Howdy, all my comic book peeps out there on the interwebs!
Andy Larson back again for his weekly entry into the world of making the world safe yet again for people that want to know about comics but don’t actually want to read them for themselves. I feel like there’s a real market for this kind of service, if it hadn’t already been done to death by 1000 other comic book websites. Oh well, those other sites don’t have my sparkling personality to help the medicine of a critical comic book analysis go down like a spoonful of sugar. Or corn syrup. You pick your poison.
In any case, on today’s blog, I’m showcasing a book that I’ve been meaning to review for like 4 years. Well, scratch that. What I should say is I’ve wanted to review a book written by this particular author for the past 4 years, ever since I sat down one cold winter evening with my fellow GotS podcast buddy, Chad Smith, and we watched the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, aka the story of the greatest science fiction movie that was never actually filmed.
Yes, I am talking about the mythical enigma director of the 70s, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who not only almost pulled off a masterpiece with his adaption of Frank Herbert’s Intergalactic epic, Dune, but did in fact direct two other insanely defining of tradition conventions in El Topo and the Holy Mountain, both of which I can say I have seen.
Now most of you probably say to yourselves, what is a dude that was supposed to be like the second coming of Orson Welles writing comic books. This has to be fluke, like Kevin Smith writing a couple Black Cat issues. But nope, this guy has the comic chops, writing a slew of science fiction style comics over the years including The Incal trilogy: Before the Incal/ Incal/ Final Incal, The Technopriests, and The Metabarons trilogy: Castaka/ The Caste of the Metabarons/ Weapons of the Metabaron.
It’s actually the third of these books that I wanted to review for the longest time because I had heard rumors that Metabarons is where a lot of the ideas that Jodorowsky was going to use in his Dune movie project eventually found root in some shape or form. So it’s in some ways the closest we’ll ever get to seeing his vision for this movie in a visual form instead of just abstract concepts and discussion. So without further ado, here is your feature presentation, Chapter 1 of the Metabarons epic entitled “Othon”.
The first volume of this saga begins as a folktale being told between two robotic servants of the origins of the Metabaron dynasty that stretches across the cosmos. Some time ago, on the planet Marmola, there once lived a royal tribe named the Castakas, ruled over by Baron Berard. The planet’s only export was huge blocks of marble although it was a secret as to how these blocks were transported given the limited technology of the civilization.
However, after an accident almost kills the Baron’s son in law and former pirate, Othon von Salza, the Castakas are forced to reveal the existence of their real secret treasure, an anti-gravity element called epiphyte which they had used to move the blocks.
After the revelation of the epiphyte and it’s worth to the universe as a power source comes to light, the planet comes under attack by swarms of mercenaries all trying to take the epiphyte by force. At the end of the war, only Othon and his son Bari are the survivors of the Castaka tribe, but Othon manages to broker peace with the Empire gaining percentage of the profits for the new marketable epiphyte and a new planet in which to live as kings.
Additionally, due to the fact that Bari’s legs were left crippled by the preceeding battle, Othon secures the gift of a horse for him, which is quite a boon given horses are an extinct species at this time and this particular one had to be recreated Jurassic Park style through genetic manipulation.
But tragedy strikes again as space pirates come to steal the horse, and in an attempt to kill them in defense, Othon accidentally kills Bari in the crossfire. To add insult to injury, Othon is also castrated in the attack by laser fire, and has to invests a large part of his fortune in cybernetic implants to survive. However, this also begins the long tradition of Metabarons being cyborgs and also leads to the development of the first metabaronic weapons, like things that look like lightsabers…
Things I Liked:
It’s very hard not to mention Juan Giménez artwork in this story as the first and foremost thing I liked about this book. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that I didn’t just like the artwork, I loved it. Everything was so stylized, so detailed, so expressive, it was almost like watching a movie. It’s not surprising as Giménez series Pik As has been defined as a comic encyclopaedia of World War II due to it’s attention to technical detail and realism (that might be a book I’ll have to see if I can find…)
Sure, some of my co-hosts on GotS aren’t as much into the European style look of comic art as I am (as referenced by our Omega Men show a few weeks back). But this stuff is so different than the American style that it’s a welcome breath of fresh air every once and in a while, and when it is done as well as this book, it’s just simply breathtaking.
