Alejandro Jodorowsky Reflects on 'The Incal,' 40 Years Later
It’s a good time for fans of Alejandro Jodorowsky. To mark the 40th anniversary of the debut of his iconic comic book science fiction collaboration with Moebius, The Incal, Humanoids has released a special edition of the book, and this week, the publisher will also debut The Seven Lives of Alejandro Jodorowsky, a critical retrospective of his work in comics, movies and theater.
The Incal is the story of John Difool, an intergalactic private eye who finds himself accidentally caught up in a grand space opera that combines politics, philosophy and existentialism, romanticism, and the meaning of life. Critically acclaimed since its 1980s debut in the pages of Metal Hurlant magazine, it’s been named as an influence inside and outside comics — 1997’s The Fifth Element owes no small debt — and it cemented Jodorowsky’s reputation as a comics visionary, heralding his work on a number of subsequent projects, including Metabarons, Son of the Gun, and Technopriests.
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The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the 91-year-old artist about his collaboration with Moebius, the themes to be found in the book — and elsewhere in his work — and the relationship between his comics work and his movies.
It’s the 40th anniversary of The Incal. Do you remember starting to work on the project?
When I made The Incal, here in France, bande dessinée — the comic — was regarded little more artistically than in United States. They were in bigger editions or printed on nice paper, but they were always a continued storyline: you have a hero like Superman, [or] Spider-Man, and at that time, you were always continuing to make this stories. It is without end.
Then I decided I want to make a complete novel: I will make a start, an end, and all this — only six books. Only that, one book every year. Then I can tell any story, not a continuation all the time.
I thought, "One day I will have The Incal in only one volume, like a real novel." The years pass, and now people start to understand The Incal is one complete story. That made me happy. My son is growing! He's an adult now.
The Incal, as I understand it, came about in part from your Dune project which is where you first worked with Moebius.
In the beginning, The Incal came out of a dream. I dreamt something like two pyramids, white and black together inside.
Later, when I did make Dune — Dune, for me, was the adaptation of a book which is not so visual. The first 100 pages, you don't understand it very well — it's complicated, very complicated. For my adaptation, I had invent a lot of visualizations — this is the jewel of Jodorowsky. I didn’t make the picture, but much of that work, [the material] not in the book, that led to The Incal.
One of the things that is interesting about where The Incal falls in your career though is that it picks up themes from El Topo, from The Holy Mountain. It is again, a story about enlightenment. It's a story about someone realizing their place in a grander scheme.
Yes. I always have this secret. In many of the theater plays and the novels, the character doesn't change a great deal. Hamlet, all the time is doubting! (Laughs.) He says, "I am good, I am bad," and he dies like that. So I said, "I will take a character who is down, down” — he's a miserable guy, all [of] the defects of the ego, all this kind of thing — and, step by step, he grows and he grows. He doesn't want that, but it happens like that. In the end, it's speaking with God! In the end, he's the biggest character possible.
You were talking about how people approach enlightenment — as you say, starting as one thing and becoming, maybe not intentionally, something greater. Is this a theme that speaks to you, that you find yourself returning to?
What is enlightenment? I searched for enlightenment in all kind of disciplines, spiritual disciplines. You don't see it, but I live in the library. I am full, full, full of books! I was searching because my father was an atheist, a Communist — I was five years old and he said to me, "God doesn't exist. You die, you will perish and they are nothing. Nothing." He took from me, as a child, the metaphysical experience.
I have nothing to love, no faith, no nothing. I needed to construct my spiritual myself in order to survive. I was searching and, for me, enlightenment is how to find yourself. It's the discovery of your innocence. That is enlightenment. There is not one enlightenment. Instead, there is one [unique] enlightenment for every person who lives on the planet: to be what you are and not what the system and the other person want you to be.
John goes through that in The Incal. He, early on, is split into four versions of himself and it feels that your stories and The Incal especially I think, is an exploration into people being themselves and discovering themselves.
Yes. At this time, I was very — even now, I am very inspired by the tarot cards. The four characters he becomes are the Minor Arcana: the sword, the wand, the cups, and the money. The four symbols. This money is a symbol of the body. Wand is the symbol of desire or sex. The cup is a symbol of emotionality, and the sword is a symbol of the searching, the mental searching. Intellect, emotion, creative sex, and the body who tries to find his freedom. Constantly, I put in The Incal, certain initiatic things, to initiate the reader and ask, what is the possibility that you could find yourself like that?
One of the things that The Incal, I think, perhaps started — or perhaps gave you free reign to do— was, to use science fiction as a way of exploring these ideas in a metaphorical way. Is science fiction an interesting genre for you to work in because it allows you to do things that may be outside of the norm in other genres?
I love science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction. You have tragedy, you have science fiction, you have cowboys, you have gangsters… I chose science fiction because, in science fiction, I need to imagine all the universe. Cowboys, you need to have a pistol, you need to speak American…!
Here was the complete freedom to create a universe. That was fantastic for me. That was fantastic, and I created a mystical universe, in a period ruled by a person who was like my father. John Difool in the beginning doesn't believe in nothing, only in the money. And he's trying to survive in the lower class. He is a little detective. This is constructed in the beginning like a pulp novel: he will be in a trap. He doesn't want to have this adventure. Until the end he doubts, he doubts, he doubts.
You said that The Incal was constructed as a novel. You went into it knowing the end, and it loops — it ends where it begins. Was that something that you were very conscious of? You were writing a circle essentially. You're writing a story that echoes itself until it ends where it begins. Did you go into it knowing that?
