By Bob Clark
In the annals of fabled failed film projects, few offer as tantalizing a glimpse into the imagined graces of what might’ve been than that of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a movie whose hypothetical qualities have been gossiped and salivated over by fans of the director’s uniquely surreal and mystical qualities ever since his name was first attached to the project back in the 70’s, and long since after he was unceremoniously subtracted from it. Though a film would eventually come to fruition under the aegis of Dino de Laurientis and David Lynch, and another version besides produced for the Sci-Fi Channel whose proudest boasts would appear to be snagging William Hurt for the role of Duke Leto Atreides and hiring Vittorio Storaro as DP under a no-name director, for ages the Jodorowsky production has been vaunted by cinephiles and genre fans alike, all of them aching for a more striking and ambitious adaptation of the classic novel. In one sense, however, those same fans of film and Frank Herbert’s literature alike probably ought to be grateful that the idiosynchratic director’s vision of Dune never even came close to reaching the screen, for no other reason than if it did, it likely wouldn’t have borne much resemblance at all to the story of Dune as we know it, in the first place. For proof positive of what we might’ve gotten instead, one need only take a look at the graphic novel written by Jodorowsky himself and illustrated by the comics-maestro Moebius– The Incal.
Originally published in the pages of Metal Hurlant magazine between the years of 1981 and ’88, the series was largely borne as a result of the creative synergies brought together on Jodorowsky’s initial Dune film project, and one of several highly influential pieces of sci-fi to result from the creative team he assembled to help him visualize his transcendental take on Herbert’s mythic book. It’s widely known among genre fans how core members of his design and effects team like Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger would later wind up revisiting the material they dreamed up for Dune for the more mainstream-horror gambits of Alien, by Ridley Scott (another name that was attached to the Dune enterprise, not long after Jodorowsky left). It’s also well established how Jodorowsky hired Jean Giraud to act as the main designer and storyboard artist for the project, well after he’d made a name for himself in comics for spaghetti-western stories like the Blueberry series, yet before he’d truly made a pen-name for himself in the form of his sci-fi moniker, “Moebius”. Together, the designs and storyboards they created speak as much to Moebius’ inestimable talent with visual craft as they do to how bugnuts crazy Jodorowsky must’ve been if he thought he could possibly get his version of Dune off the ground.
Nearly every element in his vision of the story seems at least somewhat at odds with the textures of Herbert’s book, no matter how extravagantly impressive they may seem on their own as a kind of El Topo-esque surrealism in space– a Paul “Muad’dib” Atreides conceived not by human seed but by a drop of his father’s blood into his Bene Gesserit mother, the director’s version of Duke Leto being impotent after a castration suffered in the midst of a ritualistic bull-fight on Caladan; the Emperor Shaddam IV changed from a scheming puppet of the Spicing Guilds and other factions into a raving, narcissistic lunatic on a planet made of gold to be played by Salvador Dali (and at a rate that would’ve bankrupted the production in about a week); the villainous Baron Harkonnen flopping about naked on a Giger-designed planet whose every edifice would be part of a massive self portrait of the corpulent Baron himself; and so forth. Even if Jodorowksy managed to convince a studio to fully greenlight his production (he’d already gained the better part of a film’s budget for the pre-production team alone), it was unlikely he’d do anything but alienate audiences, especially with his projected 9 to 12 hour running time. Especially considering the fact that at the time there wasn’t a huge market for epic science-fiction in the mainstream outside of occasional art-experiments like Kubrick’s 2001, and especially none with the oddball combination of adventurous space-opera and quasi-Kabbalistic surrealism at the heart of his mysticism-oriented pitch, it’s indeed hard to imagine what kind of audience there would’ve been for the production. Fans of the Herbert novels, perhaps, although they would likely be put off by the rather liberal ties the director sought for his project.
