Review: The Incal by Jodorowsky & Moebius


The Incal is a graphic novel that you can find on many top lists of greatest graphic novels ever written, and not rarely occupying a top spot. It is not well known in the US, but a work of legendary status in the French-Belgian comic tradition. There is a story surrounding this novel, a history of creators and influences, that I find fascinating.

The driving force behind this was the charismatic but loony Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. After directing a couple of surrealist, avant-garde films, such as The Holy Mountain (1973), he got it into his mind to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) for the big screen. His Dune project turned into a megalomaniacal endeavour and would star Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, his own son as Paul Atreides and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. They were all on board with this. For concept art, Jodorowsky wooed Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and the French artist Jean Giraud to add their work. The complete story can be seen in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). 

Eventually the whole project crashed and burned because Jodorowsky delivered a screenplay the size of a phone book that detailed a 14-hour film, and no American producer would ever agree to that (and rightly so). The rights were resold for the later film by David Lynch. But it was not all for nothing. Most of the material created for the film was repurposed for other projects. H.R. Giger’s artwork for instance was reused for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). 

Jodorowsky kept working with Jean Giraud, who was better known as the cartoonist Moebius and famous for his Blueberry series. Moebius and Jodorowsky pulled all the concept art together that they had created for the Dune film and decided to write their own space opera based on the material, and that would become The Incal. In some circles, The Incal might as well rival Dune for its impact on film and art and its great story. Many comic artists have emulated the work. The praise for it is high. Various reviewers mentioned its impact on the visuals of movies like Akira, Blade Runner, The Matrix, the Star Wars prequels and director Luc Besson was even dragged into a lawsuit over plagiarism for his film The Fifth Element, although Moebius cooperated with him on the film so some similarities might have been expected.

Let’s get into the story and the artwork.

This story is insane. Absolutely insane, like The Fifth Element combined with some avant-garde surrealist infusion of Buddhism and Carl Jung. It follows the lowly class-R licensed detective John DiFool (yes) who accidentally gains possession of the most sought-after object in the universe, the Incal. From that moment on starts an insane escalation. Every few pages, something utterly bizarre happens that raises the stakes again and again and the book keeps this up for about 300 pages at a breathlessly high pace. There is no restraint to it.

I’m not going to go over it because you have to experience the ride for yourself. I can mention some elements, and I can say that I have never seen so much invention squeezed into 300 pages and it is all very original, even with it having been copied so often. The world, the story, has dystopian future cities, genetic manipulation, strange techno-priest classes, aliens, prophets, orcs, true love, decadent nobles, a super assassin, the threat of the end of the universe, mad max like guerrilla groups, war, rebels, deep history, gladiators, futuristic drugs, messiah figures, transfigurations of consciousness and matter… what doesn’t it have? I am still scratching the surface here, I really am. It has a concrete seagull named Deepo.

The influence of Dune is still visible in some parts, but overall it is very different. Most of the story is about competing groups of people, organisations and species that have their own agendas. There are metaphysical elements to it as well. Some imagery from Lynch’s Dune film can be traced back to panels here. The details of the universe are very different from Dune and the characters as well.

It’s very satirical. There’s lots of commentary on mass consumption of entertainment. The corruption and waste of civilisation. Science and technology are not seen in a very positive light and are juxtaposed to love, spirituality and grounded ways of living.

The story has enormous re-readability because it is just such a wild ride. The drawback is that the high pace sacrifices character development and the immersive exploration of the world. There is so much running around that we never really get to know the characters well or understand what it is like to live in John’s world. On top of that, Jodorowsky cannot for the life of him write good dialogue. You’ll see his characters say things like “Aargh! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to suffer!” “Oh no! The cosmic horror!” This turns the characters into clownish or one-note caricatures. Especially the female characters are badly written, just stereotypes of evil hags or perfect angels. Jodorowsky and Moebius were old horny men with outdated sensibilities and heads filled with new age hippy crap. I still like it, though.

