In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This fortnight we continue the deep dive into the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky to tie into the fabulous new Arrow Video release.
Today we talk about Jodorowsky’s prolific and curious career in graphic novels.
In Jodorowsky’s Dune, we see Jodorowsky show us the book he had made out of his storyboards for the unfinished film. Part of Jodorowsky’s central life philosophy is that every wall has a door in it somewhere, you just have to find it, which I can get behind. The door in this case was transposing many of his ideas for Dune into graphic novels, firstly The Incal, then the whole “Jodo-verse”. Jodorowsky started in comics in the 60s with The Panic Fables, no doubt influenced by Panic Movement Theatre of the 60s, which we’ve touched on before, continuing into the late 70s with 1978’s The Eyes of the Cat, neither of which are particularly remembered in the Jodorowsky cannon. It seems after the failure of Dune and the success and influence of the storyboards, Jodorowsky really found his muse on the pictured page with expansive sci-fi fantasy in the vein of Dune & Star Wars, but with the epic scope and dazzling, surreal visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Incal came out in in 1981, with a prequel and sequel coming out in the next few years, later to be expanded into Jodorowsky’s expansive world including works such as The Metabaron, The Metabarons, The Technopriests, and The Megalex, all of which I’ve done preliminary research into, as well as celebrated stand-alone works like The Madwoman Of The Sacred Heart. If you thought the last issue was vast and all-encompassing, you ain’t seen nothing yet, and we hardly scratched the surface with this one. Jodorowsky is one of the most prolific comic book writers I’ve ever come across.
In general, these books, being inspired by Dune mainly, are operatic sci-fi fantasy. If you want to know if you have a chance of enjoying these, ask yourself; Do I enjoy Jupiter Ascending? Do I enjoy The Chronicles of Riddick? Do I like the Star Wars prequels? If the answer to all three of these is “yes”, you have a good chance of enjoying all of these texts. If even one is a no, some of these are unavoidably going to trip you up.
I will say that, as I’ve said before, these are not reviews in this column. They are meant to help people appreciate cult films. However I had no real knowledge of Jodorowsky’s comics before I started this series on him. I just appreciated his films. My deep dive into his oeuvre in comics has bought up things I can’t ignore. Comics I can’t say nice things about, and criticisms I can’t avoid making. So, yeah, just know that going in. If you want a Jodorowsky love in, despite me having some nice things to say here, you’re not going to get that.
The Incal (1980)
Despite previous writings it was really The Incal that put Jodorowsky on the map as a voice in the comics industry. It follows John Difool, (very subtle Alejandro), a private detective who we meet falling to his death on the run from gangsters in possession of our maguffin, ‘The Incal’, the first hint of anything weird from which that we get is when his concrete parrot swallows it and becomes possessed by The Holy Ghost. As I’m sure you may be guessing, if you thought Jodorowsky’s movies were didactic, honey you got a big storm coming. The fantastic thing, and the thing that really makes The Incal and Jodorowsky’s early work in comics in general tick, is that the protagonist is someone we can relate to. Being a bum private detective, Difool is downbeat enough that he still feels like a person the whole time, whereas other protagonists in his works just feel impenetrably self-important. For example, in this story is the character of Metabaron, who is a very interesting character in this story, but once he is a conflictless holy being in stories like The Metabaron & The Metabarons, I officially stop caring. Difool being our point of view character means that when he’s disbelieving, that’s actually something we relate to as well, and when he just wants to get on with his life, we relate to that. Difool manages to fall in with a small band who go on a typically Jodorowoskian holy quest, and they all have a charming dynamic, and in its last act, The Incal goes to some properly weird, surreal, and time-bending places that give 2001: A Space Odyssey a run for its money.
The Mad Woman of the Sacred Heart (1996)
While The Mad Woman of the Sacred Heart is not my favorite of Jodorowsky’s novels, it does benefit from a lot of the same things that The Incal benefits from. Namely, Mœbius’s masterful art. There was a reason that before his death he was considered one of the premier illustrators in the business.
The Mad Woman of the Sacred Heart follows a celibate University philosophy professor who, after losing faith in his own philosophy, (making him an infinitely more tolerable protagonist), is confronted with the side of himself that just wants to bone all the time as a kind of dæmon, Phillip Pullman style. After this, one of his old impregnated students from back when he was effectively a mini cult leader comes to show him the error of his ways. Does this come off as a bit defensive from Jodorowsky? “No, we’re not a cult I promise, just look at this book that makes fun of people who think we’re a cult”, yes, yes it does. It also suffers from Jodorowsky’s sexism, badly, although mostly in the The Rainbow Thief way of women just mainly being sexy props but there’s a subplot involving enlightenment through group anal rape that I found just, abhorrent.
This book also benefits from being one of the few stories set on earth in a grounded reality, it just makes all the strangeness so much more palatable.
The Technopriests (1998-2004)
The Technopriests is the first series after The Incal to really expand on the Jodoverse. It, like The Metabaron and The Incal, has a charming but naive sidekick, just thought that was a fun running motif to mention. It lends said works some much-needed levity always. The book follows the Technopriest, (which in this Universe means games designer, again, subtle, Alejandro), he is an old man now with his trusty mouse sidekick, and begins to recount his adventures as a framing device to his ship’s memory banks.