During his time on the creative team for Dune, Moebius had been slowly returning to science-fiction as a founding member of the Metal Hurlant magazine, where he would go to create innovative and evocative pieces like the wordless Arzach stories and The Airtight Garage. Teaming up with fellow Dune comrade Dan O’Bannon, he created one of the singular pieces of cyberpunk literature with the story The Long Tomorrow, which inspired no less than George Lucas in the design for the Imperial Probe Droid and Ridley Scott, in his entire visual conception for Blade Runner. In those strips, you can see the beginning touches of the artist’s vision for a hyper-advanced, long-decaying and strangely opulent future, where every canyon of towering buildings masks a thousand and one technological and futuristic dangers, each one more perverse and ornately beautiful than the last. Though their vision of a future dominated by ubiquitous city-complexes is one that’s at least partly indebted to the futurist eyes of previous generations of science-fiction art and movies, the most obvious of which would be Lang’s Metropolis, the particular look that Moebius and O’Bannon put together during their time on Jodorowsky’s Dune is one that has gone on to influence generations of sci-fi in all mediums since then. Ridley Scott’s grimy noir-infused take on Phillip K. Dick and even his collaboration with O’Bannon himself on Alien would be hard to imagine without Moebius’ singularly tactile take on an imagined future state.
What’s most rewarding of his vision of all those ubiquitous cities of the future is how he renders the war on the streets not just between criminals, robots and aliens but between all the various commercial and personal factions seeking attention in a hyper-mediated world. Buildings, cars and people alike are all dressed to the nines in whatever kind of outlandish decorations they can afford, competing for the eyesight of everyone within the frame as well as that of the reader, themselves. It paints a picture of cosmopolitan loneliness and angst that’s fitting with the detective-story O’Bannon pens, an expressionistic exercise in world-building in which human beings are forced to outfit themselves as outlandishly as peacocks in order to get any kind of notice in a ruthlessly competitive world. It’s more impressive still that Moebius here is able to render all the competing tones of pop-art chic architecture and garrish neon advertisements on such a futurist-epic scale without it being too hostile to the reader’s senses. We can tell that all these colliding lines and colors are an assault on the people who live in these overbearing megalopolises, but within each frame of the page they’re arranged with an eye for composition and texture that allows the reader to digest them easily without being digested by them. The use of watercolors especially adds a physical, grimy patina to the sometimes claustrophobic line-work, which betrays the resemblance to Herge’s ligne claire style without the sometimes antiseptic feeling of cleanliness the Tin Tin stories and those inspired by it sometimes have.
Like Jacques Tardi, the early Moebius we look at in The Long Tomorrow and the initial chapters of The Incal uses the ligne claire style to build wholly convincing and immersive worlds without letting that style get in the way of rich texture. You can feel the stories, as well as see them. It’s here, with the overwhelming sense of detail and scale that we get in Moebius’ art and with the miniaturist-instincts that add level upon level of grime the closer you get to them, that you can also see the distinct influence of Winsor McCay and his Little Nemo strips. In hindsight it’s hardly surprising– Moebius was one of the designers and screenwriters on the botched American/Japanese animated film, after all– but even from the earliest portions of The Incal it’s curious to see the clownlike faces and dresses of casual pedestrians in his overwhelming cities looking like the deziens of McCay’s Slumberland. As with The Long Tomorrow, there’s an element of the urban-mating instinct of crying out for attention with every facet of their design, but the way in which it filters the opening moments of this collaboration with Jodorowsky underlines the commonalities it shares in Moebius’ previous work and the ways in which it helped influence sci-fi cinema afterwards, but also many of its distinct differences, as well. Because while The Incal begins in a huge city complex like his work with O’Bannon, the story gradually opens up into a larger and almost immeasurably vast canvas of whole planets and galaxies, weaving an ornate space-opera on a genuinely cosmic scale.
