is in for now. The series's climactic episode, in which the protagonist must face the consequences of his spineless nature throughout the plot, is a particularly brilliant peak, both narratively and artistically.

Giraud's art is the main reason to read The Incal. His talent for worldbuilding is the first thing that strikes readers—the opening chapters, in particular, take them from the top of skyscrapers in the futuristic metropolis Difool lives in, surrounded by flying cars, to the depths of its slums and deep into the core of the planet, as the plot switches modes between a hard-boiled detective mystery and Burroughs-esque adventure. As the story moves into space, other bizarre locations are revealed: underwater dwellings, strange monuments in the middle of a desert, spaceships and space stations of impossible geometric design.

The characters that populate Giraud's worlds are similarly imaginative: humanoid androids alongside ghoulish aliens, anthropomorphic animals and giant insects, and above all, terribly deformed humans. Ugliness is a recurring visual theme throughout the series and Giraud's work in general: the unattractive façade of some characters (usually the males) reflects their unpleasant nature, while the beautiful appearance of other characters (usually the females) is merely a cover for the same kind of nature that is just waiting to be revealed. Needless to say, Giraud was not a great believer in the human race, and much like the story of the series's protagonist, his art makes the reader wonder if humanity is really worth saving.

It's hard not to read The Incal without being impressed with the huge influence Giraud had on popular science fiction iconography. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner comes to mind when reading the series's early chapters, with their portrayal of a futuristic, dirty urban environment and a rather bleak view of human society (the visuals of The Incal expanded, in this respect, on the vision presented by Giraud's earlier work, The Long Tomorrow), but Scott abandoned the more satirical undertones of Giraud's work. Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, on which Giraud worked as a designer, echoes strongly in the series's later chapters, which feature voyages across the universe in an attempt to save a colorfully decadent humanity—though Besson completely ignored Giraud's pessimistic view of the human race in favor of romantic optimism. There are other props and settings throughout The Incal that will remind genre fans of later works: the galactic parliament that just can't reach a decision is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, while a single-eyed giant robot that chases Difool will remind anime fans of the robots in Hayao Miyazaki's steampunk epic Castle in the Sky. The fact that so many key genre filmmakers have been influenced by Giraud's visions, even if they didn't necessarily share his view of the future, is a testament to his enormous talent.

Self Made Hero's new hardcover edition of The Incal is excellent in every respect—the English translation flows naturally, and the books printed on glossy pages that make the colorful visuals a feast for the eyes (though the volume's credits page claims that the series original coloring was "completely restored and corrected in some minor cases," I believe older English editions had a somewhat paler look—but the sharper colors of the current edition actually serve the series much better). The only disappointment is that no foreword or afterword was included to discuss Giraud's contribution to the world of comics and science fiction. I only hope that more new English editions of Giraud's works are on the way.

When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Raz Greenberg divides his time between working as a content editor, lecturing on comics and animation in several academic institutes, writing reviews and articles for a variety of publications (Strange Horizons, Tablet Magazine, and All the Anime, among others), and writing fiction. He muses about overlooked genre classics at the Space Oddities Facebook page.
One comment on “The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius”

If you follow Giraud's work into the late '80s and beyond -- well past The Incal -- you will find a lot of undisguised beauty and unironic hope in his depictions of humanity. I don't think he was a very cynical or misanthropic guy in the end, despite the darkness of his Heavy Metal-era work.
It should also be noted that he was illustrating Jodorowsky's story, and that facial features as a reflection of a character's "inner nature" is a common motif in Jodorowsky's comics and films. Much like Moebius, Jodorowsky has also moved away from misanthropy and pessimism in his later years, though his stories often touch on the darker aspects of humanity.

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