Jodorowskys Dune Documentary Review Essays

Still from El Topo, written, directed, scored, and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky.

 

For more than half a century, Alejandro Jodorowsky has been revered as a master of the surreal—a puppeteer of grotesque fantasy and psychedelic excess. In 1962, he became one of the founders of the Panic Movement in Paris; an avant-garde art collective inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the group staged extremely violent theatrical “happenings”meant to shock and repel. At the 1968 premiere of Jodorowsky’s first feature-length film, Fando y Lis, a riot broke out. The film was later banned in Mexico for its brutal violence and graphic sexual content. He went on to become a cult figure of American counterculture with his films El topo (1970), The Holy Mountain(1973), and later, Santa sangre (1989). A falling out with his financial backer resulted in the former two films being embargoed for nearly three decades.Their recirculation, along with the 2013 release of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Duneand The Dance of Reality—Jodorowsky’s first film after a twenty-three-year hiatus—restored the filmmaker as a figure of mass worship and fascination.

When I encountered Jodorowsky, a wild filmmaker with the mischievous eyes, he seemed more tranquil than I’d expected him to be. I interviewed the now eighty-nine-year-old artist in March of 2015 around the English-language publication of his book Where the Bird Sings Best. The fictionalized autobiography tells the story of his Jewish family’s emigration from Ukraine to Chile and the impact of this history on his own coming-of-age. The book served as the basis for Dance of Reality and his most recent film, Endless Poetry. In both the film and the book, Jodorowsky turns his surrealist wand away from the allegorical figures of his past work toward the members of his own family, spinning them into characters of mythic proportions. They’re over-the-top fairy tales so full of light and sentimentality that they’re almost hard to reconcile with the violent angst of Fando y Lis.

We spoke on Skype in Spanish for more than an hour. I was in New York, he was in Paris. I told him my parents were Soviet Jewish refugees and that questions of inherited memory preoccupy me, too, and we talked of how family stories from our past inform our identity, how we reshape and retell those stories. I worried my questions were too personal—more about his own family history and less about the films that had made him a legend—but he responded ecstatically, his voice often rising to a giddy high-pitched tone, and he laughed constantly.

About an hour into our conversation, Jodorowsky’s wife, Pascale, interrupted to remind him he had to go soon. He asked if there was anything else I needed to know, anything at all. When we ended our conversation, he forgot to hang up the call. I could hear him walk away and exclaim, with childlike joy, “She was a Jew!”I sat and listened to the rustlings of their domesticity. After about ten minutes, they continued into the next room, and I could no longer hear their voices. The house eventually fell silent. 

What follows is a translation of our conversation. 

INTERVIEWER

Your book Where the Bird Sings Best was first published in Spanish in the nineties, is that right?

JODOROWSKY

Yes. It was published during the surge of interest in Latin American folkloric novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and the novels of Vargas Llosa. But because my novel discusses Jewish ancestry, it has no nationality. Nor was it in the vein of magical realism that was popular at the time. I wrote realistic magic. Where the Bird Sings Best wasn’t immediately appreciated, so I put it aside to write other books, like Psychomagic, Metageneologytherapeutic books.

INTERVIEWER

Is this the first time you’ve dealt with explicitly Jewish themes? You’ve used religious iconography in your films, though they come more from Catholicism and other spiritual practices.

JODOROWSKY

Yes. My father hid that he was Jewish. He never signed his full name, Jaime Jodorowsky, just Jaime. He disguised himself as a Russian and never told me that I was Jewish until it became clear to me around the age of thirteen or fourteen, when I started being bullied at school. Chile at that time was split half in favor of the Allies and half in favor of the Nazis. I never had a Jewish education or a Bar Mitzvah, never celebrated the holidays. My father hid all that from me. I always felt an absence of nationality and never had something of my own, a place that belonged to me. So I took it upon myself to write this novel.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a moment that inspired you to explore your Jewishness?

JODOROWSKY

It was part of the process of searching for myself, searching for my identity. My father was an atheist and a Stalinist. He was a businessman who didn’t believe in culture. I didn’t have any kind of metaphysical aspirin, nothing to calm the anxiety of being mortal. I looked for teachers of all kinds, and finally I found a Zen monk—a Japanese monk with whom I meditated for five years. I also discovered I had Jewish origins and began to study Kabbalah and the Torah. If you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you come from. I had to return to all of this to understand why my father was the way he was, why my mother was the way she was, both of them trying to survive in a country that didn’t want them. I decided to confront who I was.