Its themes expand exponentially alongside its settings and action as well, Jodorowsky revisiting much of the mystical and mythological material he’d reimagined from his Dune adaptation to weave a story of Manichean galactic superpowers waging war with one another for the fate of humanity’s survival both in physical and spiritual terms. Though much of the director’s obsessions with the supernatural and the occult can come off somewhat preachy throughout the book, the ways in which Moebius renders them in concrete, or at the very least evocatively abstract visual terms are eye opening, to say the least. It may be hard to make heads or tails of the much-ado Jodorowsky expounds upon regarding divine androgyny or the competing instincts in the human psyche, but it’s impossible to miss the feeling of relief that one gets whenever we move from the cramped, contrasting lines of their cities in favor of the wider, cleaner visions we get of planets out in distant space or epic journeys along the mind’s eye. As Jodorowksy’s astral planes open up, Moebius’ picture plane are afforded greater breadth, and the graphic effect on the page is akin to the opening of chakras and the purification of spiritual energy throughout the body and mind. The service this pays Jodorowsky’s story as the series progresses is hard to estimate– even more than the director’s work in film, where the limitations of the physical and budgetary concerns can sometimes render his surrealist vision into somewhat rote theatrical and symbological terms, The Incal is allowed to live and breathe in the full no-expense-spared terms that the medium of comics can render better than almost any other art-form (only animation allows the creator to do more, with less, though obviously the premiums are higher).
Thanks to Moebius’ rich, stylized line work and compositions on the page and the impressionistic ways in which the various original colorists invest the artwork with warm and cool tones throughout, Jodorowksy’s vision lives freer on the page than it often does on the screen, and certainly more than the doomed-to-failure production of his Dune would have turned out, even if it had managed to make it in front of cameras. It’s little wonder, then, why the artist’s work on this series in particular has proven such an invaluable source of inspiration for sci-fi and fantasy filmmakers in the decades since its publication, even ignoring the years of work that Moebius spent as a conceptual artist on various movies over the years. That’s not to say that his cinematic design work can be entirely written off– it created a singularly confusing legal case when Luc Besson was sued for pillaging imagery and ideas from The Incal for his late-90’s film The Fifth Element, where claims of plagiarism were compromised by the fact that Moebius himself worked as a designer for the film. It’s impossible to ignore the various superficial similarities in the storyline that Besson penned for the screen, however– a set of quasi-divine objects and an angelic beauty fall into the lap of an everyday, city-dwelling blue-collar guy spurring an intergalactic quest to stop an all-consuming force of cosmic darkness manipulating both man and alien alike in an effort to eradicate life itself.
Or something like that. Besson compresses his story’s timeline and ups the action in ways that you’d expect from the director of Nikita and Leon, and for the most part he ignores the higher concepts he might’ve borrowed from Jodorowsky’s ouvre in favor of simplifying everything to more tangible intangibles like life-affirming love. Though it’s impossible to ignore the debt that Besson owes The Incal for the look and story of this, his last really remarkable film, it’s also fairly difficult to get too riled up about it– after all, Jodorowsky’s script for this graphic novel began as an already loose adaptation of Dune, and there are times throughout the book where you can almost sense the director all-but crossing out the names of certain characters, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t still making that adaptation after all (his visions for the insane Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen are especially hard to miss through the tracing-paper veils he affords the Moebius versions). And in terms of direct visual nods, the closest that Besson gets to truly ripping off The Incal comes in the earliest scenes, where Milla Jovovich takes a dive off a skyscraper into a seemingly bottomless metropolitan pit, an image that feels such a direct nod to the plummet splash-page which introduces and defines series protagonist John DiFool that it feels less like creative pillaging, or even an empty homage, and more like a gesture of exacting and reverential reference. The same can be said of the impromptu plunges that Anakin and Obi-Wan make in Attack of the Clones, where George Lucas makes direct nods to both Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the Moebius comics that inspired both of them in the breakneck chase across the city-planet of Coruscant in the movie’s opening salvos.
There, the connection feels even more apt between the Jedi and the humble figure of John DiFool, even though most commentators could only see connection with The Fifth Element and perhaps the Scott film, being ignorant of the shared each of the respective filmmakers owe to Moebius. What’s especially interesting is how each image mixes a variety of symbols from the Tarot in order to better bring the various sci-fi themes and characters better in line with mythological Jungian archetypes. In Lucas’ cinema, the Major Arcana figure of The Fool was already a clear factor in the films of the original trilogy, with young Luke’s standing on cliffsides and looking out at the twin suns making a subtle, emotional pull to the character on the Rider-Waite deck, innocently strolling on the edge of a cliff himself, about to fall headfirst into unknown adventures and dangers alike. In the figure of Anakin, however, Lucas followed suit with the Jodorowsky/Moebius image of a man not with the potential of falling, but in active pursuit of it, and the young Jedi’s dive down a shaft of futuristic buildings on the city planet towards his bounty-hunter prey marks only one of several instances of such imagery throughout the film, though by far the one with the clearest visual and thematic similarity to the original from The Incal, helping cement that image’s central importance to the comics, repeating as it does so often throughout.