The artwork by Moebius is perfect. It looks much simpler than it is. The linework and deliberate lack of shadows makes the art look almost simplistic, but he always has the perfect perspective and perfect frame composition. His drawings and panels are very dynamic and work wonders to draw you into the story; really visual storytelling at its best. The coloring is understated, but the controlled nature of it makes the panels appealing and inviting.

The Incal spawned a small galaxy of related work, often named the “Jodoverse”. The prequel Before the Incal is almost as good as the original, and Final Incal and the Metabarons series I have heard great things about, although I haven’t read them. If you’ve read The Incal but you’re looking for more character development for John Difool and a deeper satirical dive into the society he lives in, then Before The Incal will give you that, but don’t start that prequel before reading The Incal first.

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22 Responses to Review: The Incal by Jodorowsky & Moebius

  1. Andreas says:

    Moebius 😍
    Thanks for bringing this up, I‘ve just ordered that beast!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Mmm, I need to read this too. I’ve been aware of it for years, but your review seals the deal.

    I’ve read The Metabarons in my early twenties, loved it back then, but I guess that’s more brutal/violent/sexual/gothic. Also the final volumes are a bit less in quality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard the Metabarons described as swimming in a pool of elephant testosterone. I think after The Incal and Before the Incal, that was enough. I might review Before the Incal as well at some point. It was quite good.


      • bormgans says:

        Metabarons seems like an action spin-off, testosteron indeee. but the world building and the ideas are cool. From what I can gather it is very different from Incal, so in that sense it has every right to be. I would most definitely check out the first couple of books if you are an Jodorowski fan. They are thin, I think the total series is easily under 300 pages.

        Liked by 2 people

        • There is an omnibus edition of the metabarons, that would be better value for money. Maybe one day… I went through a comics phase a year ago and read the Incal, many Asterix and the Donjon series by Lewis Trondheim. This review today is a sort of belated follow up of those few months of comics.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Wakizashi says:

    I need to read this. I’ve heard about it before, and your review really sells it! I also want to see that Dune documentary but it’s difficult to find it in Japan.

    Liked by 2 people

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  7. bormgans says:

    I’ve just read this. I’m afraid it was a total letdown for me. I nearly DNFed. While there is indeed some truly great & imaginative scenography in this book, it didn’t redeem the juvenile and at times pompous story, a story that never has any urgency because of its randomness, a randomness which made it hard for me to connect and invest in any of the characters. On top of that, I felt the dialogue & prose to be artificial & lifeless.

    Our tastes often align, but sadly this time they are at polar opposites. I really wanted to like this, and I did love the Metabarons, so it’s my loss. Either way, thanks for your review, even if it wasn’t a success, I am still glad I finally read The Incal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awww too bad. I liked the Incal much more than the Metabarons, which I thought was preposterous. I liked the crazy ideas and escalation of stakes.

      And I fully agree with you on how juvenile and pompous it is, and how bad the dialogue is. I guess I have a higher tolerance for it. But it is what to expect from Jodorowsky, and Metabarons is no different in that regard in my eyes. Funny how that one worked better for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        I have to say I read Metabarons over 20 years ago, in my early 20ies, and now I’m dreading to reread them. But from what I remember the story was more focused – even though I do remember pompousness as well.


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  11. Bobby Brown says:

    What a problem this book was for me to read! After I bought a used copy, every panel was impossible to read & more complicated then a yellow-phone book from the 70’s! But then, in a whim, I flipped over the Omnibus collection. It read,

    “(x) years after the original release, (some company) has decided to show The Incal in black & White so you can appreciate Jene’s line-work!”

    What kind of a psycho would take out the color?! Be on the lookout in case the copy you’re eyeing is the black & white one: the establishing shot on the second page with John Difool falling is practically unreadable, which really sucks.

    Liked by 1 person

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