I read a lot of bande dessinées as a child. The francophone equivalent of the graphic novel or comic book, it’s most famous international emissaries probably are Tintin (popular enough to have one of its stories’ adapted into film by Steven Spielberg), or perhaphs Asterix et Obélix. Both were a given in my French upbringing, as were Les Schtroumpfs and – this one is a familial particularity – Calvin & Hobbes. As I got a bit older, I turned to Blake & Mortimer, the fantasy series Lanfeust de Troy, and Corto Maltese. I’m not entirely sure how the medium is best reviewed, and have little knowledge of its codes and history, but here’s my first attempt at a critical reading of a bande dessinée anyway: the book compiling all six tomes of the space opera L’Incal.
It was the possibility of reading through an album in as little as half an hour that got me hooked, and then to spend a whole day going through a collection (it’s a bit like binge-watching a TV series). I also greatly appreciated this medium for its re-readability. The more intricately drawn bande dessinées often contain a wealth of small humourous details that I sometimes spotted only on the second, third or even tenth time, making me feel like I was discovering a new aspect of the story. Others could be read on different levels of meaning, so that one album that was meaningful to me when I was young remains exciting, intriguing or funny even now, albeit for different reasons. One of these is Hugo Pratt’s Ballad of the Salt Sea, which remains for me one of the most beautiful, engrossing and touching stories I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It’s the kind of art piece I’m considering getting an expensive edition of. I’d give it a prominent place on my shelf, and take it down once a year to leaf through, in silence, far from coffee and crumbs. It will be forever relevant to me, just like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon – to which I fell asleep many times at 15 –or Once Upon a Time, with that scene of murder at the beginning that each time makes me quiver despite myself, or Adrienne Rich’s collection of poems Dreams of a Common Language, which pulls me in from its title onwards.
Now onto L’Incal, before this introductory tangent gets out of hand. I’d never been properly aware of this series before seeing Jodorowsky’s Dune. Having collaborated on a film that was never shot, the cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky and the comic artist Jean Giraud (aka. Möebius – all good bande dessinée artists have an alias) decided to keep working together. I was curious to find out what that looked like, as well as to get a better sense of what the world might be missing in the absence of their unmade film. I feel like L’Incal was the correct place to start. This attempt to review all six tomes at once is ambitious and will feel far too partial to any fan, but here’s my best shot.
We meet our antihero, John Difool, a mediocre “class R private detective”, just as he is about to be thrown off a bridge overlooking a murky green lake of acid underlying the dystopian pit-city he lives in. We soon learn that masked thugs responsible for this forceful interrogation technique were looking for a mysterious object, the Incal of light, which Difool seems to have inadvertently discovered during an unplanned encounter with a mysterious alien form in the ducts of the city, after escaping an assignment gone awry. I say “seems to” because it is suggested that fate placed the Incal in his path. Either way, he is drawn despite himself into a political and existential crisis of galactic proportions. With this mysterious item in his possession, he becomes the target of all the powers that be: mutants from below the city, the planetary president and his galactic masters, a commando of aliens from another galaxy, and the local “techno-pope”, a sort of scientific leader not unlike what I imagine the Steve Jobs of the next millennium to look like, with all the twisted, paranoid prophetism and ambitions of world domination that entails.
Difool and the Incal of light, which turns out to be a powerful sentient being, are thrown into a series of misadventures against a backdrop of increasing chaos, provoked by many pent-up conflicts released by Difool’s discovery of the Incal and quite literally rising to the surface. Their objective in the first tome is to reunite the Incal of Light with the Incal of Darkness, the Yin to its Yang. By the end of the second tome, Difool is joined by six companions: Deepo the talking concrete parrot, a legendary hitman called the meta-baron and his adoptive son Solune, androgynous child of extraordinary purity and perceptive power, Kill the dog-headed mercenary, and the twin sisters Animah and Tanatah, who hail from the center of their world. With the help by the two Incals, now reunited as one and also serving the function of spaceship, they begin an intergalactic journey. Lasting until the end of the series, it leads them to encounters, among many other things, with hostile garbage-eating mutants, the sun-center of their earth, guarded by sages floating on crystals, flying jellyfish, a hectic galactic council, and the multi-formed queen of the Bergs, aliens which turns out to be a sort of ant species with a hive mind. Their ultimate enemy is The Darkness, a sort of all-encompassing, life-eating evil presence, here again the dual opposite to the reunited Incals, creating another complementarity, another non-Manichean Yin-Yang.
Narratively speaking, the Incal functions as a sort of “act of god”, repeatedly intervening at critical moments to save his reluctant protégé Difool and fellow galactic voyagers, so that we get a sense that the characters are never really in charge of their own destiny, but merely buffeted this way and that, repeatedly nudged back by higher powers to follow a predetermined path. This sense of predetermination is confirmed by the ending, when the Darkness is finally overcome, and the epic mythical struggle between good and evil resolved by the appearance of a god whose power is beyond good and evil. A god in the Greek sense of the word, so large that a full page is barely sufficient to represent its golden Zeus-like head.