INTERVIEWER

And having confronted your past, having immersed yourself in your practice of Zen, then tarot and psychomagic—were there specific elements of this Jewish religious or cultural history that resonated with you?

JODOROWSKY

Look, when I was four, my father told me I would die someday and that there never was nor ever could be a God. When I began to explore religion, religious Jews seemed extremely intelligent but with a tremendous mystical madness based exclusively in language and in Kabbalah. That I came from a universe of madmen, of men who were mad with God, that’s what drew my attention. When I began to study tarot, I discovered that there are twenty-two Major Arcana cards, like the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Tarot had a lot to do with Kabbalah, with Jewish tradition, but it was a world without the religious insanity.

INTERVIEWER

In the prologue to your book, you write, “While all the characters, places, and events in this book are real, the chronological order has been altered. This reality was further transformed and magnified until it achieved the status of myth. Our family tree is the trap that limits our thoughts, emotions, desires, and material life, but it is also the treasure that captures the greater part of our values. Aside from being a novel, this book may, if it is successful, serve as an example that all readers can follow and, if they exercise forgiveness, they too can transform family memory into heroic legend.” What has transforming family memory into legend given you? What was this process like?

JODOROWSKY

You begin meditating and you see how far you’ve come. You see to what degree you love yourself, to what level you’ve arrived mentally and spiritually. You say to yourself, The best that I’ve achieved, everything I’ve been able to transcend, my ancestors also could have arrived at this level of transcendence because they, too, were human beings, but they didn’t get there. It’s all a long story of couples searching for one another, searching for love, searching for security, searching for peace, searching for self-actualization and not finding it. So I have to give all the characters in my family tree the same spiritual level that I myself have been able to attain. For example, in the book, Teresa, my paternal grandmother who became fed up with God, ends up falling in love with an ape-man. She discovers the wonder of falling in love. I give her the love that she never actually had. I free her from this Jewish tradition and I put her in another one—in an encounter with a more animalistic reality.I give my family members what they never had. I meditate on what it was exactly that they could have achieved and never did, and I give it to them. I imagine it. The imagining functions as a cure. This artistic process changed my life because I discovered my world. My world has a foundation now. I don’t hide being Jewish anymore. I’m not ashamed to talk about it now. And yet from the age of thirteen or fifteen, until about forty years later, I never talked about it. It’s a very powerful neurosis—to not know where one came from and not love what one was. The family tree is what one was. It’s important to recognize it head-on and love it.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a difference between using your imagination to fill in your family history and using it in your films, where you’re supposedly dealing with fictitious characters?

JODOROWSKY

Each art has its own rules and different forms, nothing more. All art consists of the same content—a human being expressing himself. The difference is only in the form, the content is all the same. All of my work consists of works of initiation. It’s the complete opposite of Shakespeare.

INTERVIEWER

How do you mean?

JODOROWSKY

Take Hamlet, for example. Hamlet doesn’t change, and at the end, he dies like an idiot. Don Quixote de la Mancha continues being Don Quixote until the end of the book. In these books, there’s no development in the characters, no spiritual development. What’s the point of all these classics if a person cannot change? The universe is changing, the universe is expanding. Everything is constantly changing. So when a human being remains unchanged, like a rock, clinging to what he or she is throughout an entire lifetime, it’s a tragedy. A human being has to be fluid, changing, expanding, developing, and at any given moment, has to ask, Why am I suffering? Why does this bother me? Why am I searching for something? Why do I hate such and such thing? Why can’t I forgive and why can’t I liberate myself from this? All of my work is that, it’s the development of a character who slowly but surely expands, self-actualizes, and reaches a higher spiritual level. My characters obtain wisdom. To arrive at such wisdom is to arrive at the joy of living.

INTERVIEWER

Would you agree that the journey toward self-actualization in your work is almost always connected with one’s parents? The son in El topo has to bury the photo of his mother before he can become a man. Fando, in Fando y Lis, also has to bury his mother.

JODOROWSKY

Your question makes me laugh. We are born from a father and a mother—your life is formed by a father who has intercourse with your mother, and you’re born. Life wants to reproduce itself. Life has, I think, two major motivating principles. One is material and the other spiritual. The material motive is to reproduce, to be immortal. To live as long as the universe by reproducing. And the other motive is to create consciousness. We reproduce in order to create a consciousness. Our mind is a wonder. It’s something miraculous, incredible.

INTERVIEWER

Your work often raises the question of what differentiates humans from animals. Why does that interest you?