Now, this seems to be the one where Jodorowsky the comic book writer really takes shape. It’s no surprise that the book that most directly parallels Jodorowsky’s frustrations with the restrictive, collaborative nature of filmmaking, (which as a filmmaker, I both understand but disagree with to an extent), is the one where he really begins to show all of his worst impulses in storytelling with no restrictions in the less oversaw graphic novel form that would later become endemic to his work. Although this features some digital 3d art, it’s not as constant nor as garish as something like The Megalex. It’s gender politics are awful but it’s not nearly as, well frankly silly as The Megalex, and although the characters do have long-winded, boring, philosophical diatribes, it’s not nearly as tooth gratingly smug or boring as nearly everything he was about to make. Although this is jargon-filled to the point where dialogue becomes unreadable, it’s hardly The Metabaron in that respect. Although the main character is boringly grey in his pomposity at points, it is hardly The Metabaron in that respect either. When The Technopriests reaches its climax and they begin to find habitable worlds is when it becomes really colorful and surreal in a delightful way.
To say that this book though just does not understand how severe rape is, would be understating the point.
The Metabarons (2004)
Now, to research this column I read the Othon & Honorata cycle, which constituted the first five issues. To say that I remember absolutely nothing about it at all would be just about accurate. I do remember though that it featured many of the most likable and sharply drawn characters from The Incal and makes them just insufferable bores of the highest order.
Despite an affection for these characters from The Metabaron & The Incal, at no point in this book did I give a single shit. Which after how enjoyable The Incal was, puzzles me. It’s almost like a crime? To make these characters boring. Jail for Jodorowsky.
This is, by quite a long way my least favorite thing I had to read for this. I got a physical copy and as soon as this quarantine lifts it’s going straight to the charity store to get rid of it, but maybe a charity store is too good for it. It’s strong in what anime fans would call “fan service”. A lot of male gaze, a lot of female objectification, a lot of problematic tropes. It’s just gross. The thing about Jodorowsky’s stories is because they’re so didactic, and the didacticism is expressed through characters who are mostly archetypes, it just feels much stronger in the objectification than it otherwise would. Everyone’s a symbol, no one’s a person, so when a symbol who happens to be female is mostly like, sexy temptress, or someone who enlightens through awakening sexuality, that just reads as slightly gross to me. It is a woman’s sexual object to men that makes them objectifiable in these stories and it’s all just one big yikes. It’s there in almost every book on this list. The art style is horrible and garish and ugly and an eyesore. It’s didactic to the point of patronisation and the story is so silly and ridiculous to the point where I can’t take it seriously. Did I mention that the translated dialogue is horrible? Because it is!
The Metabaron (2016-)
I read this before The Incal which was maybe a mistake, but there we are. Maybe I’d care more about the flat sheet of grey Metabaron is in this story if I’d grown to care about him in The Incal already, but I don’t know about that. See my reaction to The Metabarons for more information on this. I hated how boring that book made Metabaron and I’d already read The Incal when I read that story. Also, the Technopope and other villains suffer from the same problem. Two-dimensional sheets of grey villainy and scenery-chewing monologues. Evil is their only character trait and it’s just so, so boring.
The book also features a lot of prequelesque waffle of the highest order over politics that I just don’t care about and it’s so so so so so so so boring and tedious and awful and my god do I just not care.
For the piece I read Book 1: The Techno-Admiral & The Anti-Baron.
The Sons of El Topo (2018 & 2019)
These are two books of an as yet incomplete trilogy based off of a movie idea that Alejandro never got made that was meant to be a sequel to El Topo. While they are set in the surreal, alternate past of El Topo and after every insane thing that happened in that movie, (reading these books gave me a wonderful sense of closure, because up until this point I wasn’t sure that what happened in El Topo actually happened!), the fact that this is set on some semblance of the planet earth does greatly benefit it. Like, yeah, it’s didactic as fuck, yeah it’s patronizing, yeah, it’s violently sexist but the epic sweep of the Western that it has and the hyper-violence and character dynamics between the two brothers really carry the whole thing beautifully.
Jodorowsky & Boucq’s Twisted Tales (2019)
Okay, I absolutely, and unequivocally loved this one.
The book is a compendium of ultra-short stories. Jodorowsky and illustrator Boucq start the novel with this short story about someone of whom you would not expect greatness solving a mystery and winning treasure. Then there’s a quote from Jodorowsky & Boucq that basically says, we were inspired by this story and wrote a bunch of things as snappily as we could and drew pretty pictures to match them, and it’s amazing. Each story seems to revolve around the theme of underestimation, whether you are underestimating the life of a shadow or a monk or even underestimating how much kindness you are capable of giving, each story subverts your expectations in a way that is surprising and beautiful and often, delightfully emotionally touching. Where some books are didactic, this is genuinely wise, whereas some books are obtuse, this genuinely does reveal only to those who genuinely seek, and whereas some books feel like they’re flying through an epic plot as fast as possible, these stories are perfectly suited to their medium.
The language is exquisite, the art, immaculate, imaginative, and beautiful, and the morals are genuinely insightful.
I can’t recommend this enough, this is one of like 3 books I bought that I’m actually going to keep and the only one I am going to reread regularly.
In the middle of this session of research over the last two weeks, when I felt like I was drowning in a vat of graphic novel induced torpor, this was the breath of fresh air I needed to have faith in one of my favorite filmmakers again, the faith I needed to carry on and finish my task. Which was maybe the moral he was trying to hit at the whole damn time.