The final image of the series echoes the first, bringing Difool full cycle and infusing the whole story with Sisyphean implications, so that to reread it from page one almost seems like reading a different story, that is also the same. I won’t be any more specific than that, because to elaborate would be to spoil it and do you a disservice. In the light of the final image, the question of Difool’s agency comes to the fore. Could he transcend his nature? Can we transcend ours? After all he and we are only human. Are we mere witnesses to events beyond our control, agents of change, or both, and if the latter, what margin of action do we have?
Science-fiction has always been a wonderful medium to explore questions of space, of time, of memory and destiny. By pushing past the boundaries of the known and possible, and imaginatively drawing on new conundrums brought about by existing or predicted technological advancements placing human beings in contact with foreign beings (machines and aliens), foreign parts of themselves, and new places and ways of living, the genre is naturally drawn to existential questions about our place in the universe, human nature and our collective future. I personally find that works of science-fiction are at their most provocative and intriguing when they attempt to answer these questions, rather than when they focus on the science-based practicalities of space travel and survival in the great void. This is why the image of the immortal ‘star child’ at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is so memorable, at least as much as the murderous computer HAL, or why Tarkovsky’s unsettling treatment of memory and grief in Solaris makes it one of the best films ever made. Even the popular Hollywood productions succeed or fail in my eyes based on their treatment of these issues, whether it’s the idea of non-linear time in Arrival (a success, even if it could have been explored further) or the emotional 5th dimension, love, in Interstellar (I’m not so convinced about that one).
With this in mind, what makes L’Incal so fascinating is that it explores and presents a huge variety of ways of being, both individually and socially, and treats both time and space as malleable elements to be played with. This is a story where minds leave bodies to fuse with material objects, where planetary presidents are cloned, mutants form, organs are recycled to create robots. Characters cycle through many states of being, undergoing disintegrations and transmutations, as their spirits split or sync with those of others. The ideal being is androgynous, so that the galaxy is ruled by the fused bodies of a male and female, joined at the back, floating in a transparent egg-shaped shell. Solune, the mentalist child, realizes his full potential when, at the injuction of the Incal, he (she? they?) “becomes his essential being” and “reconstructs his axis” to become the perfect androgynous spirit.
Now don’t get my excited tone wrong, the overall effect of this mish-mash of eastern religion, new-age philosophy and hippie platitudes verges on the intellectually insane. It’s not as ridiculous or infuriating as you could expect though. Firstly because they had to represent visually, giving the words a shape, and often do so successfully. Secondly because the authors have enough self-awareness and self-deprecation not to take themselves too seriously. John Difool, in all his imperfectness, plays an important role in bringing us back to Earth, so to speak. Unlike his companions, who make peace between themselves, eventually to achieve total self-abnegation and sacrifice in the transcendental unity of a common purpose, Difool is only a reluctant participant. He is driven by the baser but more realistic instincts of self-preservation and, let’s put it euphemistically, his reproductive drive, with humourous results (especially in album six: The Difool Planet). The minor characters in this story, the proletarian spectators to this conflict of elites and “perfect beings”, never fail to express confusion or crack mocking jokes at the unfolding madness, as when the galactic androgynous emperor is called a “bi-foetus pickled in its egg like a worm”.
There is also a satirical element to L’Incal, touching on politics, the media and technology. The world we are presented with is deeply dystopian. The planetary president enjoys a life of idle enjoyments in his floating palace, while the mass of commoners literally resides in a pit. Society is vertically organized, with the most fortunate living closest to the surface. The police force is entirely robotized, the media spins recurring riots into a form of mass entertainment, and the politics of the galactic council seem to consist of nothing but sterile debate, insults and traitorous power plays. The techno class is presented as a fascist organization with destructive universe-dominating ambitions. Its leaders, the techno-popes, have entirely surrendered their souls to The Darkness, a fact visually represented by the egg-shaped “psycho-abdomens” floating above their heads: dark symbols of corrupted power. This is a world of inequality, violence and generalised apathy, and John Difool is very much a man of that world. So in a way, the ideals of self-realisation through the achievement of inner peace and peace-making with others, communal living and radical equality, symbolized by the Incal and Solune the sun-moon child, are to be understood as a logical path toward redemption. The redemptive power of their ideals is realized towards the end when the galactic addiction to 3D-TV is instrumentalised to promote a world-saving exercise in spiritual communion through meditation.
Visually speaking, Möebius’ work is highly cinematic, with close-ups, wonky angles, full page spreads, and silent sequences where meaning is derived not from speech bubbles but evocative images. The imagery colouring is intensely psychedelic, with pinks, purples and acid greens, flashes of gold, white and deep black. The drawing style, while broadly consistent, often varies for effect. Certain spreads are heavily detailed, others are simple, geometric. Reading the book a second time, I also realised that I’d read it far too fast, missing out on many small gags inserted in the backgrounds and margins. I must also say that this is a pretty ‘adult’ work, that doesn’t hesitate to represent nudity both sexualized and ‘pure’, and features a good number of violent episodes. I spotted a few visual references to Star Wars, images drawn from the concept book of Jodorowsky’s Dune, and an element that seemed straight out of 2001. Still I have to say I probably missed the majority of references to other works, which leaves me with a good reason to read it a third time.