Friday, July 24, 2015

Book to Film Comparison: The Incal and The Fifth Element


Reading Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary graphic novel ‘The Incal’ is no easy task. Here I fancy myself a science fiction super buff with a brain, yet even I found it a challenge to comprehend a lot of the situations and plotlines in the book. This is not to say that it’s completely incomprehensible, what I mean is that this is the kind of book you have to read on various occasions to fully grasp. It’s the kind of graphic novel you should read once, without trying to make sense of it. Hopefully some of its essence should transfer onto your brain on your first read, then when you read it again, keep adding bits of information to what you already know, that’s the best way to go about it. The thing is that The Incal is a barrage of information, an avalanche of science fiction awesomeness. An amalgamation of mystical artifacts, alien races, political intrigue, god like beings and amazing outlandish vistas.One thing is undeniable, this graphic novel, which is really a compilation of comics that were printed separately through a period of seven years (1981-1988), is a juggernaut of a masterpiece, a work of art with a resounding impact on anyone who ventures into its pages. Each page is a gift from the comic book gods known as Moebius and Jodorowsky.

 On the left is Jodorowsky, sandwiched between is a Saudukar Warrior from Jodorowsky's defunct Dune film, to the right, one of the films producers

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of my favorite persons in the world, not just for his films which I adore, but also because of who he is as a person. When I hear him talk in say, the documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune’s (2014), it’s like I’m listening to a kindred spirit. A true ateur, a realist, a humanist, Jodorowsky has always used his art to comment on humanity, our craziness, our subconscious preoccupations, our collective worries and thoughts. This is why I adore every single one of his films. Yet I had never read any of his comic books, I just had to experience this other area of his art. So I started at the beginning, with The Incal, a graphic novel that is the foundation for ‘The Jodoverse’ a series of comics written by Jodorowsky. Interesting how it was his frustrations with Hollywood that turned Jodorowsky to comics. You see, once upon a time, Jodorowsky attempted with great enthusiasm, to make a major Hollywood science fiction film based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was going to be the end all, be all of science fiction films. He had the conceptual art, the actors, the special effects technicians, he just needed the millions. Sadly, Hollywood got cold feet and slammed the door on his face. I’m almost 100% sure Hollywood producers saw him as a quack, a nut job, an unreliable director who was probably going to make a movie that was going to be unmarketable and over budget. But what did they know, right? As Jodorowsky himself always says, all geniuses are a little crazy.

A Young Jodorowsky

The comic book world was a world where Jodorowskys imagination was not limited by budgets or back stabbing producers. Here was a medium in which his imagination could go anywhere it wanted, and boy did he take it places! His writings include: Before The Incal, The Incal, The Final Incal, Metabarons Genesis: Castaka, Megalex and The Technopriests, among many others. The good thing about Jodorowsky’s comic books is that he always partners up with amazing artists, which is what we’re here to talk about today. Jodorowsky partnering up with Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) to produce The Incal, a seminal work in comics, and by seminal I mean you’d better read it at some point in your life, there's still nothing like it out there. It's the story of an anti-hero named John Difool who suddenly comes upon a magical artifact known as The Incal. Once he obtains it everybody in the universe wants it for their own dark purposes. In essence it is a story of ultimate evil vs. ultimate good, about the ambiguity of life and about the unpredictability of life, sometimes you do what you got to do, whether you planned it that way or not.


The story behind The Incal is that Jodorowsky took concepts he had prepared for his adaptation of Dune and jam packed the The Incal with them. I honestly don’t see a lot of Dune in The Incal, save for the fact that the good guys are escaping an evil government and that they have to do something to stop it, I'm thinking he put more of the conceptual stuff he had planned for Dune into The Incal, spaceships, buildings and the such. The real issue here though is how much The Incal has influenced filmmakers and comic book artists from all over the globe. One such filmmaker is Luc Besson, the director behind The Fifth Element (1995). The dirt on The Fifth Element is that Luc Besson ripped off Jodorwsky’s The Incal. I’d say this isn’t entirely true. Sure there’s some similarities, you’re definitely going to see them. But in my opinion, many of these similarities are visual in nature and don’t necessarily subscribe themselves to the plot. An interesting aspect of this whole Incal/Fifth Element issue is that Moebius actually worked as a conceptual artist for Besson on The Fifth Element; so it’s doesn’t really surprise me that Moebius’s style is all over the conceptual part of The Fifth Element. The similarities bothered the folks at Humanoid Press, the company that prints The Incal in Europe, so they sued Luce Besson for supposedly stealing ideas from The Incal for his film. The question is :did Besson deserved to be sued?