It’s here in this image, only the second page of the whole 300+ page work (and only one chapter in a larger, longer series of comics that Jodorowsky has continued to create throughout the years with other artists, all of whom perform various levels of imitations of Moebius’ style without ever quite coming close to the master’s expert touch) that we have perhaps the closest and clearest expressed idea throughout the whole of The Incal‘s epic length. Like many other long-form comics works from the 80’s and beyond, there’s a sense of growing unwieldiness in subject and fatigue that sets in the longer it goes on– like the manga versions of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Otomo’s Akira, the stories are given such breath and such density that after a while their themes can get lost in the sheer complexity of the stories they tell and the epic scale with which they’re registered. Moebius plays things a little broader than either of them and relies on a lot of classy pop-art punch especially as his line-work becomes cleaner throughout the series’ progression, but at the same time it sometimes makes Jodorowsky’s fairly unhinged text stand out in even harsher contrast the more his script becomes filled with religious and philosophical mumbo-jumbo. After a while, it feels as though one is reading an expertly drawn and imagined comic-book Bible from the future that seeks to portray all the catechism-moments from the Catholic mass at Easter, characters speaking less in terms of their actual personalities and more along the lines of regurgitating cues from a call-and-response reenactment of the Passion. Towards the end of the book, it even becomes somewhat impossible to take many of the life-or-death circumstances as seriously as we’re expected to, as so many levels of reality and hallucination are traded back and forth until it’s hard to know if a central character is meeting their final demise this time, or if it’s just another layer of metaphysical meditation.
If so much of the subjects throughout the book often feel fairly out of the reader’s grasp, then at least it would seem that’s expressly part of the creative fabric itself in the central figure of John DiFool, his namesake pun a little on the nose but perfect in summing up his position in the narrative and visual tones of the work. While nearly every other character in the book strives for and is able to attain some kind of peace, enlightenment and transcendence in their efforts to combat the existential darkness plaguing mankind, DiFool always remains something of a stubbornly selfish creature throughout, never going too many pages without whining about his desire for whiskey, tobacco and robotic-whores, even after he’s found true love in the arms of a demigoddess who spends at least half the book clad in nothing but a slim lion-cloth and an expression of serene detachment on her face. And though his inability to reach the same kind of religious and psychic nirvana that many of the heroes and villains alike are able to attain throughout the story keeps him a cautionary figure for the reader, there’s something in his willfulness that renders him sympathetic and even fairly exemplary once some of the more troubling consequences of Jodorowsky’s mind-expanding vision kick in.
Unlike all the other epiphany-seeking figures surrounding him, DiFool remains true to himself, even when it means shutting himself off from the grand mysteries of the universe. Unwilling to give up his identity to the revolution that is the collective consciousness that the director wanted to prophesize in his intended Dune adaptation, he becomes something of a radical figure. Moreover, the contrast he creates between himself and the heroic characters around him helps showcase how they and figures like them from other such escapist fantasy fare exercise an endorsement of one groupthink or another. In Moebius’ hands, Jodorowsky’s evangelizing of self-sacrificing heroes becomes an almost subconscious portrait of existential self-destruction. Unlike the various other characters from sci-fi spectacles inspired by the work he inhabits, DiFool remains himself, and there’s an inspirational quality to that, no matter how bleak the prospects are for his character as envisioned by his creators. There is a subtle warning to be found in the example of John DiFool and all of Jodorowsky and Moebius’ pages throughoutThe Incal, one which offers a fresh perspective on all the lost souls of galaxies far, far away and city-streets of futures not-too-distant of all shapes and sizes– no matter what it costs the soul, sometimes it’s best to hang on to your ego.