On November 4, 2021, filmmaker Taika Waititi announced he'll be adaptating Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Incal graphic novel to the big screen. Originally published between 1981 and 1989 and drawn by the legendary artist Moebius, The Incal is... beautiful? Foundational? Difficult?
Between now and whenever Waititi's film drops, plenty of internet publishers will describe The Incal as "seminal," "brilliant," and above all, "important." It could be all of these things, but it's certainly easier to call the comic that and move on than actually explain what it's about. Look, Jodorowsky is a funky guy with big ideas, and the ideas don't get much bigger than The Incal. It's a wild ride from start to finish, difficult to boil down to basic plot points, but, thankfully, if anyone can make it into an entertaining movie, Waititi certainly can. His visual and comedic sensibilities make him a perfect match for the material.
So here's everything you need to know about The Incal, in all its mind-blowing glory. But beware, major spoilers ahead!
'The Incal' Was Born Out Of Jodorowsky's Failed 'Dune' Film
In the 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky embarked on an overly ambitious, mega-fantastical adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. The intensity and scope of this project practically guaranteed it would never get made - the director envisioned it as a 14-hour epic - but it has become the subject of an excellent 2013 documentary (Jodorowsky's Dune). It was during pre-production for this ill-fated film that Jodorowsky teamed up with artist Jean Giraud, better known to the comics world as Moebius.
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 [to] invent a lot of visualizations... I didn’t make the picture, but much of that work, [the material] not in the book, that led to The Incal.
Fans of Dune will note the many similarities to the world of The Incal: It takes place thousands of years into humanity's future in an empire ruled by feuding aristocrats and business interests; the technopriests are akin to Dune's Ixian technocracy; the Emperoress is betrayed by a trusted mentrek, just as Leto Atreides is betrayed by his trusted mentat; Solune is a messianic figure in the mold of Paul Atreides; and a direct line can be traced from Jessica and her Bene Gesserit order to Animah and her Arhat guardians.
However, while the the setting of The Incal resembles that of Dune, the storyline, characters, and theme of the work are sui generis. What begins as a convoluted cyberpunk noir quickly balloons into a psychedelic meditation on morality.
The Protagonist Is John DiFool, A Lowly Detective
John DiFool is The Incal's protagonist, but he's certainly no hero. A hapless class "R" detective, he's considered by the local police force to be "not very skillful, but a good informant!" DiFool prefers to spend his free time getting drunk and enjoying the company of made-to-order robotic concubines. His only friend is his pet, a concrete seagull named Deepo.
The Incal begins with DiFool being beaten up by masked thugs and thrown off a bridge. The detective's luck seldom improves from that point, and soon he is caught up in a caper that extends way beyond his pay grade: battling the forces of darkness for the ultimate fate of the universe.
Inspired by the tarot, Jodorowsky modeled DiFool after "The Fool," a major arcana that is interpreted both as the first and the last, or even as zero. Like all tarot, the Fool holds many interpretations, though in the case of The Incal he particularly "signifies the journey outward." As Jodorowsky explained to THR:
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.
For most of the series' six volumes, DiFool exhibits all his namesake's worst qualities - extravagance, intoxication, frenzy, negligence, apathy, vanity - but his connection to the mystical Incal thrusts him onto the galactic stage. And by the series' end, DiFool discovers he serves a far greater purpose than he ever guessed.
The Incal Is An Object Of Immense Power
The titular Incal is an object of extraordinary power, but its true nature remains a mystery for most of the comic's run. There are, in fact, two Incals: the Luminous Incal and the Black Incal, both of which appear to be small, glass pyramids.
When The Incal begins, the Black Incal is in the possession of the Techno-Technos, who use it to create their sun-devouring weapons known as Shadow Eggs. John DiFool first encounters the Luminous Incal while crawling through the massive ventilation shafts of his subterranean city. After taking it from the body of a Berg spy, he hides it in the one place he's sure no one will look: inside Deepo, his pet bird.
The Incal transforms Deepo, granting him not only the power of speech but also the ability to heal the sick. Like a biblical prophet, the bird begins preaching to the grateful citizens of City Shaft - only stopping when DiFool forces him to cough up the Incal.
Though Deepo loses his ability to heal wounds, he retains his speech. Indeed, after DiFool also swallows the Incal, he, too, experiences lasting changes to his physiology.
With its ability to perform miracles, the Incal is sought after by the many powers that rule John DiFool's universe. As to what the Incal truly is? The best explanation is probably given by Kill Wolfhead:
It was born on the empire's most insignificant planet. It is the new light that will one day illuminate the galaxy. It is pure consciousness, a direct emanation of the divine will - the power of god incarnate.
Jodorowsky claims the idea came to him in a dream:
I dreamed I was flying in intergalactic space. A cosmic being formed by two superimposed pyramids, one black, the other white, was calling me. I moved toward it and found myself submerged in the center. We exploded. And that’s how my subconscious mind introduced me to "El Incal."
The Story Takes Place Across Multiple Galaxies And Amidst Several Warring Factions
It would take several thousand more words to properly explain The Incal's vast cast of characters and how their schemes collide. Suffice it to say that the story is set in an aged empire torn by multiple factions vying for control. The one thing they all have in common is they all want the Incal.
