Review: Before the Incal, by Jodorowsky & Janjetov

8.5/10

Before the Incal (1988-’95) is a prequel to Jodorowsky & Moebius’s famous and stunning graphic novel The Incal, and as always the case with prequels, they are made with the expectation that you already know what happened in the earlier published material. That is the fun of prequels. So don’t jump into your Incal adventure here; save this one for later. But it CAN be read as an entry point if you want to.

This graphic novel explores the life of John DiFool, and the events that lead up to the galaxy-spanning crisis in the Incal. For those who wanted some more exploration of character in the Incal and for those who thought that John was an annoying crybaby, this prequel will be very satisfying and will provide some extra depth to the story. Where The Incal is a mad, even slapdash, rollercoaster of constant escalation of scope and stakes, Before the Incal stays put in the vertical city where the story started and takes its time to fully explore that setting, and follows DiFool’s eventful life as he rises to the level of a lowly R-rated crappy detective. We learn some explanations for his behaviour later on too. 

Let’s say something about the drawings. By this time, Jean Giraud (Moebius) chose to be unavailable for a continuation of Incal comics and moved on to other projects. Jodorowsky was hence forced to look for other graphic artists for his vision and he chose the Serbian artist Zoran Janjetov. Janjetov had been a lifelong fan of Moebius and when he sent his drawings to Jodorowsky, him and the Heavy Metal editors thought that the style looked liked Moebius from an earlier period, less polished perhaps than it later became. This made Jodorowsky decide that Janjetov’s style would be perfectly suited for a story set before the Incal, so that the chronology of the story would go hand in hand with changing artwork.

Janjetov’s linework looks very similar to that of Moebius, but it feels busier. At first he might have tried to copy Moebius but he quickly incorporated some of Moebius’s characteristics into his own, and the result looks natural and beautiful. Especially since this story is set in the shaft city, because he treats us with stunningly detailed vistas of futuristic city scapes. Moebius later came into the studio and taught Janjetov about effective use of colours and pronounced his work a meaningful homage to his own. It deserves to be admired on its own terms.

The story itself is… incredibly dark and dystopian. As we already know, the shaft city is a cyberpunk-biopunk hellhole. It’s literally a hole. An arrogant aristocratic class lives in the upper levels, close to actual sunlight, and it all feels like the Indian caste system where the rich see the lower levels as “untouchables”, nothing more than animals. It is also a merciless satire on consumer culture that caters to our basest desires. This is a world where the president sometimes descends to the lower levels to spray around cocaine to keep everyone happy. Where people buy steaks that live and move for the pleasure of killing them on the plate before eating. And in the midst of all this, there are secret and forbidden religions of love, and orphanages for half-human half-animal hybrids. DiFool wades through all of this crap as a teenager to make a life for himself, and tries to find love in a world where love seems absent.

In some ways I like this even more than The Incal. It has more elements of what I consider interesting storytelling. It has a fuller exploration of setting and character, with a richness of locations and some interesting side characters. I liked seeing how John met his friend Deepo for the first time. The satire is very on the nose, but it is cranked up to such absurdity that it is exploring new territory in the overlap between comedy and tragedy. The ruthlessness and bio-punk craziness are intense and make an impact.

The book still has the weaknesses that every Jodorowsky story have; the man is an old, horny, new-age hippy who cannot write good dialogue to save his life. It’s bawdy but also full of sentimental ideas about true love, and John’s story is full of bland naiveté. The final chapters make a valiant effort to set everything up for the first chapters of The Incal so that there is a seamless continuation between the books, but the effort is so chunky and rushed that the transition is more like a rocky road. Too much is suddenly dragged into the story without explanation, that has nothing to do with what came before.

I would still wholeheartedly recommend this for enthusiasts of the original The Incal. It adds a lot to your overall picture of this world – amazing worldbuilding – and it is a great tale to read with some amazing settings and unusual, over-the-top storytelling.

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