Luc Besson directs on the set of The Fifth Element (1995)

Moebius worked as a conceptual artist on some of the best filmmakers. For example, he worked on Willow (1988), Masters of the Universe (1987), Tron (1982), Little Nemo Adventures in Slumberland (1989) and The Abyss (1989). He also conceptualized many of the flying cars, buildings and characters seen on The Fifth Element, which is probably why The Incal and The Fifth Element share a few similarities. First time I saw The Fifth Element (1995) in theaters back in 1995 it seemed so new and so fresh to me, I had never seen anything like it before, in fact, I went to see it a record setting five times to the theater! I haven’t done that for a film in a while, my limit nowadays is three times if I really love a movie. It was only years later, after I started reading Moebius’s work that I learned about what an influential artist he was and about how the reason why I loved The Fifth Element so much was because it was partially conceptualized by Moebius.

Here’s a list of the similarities:


The novel starts with John DiFool, the protagonist of the story, being thrown from the balcony of a building. On his way down he has to avoid a zillion flying cars as he makes his way down to the grimiest parts of the city, the lower levels. This happens in The Fifth Element when Leeloo jumps from a building also having to avoid a zillion flying vehicles on her way down to the most uninhabitable parts of the city. The architecture in these scenes is extremely similar to certain images from The Incal. But of course, Moebius was the artist behind both projects; it makes sense that they’d have some similarities from a visual standpoint.


In The Incal, the main character is a man called John DiFool. He’s a private detective, but also your typical loser type, hence the play of words on his name. It sounds like John ‘The Fool’. He doesn’t want to be a hero, in fact, he’s an anti-hero. He saves the day anyway, but he is constantly finding a way to avoid responsibility, he seems to only want to live for fun. John Difool likes smoking, drinking and what he refers to as “homeo-whores”. In The Fifth Element the main character is also a loser type, he lives in a dingy little apartment filled with crap, he looks, un-kept. He doesn’t take shit from anybody, but he also doesn’t give a shit. He’s a taxi driver about to lose his job (and his license) because he has way too many parking tickets, yet ends up being the films hero anyways. Korben ends up making out with a god like being, same as John DiFool in The Incal.


In The Incal there’s this black liquid that’s taking over everything which is referred to as "The Great Darkness". It is turning everybody evil. Our hero John DiFool and his friends must battle it in order to save the universe, they all end up battling it together. In The Fifth Element a black planet keeps approaching the earth and if Korben Dallas doesn’t find The Fifth Element and activate it, the black planet will destroy the earth. Korben and his friends end up helping him uncover the powers of The Fifth Element. Also, same as in The Incal, the black evil takes liquid form. It can be seen two times during the film, dripping from the forehead of the films villains.


One of the chapters in The Incal is actually called ‘The Fifth Essence’, this should be enough for anyone to see the influence.

Above, a scene from The Fifth Element (1995) and below a scene from 'Harry Canyon' one of the stories on Heavy Metal (1981)

At the end of the day, I would say that The Fifth Element borrowed a bit from The Incal, but its different enough that it’s not really a rip off; which is probably why Humanoid Press didn’t win the lawsuit. I mean if Vanilla Ice could get away with ripping off Queen's Under Pressure as blatantly as he did, anybody can rip off anything. But then again, that’s the trick of borrowing ideas, you have to change them just enough to make them your own. In fact, if we get down to it, The Fifth Element feels like a dumb as hell movie when compared to the complexities on The Incal. Speaking of rip offs, I’d say that if The Fifth Element ripped off anything it was actually a segment from Heavy Metal (1981) called ‘Harry Canyon’, which plays out note for note exactly the same as The Fifth Element (1995). If you don’t believe me check out my review for it, in which I detail the similarities between both films, or better yet, check out the segment for yourself. So while The Fifth Element blew my mind the first time I saw it in theaters, it was actually a rehash of previously conceived ideas from various films and comics. I’m still waiting for a brave filmmaker to make a film adaptation of The Incal. The one problem that an adaptation like that will confront is that The Incal is just too freaking weird, jam packed with ideas and craziness all the way through. You hardly get a chance to catch your breath when the next crazy adventure begins. The Incal is an onslaught of craziness, but in a real good way. So whoever decides to tackle The Incal's cinematic adaptation will have one huge challenge ahead of them. I hear that Nicolas Windig Refn the director behind Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013) has talked with Jodorowsky about translating the book into a film, the two have created a kinship, so let's hope this project comes to fruition at some point. Jodorowsky and Moebius never spelled things out for us, when you read The Incal, you are not treated like a fool or an idiot. It is expected that you have a brain on you and that you are fully capable of using it! So use it, and immerse your neurons in this one of a kind comic book experience.    

Make it so captain! Nicolas Windig Refn holding a copy of The Incal

4 comments:

Sergei Kolobashkin said...

