Weapons of the Metabaron

Weapons of the Metabaron

If bad publicity is better than no publicity, then Weapons of the Metabaron is comfortably ahead of nearly every other Franco-Belgian genre comic currently in English release. Indeed, because its notoriety stems from a particularly extreme tardiness, the book is inseparable from the last time BD of its action-oriented type enjoyed any widespread attention in the United States: the millennial heyday of Humanoids, English-oriented branch of Les Humanoïdes Associés, the venerable French publisher co-founded by comics titan Moebius, who in 1981 introduced a Tarotic science fiction adventure, The Incal, written by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky as a continuation of the aborted collaboration they’d enjoyed from the latter’s attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to movie screens in maximal fashion. As the ‘80s went on, The Incal arrived in English essentially on Moebius’ name, first in the pages of Heavy Metal, the Americanized offshoot of Les Humanoïdes’ Métal Hurlant anthology magazine, and then via Marvel’s Epic line of creator-owned comics and books, which had been busily compiling a whole series devoted to the artist.

But by 1999, the year Humanoids established itself in the U.S., the focus had shifted firmly to Jodorowsky, a potentially wider-known ‘cult’ name whose works remained in large part accessible to Les Humanoïdes as a publisher. Among the flagship offerings was The Metabarons, a spin-off of The Incal that Jodorowsky had begun with artist Juan Giménez in 1992, intended to chart the lineage of a popular leather-clad bald badass mercenary from the Moebius series, beginning with the inception of his warrior clan and covering one important character per album; the concept allowed for a wide variety of action/adventure scenarios to be explored, although the deeper implications of the series were lashed to Jodorowsky’s concept of “psychomagic,” a means of divining the neuroses that plague the individual by inspecting their ancestry and performing ritual acts -- burning one of your father’s books, for instance -- to defeat the psychological pull of past troubles. Role playing and discussion factor into these investigations, which don’t seem entirely divorced from Jodorowsky’s method of ‘writing’ The Incal with Moebius, the artist sketching thumbnails from Jodorowsky’s vivid live descriptions. Fittingly, the events of The Metabarons were contextualized in-story as a series of tales being related from one character to another, with the telling of the whole saga of macho action super-killing across the generations eventually inspiring a crucial entity to commit a selfless act that breaks the cycle of violence -- a state endemic to the varied adventure stories that congeal into the series’ universe -- leading the final Metabaron, he of The Incal, to realize that, like Hova, his Achilles’ heel is LOOOVE, and he don’t get enough of it.

Mind you, this hadn’t been revealed at the time Humanoids began publishing the series in English, to fine notices from American comic book writers like Warren Ellis. Of the eventual eight-volume series, only six had been completed by 2000. The seventh, marking the birth of the ‘present day’ Metabaron, arrived in French in 2002, by which time interest in expanding the brand again had been raised. Canadian artist Travis Charest, popular for increasingly heavy, burnished art on various projects relating to Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s superhero franchise, had been recruited to work with Jodorowsky on a project sometimes called The Dreamshifters, tentatively described by the publisher as “a new series of stories featuring the current Metabaron… each chapter will chronicle the origin of the Metabaron’s most powerful weapons.” That’s from an ‘02 special release, The Metabarons: Alpha/Omega, sporting a nine-page Charest-illustrated story, in addition to a cover image cropped from an otherwise unseen tenth page. However, by 2007, it had come out that Charest had only completed approximately 30 pages in total, and that a resultant album would be completed by Zoran Janjetov, a Moebius disciple and fellow artist of Incal-related offshoots ranging from the official prequel Avant l'Incal to The Technopriests, a discreet branch of the universal tree. This delay left a conspicuous gap in the eighth and final volume of The Metabarons proper, released in French in 2004, in that the title character essentially vanishes from much of his own history to enjoy adventures presumably intended for bonus books of the type handled by Charest. Real world gaps appeared too; the concluding ‘main’ album didn’t appear in English until 2010, owing to a series of ill-fated partnerships Humanoids entered into with American publishers, only recently reconstituting itself as an individual entity in the U.S.

And so, Weapons of the Metabaron now finally appears in English -- it hit Europe in ‘08 -- with Charest’s name afforded top billing; truth be told, he’s still the most recognizable name among audiences in America likely to enjoy some comic entertainment of this space-faring costumed blast ‘em up type. Moreover, the book seems poised primarily to deliver big, booming images, straining a bit against the trim 7.75” x 10.5” dimensions of the localized package. Charest’s exact story page count comes to 29 out of 55, all of them painted in a manner somewhat unlike his other interior comic book pages he’s produced; this ups the realism of the artist’s images to a nearly photographic effect at times, with copious uses of faded or saturating color to impose particular moods on the stolid figures populating each panel. Fittingly, this marks Charest’s portion of the project as very much a product of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s Les Humanoïdes, which saw artist Frédéric "Fred" Beltran heading a digital re-coloring effort of The Incal and its prequel, seemingly to put the whole Jodorowsky sprawl in line with the realist approach Beltran’s colors brought to Janjetov’s drawings on The Technopriests, to say nothing of Beltran’s own spectacularly garish CG-modeled art on the separate Jodorowsky-written series Megalex.

You can probably tell I’m not a fan of this approach, though it must be said that Charest knows his limits. His characters rarely exhibit the posey overacting endemic to a lot of the heavy realist action comics art around today, and his pages are generally clean and simple in terms of layout, which prevents the intricacies of the images from getting overwhelming. He also adds some striking light effects and tactical reductions in panel detail, which compensate in terms of drama for the stillness of the individual images - the weight of paint has slowed the momentum of Charest’s panel flow more than ever before.