In fact, going back to the original notion that the artwork reminded me of watching a movie, I don’t think it’s as much a comic book, but a visual storyboard, like the ones that directors would use to plot the progress of a movie in terms of shot for shot planning. It’s interesting that we, as comic book aficionados, don’t talk more about the notion of story boards being very akin to the same medium that we gush about every week, but they are. In fact, if you think about some of the comic book artists that have been involved with story boarding movies like Jack Kirby or Dave Stevens, we are talking some upper echelon members of the funny book hierarchy, so yeah, it’s a legitimate parallel.
Some of favorite parts of the book are actually straight up story boarding at it’s finest. No words. Just pretty pretty pictures, like this scene where they descend into the depths of Marmola to search for the sacred Epiphyte element.
There’s no wonder that Giménez also had designed the “Harry Canyon” segment of the original Heavy Metal movie back in 1980. That’s always been probably my favorite part of that flick, and after reading this book, it definitely made me want to go back and rewatch it. Luckily for me, small sample parts of the film are available on YouTube, so you can check it out for yourself below. Just absolutely fantastic!
Things I Didn’t Like:
Well, I guess I have to be honest with this section and say, that although I understand that Jodorowsky didn’t get to make his Dune movie, and had a lot of ideas left over from the pre-production he did for that film, at the end of the day, it’s still sort of a cop out that Metabarons is pretty much a Dune clone. I mean I’ve read Dune, and I’ve read Metabarons. Dune is much better, so I’m not sure why Jodorowsky didn’t just work with the Hebert estate to get the comic book rights to do Dune as an adaptation if that’s really what he wanted to do.
I mean, I’m not going to sit here and say Metabarons is a complete rip off of Dune. First off, it’s takes place on a planet of marble, not sand. There’s not really any conflict between specifically two incredibly rich and diverse spacefaring dynasties like Dune’s House Atreides vs. House Harkonnen. There’s no deep dive into an entire alien planet’s vastly different ecology system on a grand scale or study on the decline and fall of great empires. The lack of parallels to Middle Eastern culture and heritage or emphasis on the achievement of Zen through Jungian ideals is missing.
In short, it’s not ripoff of Dune, because Dune is so much more.
Gee, the way I talk, it makes it seem like there’s nothing of interest in this book. And well…I guess there isn’t. Well, maybe that’s too harsh. What I meant to say is the characters, plot, everything, they are all somewhat good, but when compared with Dune, they aren’t really anything special. They are just more somewhat tired science fiction tropes and even the main character of Othon, it’s exactly anything to write home about.
Yes, Othon is this bad ass former space pirate who kills like 1500 other mercenaries with a butter knife or something ridiculous like that. Yes, he has some touching moments with his first son, and his tragic somewhat Shakespearean demise. But long story short, he’s no Paul Atreides. He’s not the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah born to free the Fremen of Arrakis and lead them in a revolution to take back their planet and the precious spice within. I mean again, I’m going back and referring to the exciting things that happen in Dune, because it is so much more interesting than the story here.
And maybe that’s unfair, but I feel like the way that this book is written, the cues Jodorowsky took from his time researching the Dune book and included them in this story, Metabarons is opening itself to a direct comparison to Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 sci-fi novel. And in doing so, it’s definitely not a fair comparison whatsoever, and this book pales in the face of that.
I thought with this section I just would talk about Alejandro Jodorowsky early accomplishments as a film maker as they are really interesting stories!