I will tell you an anecdote. Moebius was, in that time, the genius of the comic book in France — the highest artist. His working with me was like a gift! But no one in the comic book industry, French or American, was really attempting this kind of metaphysical story — and then, I proposed a setting that was very specific, like a bottle. It's very important but to show at the start of the story, John completely falling through this enormous, enormous town.
For me, it was important because it's the end of the story — he falls like this in the beginning, and he finishes like this. Moebius draws the first episode, and he includes everything but forgets to draw that. It's only one page. And then [the editors] say, "You cannot say to Moebius to change something. He's a master." (Laughs) I said, "Listen! You made a little mistake because this is the most important image. You need to do it." I enumerate the page 1, 2, 3, and this is the page number 2. He said, “the page number 2? I draw it already!” So he made page 1, 2, page 2B. (Laughs.)
I noticed that in the book.
I will not say that I knew its importance in my consciousness. In some way, I was feeling that in my unconscious, because I am an artist. I don't work with consciousness. I work with my dreams. When I wrote that book, every chapter I put the character in a difficulty. I don't know what's the solution, but whatever the situation, he cannot do it. I have a month to discover how he’d do it, always, always. I knew in the end I could do it. I could do it.
How did you work with Moebius or any of the other artists in your comic work? What was your process?
Every artist is different. They will humor me with their own character, their own interdiction, their own pleasures. I need to be in the mind of the artist and to make a story they can follow. With Moebius, he had a facility for incredible drawing. You say, "Make a horse." He will start with the leg of the horse. He has the horse. He illustrated it in four days, every episode. Every episode in four days! He makes [exaggerated working noises] 12 hours a day, but we did it! I dictated the story, but I was a mime, I was an actor.
Is that the same that you have done for every artists or have other artists ... I remember reading an interview with you for Jose Ladronn for Final Incal you worked differently with him.
Different. Every one is different. Final Incal is Jose Ladronn. Jose Ladronn doesn't drawing with his hand. He will do it with a machine.
Oh, with a computer?
A computer. Everything is computer. He needs to make a sketch very quickly with pencil, and then with the machine, he makes the fantastic [artwork] he made. That takes more time. What Moebius takes four days for me, with Ladronn it's six months of work. Moebius makes one page a day.
That's amazing. That's amazing. Yeah.
It was a monster. He did it in 54 pages, 54 days. Less than two months.
I wanted to ask, what was it like moving from cinema to comics? Did you find your ambition changing? Were other things available to you?
Listen, I am not a normal person. Really, I am not a normal person. I have a big imagination. I write as quickly as it took Moebius to make drawings. I have an idea, I do the idea. I am not a movie maker, and I am not a screenwriter, a comic writer. I am everything. I don't prefer [one thing]. I love what I am doing.
I have [lived] now 91 and a half years. I am from the 20th century. Our century is the 21st.
Yes, but you're still creating. You're still making art. You're still alive.
What a difference in the two centuries! In the old century, a telephone was a telephone. But now you take a mobile and a mobile is still a phone but it's a camera, photography, movies, music. It can be everything. A man of this century is not only one thing because that is true of life now. Today, every person is Leonardo Da Vinci. He can make all the art. He can be a multifaceted artist.
You have always been that — when I look at your movies, when I look at your comics, when I look at everything you make, it's clearly your voice. Even when you're working with comic artists, when you're working with the people making the movies, you are telling your story and it's recognizable as a story for you. That is why I was curious if you saw a difference in writing or creating for the different mediums. Because it feels like you're just constantly telling your stories.
The only thing is, they’re a different pleasure. Movies always are a collective work. You work with two people, three people, 20 people, 500 people. Growing, growing, growing. It's a big work and a lot of people, a lot of problems. When you make a comic, you are you and the painter, the artist. You are the only two.
In a movie, you are picking the people who are sitting and you create the movement. Everything is "you sit there and watch this," it’s passive. In comics, no. In comics, you make a person who will receive a punch here. The public needs to create in their mind the movement. Movement is inside the [audience]. It's another way to feel the story. In the movies, I need to see a movement and in comics, I need to see how to create the movement in the head of the reader. It's another world. It's another art.
But you have not only one movie, one type of cinema. You have industrial movies — Hollywood. You also have movies made for a creator, artistic movies. In the artistic movies, all that matters is to create the work and the money comes later. For industrial movies, all the focus goes to money, to make a lot of money.
You also have commercial comics, which is a very good industry: Superman, Marvel. That was the industrial comic, where the principle to create a big, big audience, the biggest possible audience. When I made The Incal, I was searching in that time for the special audience who can understand that. I wanted to make an end for this story. In the commercial comic, there is no end.
You brought The Incal to an end. Looking back, what does it mean to leave the story and to finish it for everyone. Are you happy that audiences continue to keep this alive and revisit it and continue it?
I always thought it was a fantastic story. I love the story. Everything I do is like a child. Ask a mother — the mother makes a monster and she will love the monster. When you are an artist, you love what you are doing. If not, you will not do it.
I am so happy The Incal has lasted 40 years because the audience understands it now. The good stories are always in advance of the audience: 40, 30, 50 years in advance. But if it is real art, it will travel through the time and come to an audience who understands it.
The 40th anniversary edition of The Incal is available now. Humanoids’ The Seven Lives of Alejandro Jodorowsky, edited by Vincent Bernière, will be released Oct. 13. A preview of both books can be seen below.
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