Yet even the skillful positioning of these images can be dissatisfying. Take this image, depicting the traditional mortal combat between Metabaron and son, here involving the titular present Metabaron and his male/female parent (it’s a long story):

It’s a cold display, blue & grey, fitting for the icy maneuvers of La caste des Méta-Barons. The level of detail in the first panel inhibits comprehension a little, though Charest quickly entraps his combatants in narrow panels to build suspense and isolate the individual identities of the characters. All of the emphasis of the bottom two panels is on detailing, from the white background of the penultimate image offsetting the minute nicks and scratches on that big, heavy pike, to the bursts and cracks of energy demonstrating the points of impact on an opponent so worked-over in texture that I frankly couldn’t make the killing weapon out from all that armor and weaponry.

In contrast, here’s the same confrontation as illustrated by Giménez in the final album of The Metabarons:

Crucially, Giménez is also painting his line art, but in it remains the heart of cartooning. Huge white whooshes accompanied by curling, jangling sound effects create movement in and between the panels while characters grimace and bark vividly; this is melodrama, but because Giménez’s characters retain a core cartooniness, their expressions seem more of a piece with the artist’s lines than the liabilities of shit actors. Giménez also dispenses with the present Metabaron’s helmet -- both to differentiate between figures and play into the expressiveness of his face -- while also pacing his action to convey the desperation of the Metabaron’s killing strike; while Charest’s stillness belies premeditation, Giménez’s work is as panicked as the added exclamations of the dialogue balloons. Jodorowsky generally leaves a lot of leeway to his artists, like the old Marvel method is being bent toward enforcing a parity between creative contributors; it’s possible that extra dialogue was added to compliment the tone of the art.

Given the task of completing the present book, Janjetov opts to veer away from Charest’s style, presenting himself as a bit closer to the Moebius-influenced drawing of the early pages of Avant l'Incal, his own colors operating in a manner that collages digital textures with glossy hues. In terms of meat ‘n potatoes storytelling, it moves things along effectively, but if we are to view the lineage of The Metabarons in a Jodorowsky-like psychomagical sense, the structure of the book -- Janjetov drawing a four-page prelude to Charest’s pages, then polishing off the rest -- frames the heavy realist content as a historical departure, concluded and completed in a manner akin to that of the original co-creator, Moebius, returning to the fore. Among the revived Humanoids’ other 2010 projects was a new all-in-one edition of The Incal, stripping away the updated coloring to restore the unrealistic ‘80s enthusiasm of Moebius allies such as Yves Chaland and, yes, Zoran Janjetov.

And yet, despite the overwhelmingly visual emphasis of the work, it’s Jodorowsky that’s most notable. Literarily, he structures Janjetov’s framing contributions as the book’s ‘present’ action, with all of Charest’s art positioned in the story as a dream of a Metabaron that’s somehow forgotten everything about himself. A very long flashback, then, in the proud movie tradition of Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, although I wonder if Jodorowsky isn’t nodding at the project’s production troubles by characterizing Charest’s work as something half-remembered from long ago. It’s difficult to tell how the plot was initially intended to play out, but here it’s like the outline of a quest-oriented miniseries illustrated as-is, with the Metabaron on a journey to collect an assortment of dangerous weapons to better fight a horde of foes (vampires and bloodsuckers!) prone to sapping the energies of the physical body and the serenity of the mind; all is centered around the Dreamshifters, old men who control the dreams of the universe, housed in a beating planet-heart at the center of all things.

It doesn’t take more than a few pages for any obstacle to be overcome, which is admittedly in keeping with the Metabaron’s character; the most charitable reading would deem this to be a commentary on the emptiness of conquest-based quest narratives, video games and such, in keeping with the general critique of heroic violence at the heart of The Metabarons, though from the dangling narrative threads and absence of world-building detail it seems more like a work racing through its ideas to finally get the damn thing over with. Yet Jodorowsky nonetheless scatters self-referential elements throughout, given the plot’s frayed brevity something of a chart’s simplicity. Of the weapons the Metabaron collects, the first is Praxis, an imaginary sword that fuses totally with the user’s interior to become real, thereby bringing the theory of killing motherfuckers into realization. For the young Metabaron, it is the spark of creativity, artistic practice, followed by the rescue of a chalice that absorbs anything: influence.

Finally, the arch-foe of the book comes in the form of a triangular eye, an evil twin of the powerful item at the center of The Incal, which taunts the Metabaron with potential fears and assumes his form. Its defeat opens a third eye in Our Hero, allowing him to glimpse the whole of people, down to their souls. It is nothing for now, but it bears the capacity for empathy, for passing beyond absorption into relation; it is the Metabaron’s salvation, his weapons ultimately empowering him to smash the series-length generational pain that binds him. It is, again, not unlike Jodorowsky’s own comics-making attitude, at least systemically pursuing an understanding with the artist(s). And while it did not make a triumph out of this flawed book, it did ensure itself the dignity of Charest’s departure at a natural enough stopping point in the narrative, thus promoting a logical shift in the visual style rarely seen in American action comic fill-ins, more hurried by schedule with writers and artists kept farther apart. It may not be a popular one, but Jodorowsky’s brand of genre comics remains its own redemptive cosmos.