The City Shaft is the home of John DiFool and where the story begins. As its name suggests, this is a totally subterranean city built into a giant hole in the ground. It is an obvious visual metaphor for the state of its human inhabitants, who spend most of their time in hedonistic pursuits. City Shaft resides on planet Ter21 and is overseen by the aristocratic Prezident - a 7-foot-tall clone who floats above the city in a vast pleasure palace. His rule is opposed by a rebel group known as Amok.
Galaxy Xiam 45 is the home of the human empire. It comprises 22,000 colonized planets and is overseen by the Emperoress, a psychic pair of conjoined twins hailed as the "sacred androgyne." Serving the Emperoress are their feared purple endoguard, the Technoguild, and the Ekonomat. However, these forces are rife with corruption.
The Technopriests (AKA the Technoguild, AKA the Church of Industrial Saints, AKA Techno-Technos) are a cult devoted to the Black Incal. They worship darkness and wish to snuff out the stars by deploying Shadow Eggs throughout the human galaxy.
The Bergs are a race of aliens from a neighboring galaxy. While the Bergs are nominally at war with the human empire, the truth is (like everything in The Incal) more complicated. The Bergs are actually seeking contestants for their Five-Thousand Year Nuptial Games. Human warriors have been plucked from 27 planets in Galaxy Xiam 45 to battle each other for the chance to impregnate the Bergs' protoqueen. According to Berg legend, the children hatched from this union will usher in a Golden Age of Eternal Prosperity.
John DiFool And His Companions Form The Seven Keys Of Transfiguration
Over the course of the series' first three installments - "The Black Incal" (1981), "The Luminous Incal" (1982), and "What Lies Beneath" (1984) - John DiFool is joined by six companions whose fates are also bound to the Incal. When they are pursued by the Prezidential Necrodroid, the group must set aside their differences to journey to the center of Planet Ter21. There, they bare their souls to open the doorway of transfiguration.
In the next three installments of The Incal - "What is Above" (1985), "The Dreaming Galaxy" (1988), and "Planet DiFool" (1988) - these seven companions must contend with the Techno-Technos, a galactic coup, the Bergs, the encroaching Great Darkness, and John DiFool being the worst co-worker imaginable. Their names:
Deepo is DiFool's pet, a concrete seagull whose loyalty to his master never wavers. If DiFool is Frodo Baggins, Deepo is his Samwise Gamgee. Despite being far kinder and level-headed than DiFool, Deepo seems to truly care for him, and saves his life on multiple occasions.
The Metabaron is a mercenary feared throughout the galaxy. He is initially hired by Amok to track down John DiFool, but he does so under duress: Amok has kidnapped his adopted son Solune, leaving him no choice but to pursue his quarry. (Jodorowsky would revisit the Metabaron and his family's legendary adventures in his equally epic series The Metabarons. The comic is what would happen if heavy metal and LSD had a baby.)
Tanatah is the leader of Amok, the sister of Animah, and was once the Guardian of the Black Incal. She rejected her life as a guardian and journeyed to City Shaft to lead the rebels. Initially one of the main antagonists of the series, she makes peace with her destiny and her sister once she is healed by the Incal.
Animah lives in the center of Ter21 and is the Guardian of the Luminous Incal. She serves the Arhats, mystical old men who dwell in the light of Ter21's Interior Sun, and is the mother of Solune.
Solune is the biological son of Animah and John DiFool, entrusted to the Metabaron for his protection and guidance. Solune will become the "perfect androgyne" that leads the human empire into a new era of peace and unity. (Solune uses male pronouns until he transforms into his androgyne form, taking on the dual he/she pronoun thereafter.) His dual nature is symbolized by his name, a mixture of the French soleil (sun) and lune (moon). It is this pureness that enables him to merge with the Black and White Incals to become a living spaceship (Solune is the large crystal that appears directly behind DiFool in the image).
Kill Wolfhead is a mutant with a literal wolf's head. A rebel leader, he hates John DiFool for putting a hole in his ear and seemingly tricking him into seducing an elderly aristocrat. Like the rest of his companions, his priorities change once he comes into contact with the Incal.
The Techno-Technos Are Defeated, But The Universe Isn't Saved
Thanks to giant space jellyfish from the planet Aquaend (mutated by the Incal, of course), John DiFool and his companions are able to neutralize the threat of the Shadow Eggs. However, the creators of the Shadow Eggs, the Techno-Technos, have wrested control of the galactic government from the Emperoress.
It's only with the help of the Bergs that John DiFool and his companions can storm the Technopriests' space citadel of Technogea. And it's only by seducing the Bergs' queen that DiFool can get them on his side.
One fateful mating later, DiFool and his friends join forces with the Emperoress to place them back on the throne. Unfortunately, amidst the fighting, the Emperoress is possessed by the Great Darkness - the true demonic power behind the Techno-Technos.
By transforming into the perfect androgyne, Solune is able to vanquish this avatar of the Great Darkness, but the light of the universe is already failing. In 22 days, it will be completely extinguished.