JODOROWSKY

Humans are animals! Our body is animal. How could animals not be present? But art needs contrasts in order to exist. It requires conflict. Violence exists in my art as part of a process that later produces peace, actualization. Bad art uses violence solely for the sake of distracting the viewer or the reader, which is to say it enacts a violence that gives pleasure. Heroes with pistols in hand, kicking one another, robbing, murdering, raping—this isn’t sacred violence. Even in the Bible, there are scenes that include daughters who sleep with their fathers in order to become impregnated, brothers who kill one another, et cetera. There are terrible things in the Bible, but they’re necessary in order to provide a contrast. If there isn’t contrast, there isn’t creation.

INTERVIEWER

Has your view of the animalistic aspect of human beings, our ability to do physical harm to one another, changed over time?

JODOROWSKY

I think animals are wonderful! I couldn’t live without a cat. My cat is a wonder. I love animals. So the animalistic human, the human as animal, is not an aggressive beast—it’s something wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Can you pinpoint a particular reason for taking this long to stop creating stories based on archetypes of sons and parents and finally start dealing with your parents and your own story?

JODOROWSKY

I waited until I could forgive them. It took me a long time to forgive them. If your parents haven’t fulfilled what they were supposed to, you have a right not to love them, not to see them. You have the right to free yourself and have your own life. But even if you live your own life, all of this will remain inside of you. You have to come to terms with what you carry inside of you, make it yours, absorb it. In the film I’m making right now, I thank my father for all that he gave me. Everything he gave me is everything he didn’t give me. Thanks to him, I was able to discover mysticism, because my father never gave me that. I was able to discover humanity, because my father never gave me humaneness. Thanks to my mother who didn’t know how to love me, I finally discovered how to love a woman. It took me seventy years to find the love of my life! If I am born into this body, I have to self-actualize. It has taken me awhile, but I’m getting there. Look, I’m eighty-six years old and only recently was able to make a film where my father transforms into a hero at the end.

INTERVIEWER

And how does that come about?

JODOROWSKY

Because I forgive him over time, I show him how to become a hero. It’s an artistic creation, a very important one for me. And for everyone. Because who doesn’t have problems with their parents?

INTERVIEWER

(Laughter)

JODOROWSKY

Who doesn’t have them?

INTERVIEWER

(Laughter) It’s true. Having created a work of art out of all of this, does it feel like you’ve reached an end goal, or was this just another part of the healing process?

JODOROWSKY

Look, I was born an artist. I have an imagination, I can do any kind of art. That was my calling. For better or worse, I am an artist. So I create art. The bird sings, but no one teaches it to sing. I make art because it is essential for me.

INTERVIEWER

What was your trajectory as an artist before the publication of this book in English and the release of your two most recent films?

JODOROWSKY

I suffered and I suffered. For my father, all artists were pansies. He was a businessman who taught me two things—God doesn’t exist and “buy cheap, sell high.” So I told myself, I’m going to buy high, sell cheap. At around seventeen, I sat down behind an old typewriter and wrote a poem. I immediately became encircled by friends, I became the new Rimbaud. Then I studied Expressionist dance, then puppetry, marionettes, and theater. I discovered I wanted to do pantomime. At twenty-three, I had a large theater company in Chile. Then I went to Paris. In Paris, I studied and wrote pantomimes for Marcel Marceau. I directed Maurice Chevalier. I joined the Surrealists. I studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. I did whatever I wanted. Always creating, moving forward and creating. Then I created the Panic Movement and performed the “happening.” In Mexico, I revolutionized the theater, directing more than a hundred plays in ten years. And that’s that. I’ve done a lot. I make comics, too.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to theater?

JODOROWSKY

Theater is heroic. It disappears. You put on a play and it disappears. Nothing remains. You work while the ecstasy lasts and when it ends, it’s over. It doesn’t enter into history. Only the memory remains for the few people who saw it, nothing more.

INTERVIEWER

How does film compare?

JODOROWSKY

Theater is an urban ritual. Film is a global ritual. Theater is a momentary ritual in the present. Film lasts for a long time. It persists, leaves a trace. Theater happens for a city. Film happens for the planet. The world of theater is limited because of live actors. But film has everything. It’s the most complete form of art that exists.

INTERVIEWER

But they’re both dreams. It’s all artifice, and we all know it.

JODOROWSKY

It’s art! Of course, theater is flesh and bone. And film is light, all light.