I love this grafic novel. I was 14, when I got my hands on this book and it just blew me away. So much detail in every panel. I really see this book as a movie.

Jodorowsky is a genius, but I'm not a big fan of his early work, it's too existential for me.

"I wanted to create a prophet", he said, oh, and he did. I really wish if someone can publish the storyboard for his Dune.

I wonder, why people got less creative these days? You don't see any Ghost in the Shell or Fifth Element these days. People suddenly stopped doing goofy things.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Agree, his earlier films are even more symbolic, like for example Fando and Lis....boy that was a tough watch! His films haven't changed much though, he keeps making them a challenge, it's as if he was making a film in a special code for use to try and decipher, I've always enjoyed that about them.

I also wish someone would print his storyboards for Dune, that book alone would be so awesome to read....you can really tell he had the whole thing planned out all the way to the end.

The reason films are less creative is because big studios are extremely conservative and the ratings board (also known as the MPAA or the Motion Picture Association of America) has a stronghold over the type of films that manage to get made. Studios are scared shitless that the MPAA will give them an R rating or an X, because then it means your film is unmarketable, less people will see it. So studios make squeaky clean movies to avoid this. They want the PG-13 because it will reach a bigger audience. This is the reason why crazy, bizarre ideas don't make it out. And when they do, for example MACHETE KILLS, they get the 'R' and automatically, less kids will go see these movies, which means the film will tank at the box office.

It's very rare nowadays for an R rating to make a lot of millions, but it does happen. For example Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), an amazing movie I strongly recommend everyone to give a chance to. That one was an R and was a huge success, so it does happen, but its rare. I do miss those days of crazier, offbeat movies that used to get made during the 70's and 80's. Even horror films have gotten the shaft, we don't get as many horror films anymore. Not like in the 80's when horror was king.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Hey Sergei, you'll be happy to know that Luc Besson is currently working on another big science fiction film called Valerian and The city of a Thousand Planets, it's slated to be released in 2017. I'm really looking forward to that one because its based on a comic book from Jean Paul Meziers, a contemporary artist in the same vein as Moebius. I'm really excited for this one, I think like The Fifth Element did when it was first released, it will blow our minds! It's good to know that at least some directors are still willing to do far out science fiction films such as these!

Devon Start said...

I must be the only one that thought the Incal fell very flat.. a book probably isnt good if you have to read it several times for it to make sense.. but starting with a few things.
1. the naming of things in the incal is lazy and annoying.. the Homeo Whores for instance, sounds like a cool idea, but what does Homeo mean? Similar to.. so he is going to be paying for sort of whores? that doesnt make sense on close inspection, but its indicitive of the way things are named in the comic, they ALMOST sound cool and sci fi, but really just sound childish. Like the Meta Baron, who has his Meta Boat, and his Meta ship and meta bunker and his side kick meta robin. wait no not that last one, but like batman he has a bunch of tools and equipment that gets his name on it.. the guys who make the evil egg use the nefarious Techno Technos who use "techno" technology.. and no they are not doing early 90s trance music.

You mention in the article that you dont see much of Dune in the comic, and you are right that most of the input is the art he and Moebius did for dune. you saw the documentary(more on that in a moment) so you have to know about the scene where they train paul with a robot, that scene is in the comic as well(though not in the actual dune, but as he said at the end of that documentary he was just "raping herbert" his words not mine) But there are other things.. Difools son being genetically bred to be the perfect whatever that he was in the book that made him all androginous is similar to paul being the product of centuries of genetic tampering to get the Kwisatz Haderach. But to me the worst theft is that of the Doctor. in Dune the doctors get a special conditioning that ensures thier loyalty to the person they have to serve. dune is a paranoid universe. This conditioning is hard to break but in dune they sort of manage it with the Atraiedes doctor. in the incal there is also the imperial doctor who mentions in an off hand comment he has "conditioning". like many things in the book its not really epxlained, or rather its just a convenient plot device brought up to move the story because it counldnt move anyother way and then forgotten.. never brought up again

that it took seven years to write is a travesty, its not that long and really shouldnt have taken that long, most of the work was done for dune already.. its not a sign of a good book, but a writer who is just rambling along.. this is where the coincedences come in. like the garbage mutants in the beginning coming back at the end and somehow thier leader is a "good soul" but everything you see about him till that point is he is the leader of a gang of murderous mutants and wants to take over the surface world.. but in the end he just happens to be good because they needed someone and rather than introduce a new character they dredged up one that probably was wrong for it

and the reason the movie didnt get made is he wanted it to be like 10 hours long.. seriously he mentions that in passing in the documentary and then ignores it and keeps saying he doesnt understand why the didn tlet him do it.. because NO ONE is sitting through a 10 hour movie..



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