In 1970, Jodorowsky released the film El Topo which he had both directed and starred in. Some like to use the term “acid western” to describe the movie’s genre, but at the end of the day, it’s just more or less a counter culture version of the tradition spaghetti style western movies, something like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
It’s a strange little tale of a wandering Mexican gunslinger, El Topo (played by Jodorowsky), who travels the deserts with his young son searching for spiritual fulfillment. His violent nature results ultimately in his near death until he finds redemption in fighting for community of deformed people who live inside a mountain cave, fearful of the outside world.
Although it’s very psychedelic in terms of its imagery and some people are put off by the rampant nudity, it’s actually fairly straightforward western in terms of its plot and thus is somewhat easy to follow. As a result of the film garnered a cult following and included fans like John Lennon and George Harrison, who thought so highly of it that they fought to get The Beatles’ recording company Apple Corps to distribute it in the US.
Jodorowsky then went on to make his second film The Holy Mountain in 1973, and let me tell you as someone that’s seen both, compared with Holy Moutain, El Topo is like an episode of Gunsmoke in terms of traditional story telling.
I mean during it’s filming Jodorowsky was receiving spiritual training which included the use of LSD to heighten the psychedelic experience as well as time in a sensory deprivation tank. All that resulted in a truly avant garde film about a mystical alchemist again played by Jodorowsky and seven powerful business people representing the planets from our solar system on a quest for spiritual rebirth, and the secret of immortality.
I won’t lie, I really struggled with this film over the years, having to watch it in chunks only here and there until I eventually finished it, but that’s because it was so out there. I mean look at this screenshot below and tell me that you wouldn’t be a bit weirded out by the proceedings.
However, this isn’t another installment of my Insomniac Cult Movie Theater, so I’ll cut short with a complete review of these two pictures. But what I will say is, if you are truly a movie buff and you haven’t at least attempted to watch at least one of these films, I would highly recommend you do so before you pass on from this mortal coil. They are something else indeed, and will easily expand your horizons in one way or another.
I know that when fans of the Metabarons series read this blog and see the way I slam this book as trying to be Dune, but not being as interesting as Dune, they are going to point out the glaring fact that I’m comparing the entire book of Dune and everything that happens in it to only the first chapter of the Metabarons series with Othon. Therefore they will argue that it would have been more fair for me to compare Othon with only the beginning portion of Dune.
Fair enough. I concede the fact that I have only read a very small portion of the totality which is the Metabarons universe, and I’m sure that there is a lot more to this story in its totality than I’m giving credit for. However, by the same token, this is the story where you set the stage for the rest of the series, where you engage the audience and get their buy in.
So let’s talk about what happens by the end of the 57th page of Dune (which is probably an unfair comparison because you can tell so much more story with a comic in 57 pages than you can with a book given you have the luxury of both text and visual images). Paul has already completed his test for Reverend Mother Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit and potentially is named the Kwisatz Haderach, his father Duke Leto has accepted the control of the planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen knowing full well it is a trap, and yet he has done so because Arrakis could mean control of the most powerful substance in the universe in Melange. Speaking of which we also have already learned about the spice Melange and it’s abilities to extend life and allows the Spacing Guild’s Navigators to safely route faster-than-light travel between planets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
What I’m saying is although the first chapter of Metabarons is gorgeous to look at, there’s not much story here compared with other books from which this series was heavily influenced. And without a lot of engaging story, it’s hard to say its more than slightly average sci-fi tale. It’s possible the story picks up a bit from here, but I’m not sure if there was enough to hook me as a comic reviewer or more importantly the average reader into continuing on. Especially when at the end of the day, I would have rather just seen a comic book adaptation of Dune proper. I can’t even begin to think about how wonderful that would have been with the tremendous story of the Dune book married with all that work Jodorowsky did for the movie coupled with the film quality artwork of Giménez.
It seriously could have been a comic book for the ages instead of something that seemed at times to be a shadow fill in for what never would be.