INTERVIEWER

In your film Dance of Reality, you chose not to hide the artifice. The actress who plays your mother is clearly wearing a wig, there’s dubbing when she sings—

JODOROWSKY

All art asks, What is art? And “What is film?” is the theme of all film. I don’t want to drive the viewer crazy trying to convince him that this is reality. The viewer isn’t watching a reality, he or she is watching a film. Film is unreal. But within that unreality—it’s like a sculpture. You don’t paint a sculpture the color of flesh, you don’t make it breathe artificially. That’s what realist film does. It’s a plaster sculpture, painted the color of flesh, with artificial breathing. My film is something else.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you have a greater ability to control details when you are directing a movie as opposed to when you are writing?

JODOROWSKY

You have a menu of expression in film. But now it’s a more limited menu because it’s so expensive. When you create an image, you have to think about how much it costs—that’s the main limitation in film. You’re forced to become a businessman.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t think the director has that much freedom.

JODOROWSKY

I have freedom as a director because I make cine de autor. But now there are very few filmmakers of that kind because you don’t make any money. Film today is a business. It’s industrialized.

INTERVIEWER

Endless Poetry is a continuation of Dance of Reality, and we see members of your own family once again playing various roles of other members of your family, yes?

JODOROWSKY

We move from Tocopilla to Santiago. My father had a store in a working-class neighborhood. The film tells the story of how I got out of there, how I wrote my first poem, and how thanks to that poem, I got out of this commercial environment. I lived in front of the train line. Every Saturday, a drunk worker was killed by the train while crossing the tracks. So I wanted to tell the story of how I gradually found myself surrounded by artists, poets, and how I was freed by art.

INTERVIEWER

What is it like seeing your son play the role of your father?

JODOROWSKY

It was very interesting for him and for me. I try to avoid using movie stars in my films—I try to use people who are not actors so it’s more realistic. In this film, there is a character who is an old, eighty-five-year-old artist who has a platonic love affair, and I got the great Nobel-nominated, Syrian poet Adonis to play the part. I want the artist that I portray to be a real poet, a real artist. I’m looking for reality through film. I have a tarot reader who dances tarot, so I cast the famous dancer Carolyn Carson. I don’t like movie stars because they always play the same part. I want viewers to be watching performers who actually are what they are in real life.

INTERVIEWER

You want to depict something more than pure ego.

JODOROWSKY

Exactly, more than ego. I’m not interested in showing someone’s ego on screen.

INTERVIEWER

Has the weight of memory, of your family’s past, become lighter for you now that you’ve made it into art?

JODOROWSKY

It has become something wonderful. The artist transforms into his own artwork. And in the process your perception changes, your relationships—

INTERVIEWER

You feel liberated.

JODOROWSKY

I see it in my dreams. I used to have tremendous dreams, with monsters and stuff, nightmares. Now I have the most delightful dreams. They teach me things. I create art, learn, read tarot. I enjoy myself. My dead come back to visit me, I speak with them. Your inner life becomes so pleasant when you’ve worked on yourself. It’s a long process, but it’s so worth it. You begin discovering sublime feelings—love, generosity. You discover compassion, humanity. All of this exists, but we believe it doesn’t exist. And slowly over time you start to discover it. To the point that I can’t eat chicken anymore! When a plate of chicken arrives on the table, I feel bad for the chicken. 

INTERVIEWER

You feel yourself one with all beings—animals, humans …

JODOROWSKY

Yes! The poor little animals we eat make me feel bad. And Pascale, my wife, is much younger than I am. She’s in good health and she’s a carnivore. So we have two menus! She eats steak and I eat rice!

INTERVIEWER

But you’re happy.

JODOROWSKY

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I want to live as fully as possible. In the morning, I wake up and I say to myself, How wonderful! One more day.Whatever will be will be, but it’s a wonder to be alive. It’s wonderful to grow old on the outside but not on the inside. It’s wonderful! It’s incredible to be alive. I’m going to try to live as long as possible.

INTERVIEWER

That’s fantastic. And maybe you’ll give us more works of art to enjoy?

JODOROWSKY

Whatever is possible! Whatever’s possible, I intend to do it. Your questions were very pleasant.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps we didn’t speak enough about your career.

JODOROWSKY

People want to talk about life, not always the same thing over and over.

INTERVIEWER

You mean you’ve had enough talk of your films?

JODOROWSKY

Too much. I’m tired of all that now.

 

Elianna Kan is an editor, translator, and literary agent who lives in New York and Mexico City. She teaches literary translation at Columbia University. 




AUGUST 26, 2013

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’sDune [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.

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Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. 


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