By Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen, and Valentin Secher
The latest installment in the Jungian-rich, space opera saga borne from the meticulously demented mind of Alexandro Jodorowsky has arrived. And the people rejoiced; for it was good. Awash in a glorious frenzy of science-fiction world building and mythological oral tradition, The Metabaron: Book One is most impressive for its accessibility, despite the nearly 600-page tome that precedes it. With Jerry Frissen taking the reins as writer (Jodorowsky is credited with “story”) and the chiaroscuro-laden painterly skills of Valentin Secher on art, The Metabaron looks to push the epic lineage cycle of this universe’s greatest warrior clan to the brink of disruptive change while taking a surprisingly leisurely pace. Far more fascinated in tragic grandeur than it is with charged momentum, the continued Oedipal undertones thrust themselves to the forefront in this opening salvo in a harmonic celebration of violence, legacy, and change.
Framed once more by the narration of The Metabarons’ ever-faithful robot, Tonto, the story lays the foundation for the newest cycle by introducing, of all things, a political trade crisis. That sound you hear now is the collective groan of millions of haunted “Phantom Menace” watchers. Fear not, this is far more Game of Thrones than it is beleaguered Star Wars prequel. The Techno-Techno Empire (yes, that’s really their name) has seized control of the planet Marmola to corner the techno-market (okay, that one’s mine) on the galaxy’s most precious fuel resource, Epiphyte. Marmola is also the ancestral home to the Metabaron’s clan and when he sets course for it to humble the Empire once more, the epic conflict begins anew.
Jodorowsky has given life to such a bananas mythology spinning out from what he and Moebius gifted the world with in The Incal, that one finds themselves instantly transported into a fully functioning and vibrant setting. Designs both pastoral and technological are equally lush and populated by over-the-top characters serving as infantrymen, sniveling sycophants, conniving tradesmen, hypocritical religious cult members, and all manner of flora and fauna in between. While the precise mechanisms that drive this world are ambiguous, there’s little doubt that it all operates fully independent of whether you’re reading it or not. It just is. That’s part of what makes these Metabaron episodes really work, and with Secher’s knack for adding gravitas through lighting and texture, the whole affair can focus on delivering the grandiose scope and tone.
Let’s start with Secher, whose beautifully rendered digital approach makes for apt drama and stunning scale. His vivid lighting really steals the show, providing depth and, more importantly, life to these impossible warriors. The glimmers of raindrops draining down an anguished face, the reflections of sunlight on a golden planet, the glows of terrifying technological wonders and nightmares; Secher injects a vitality to it all that’s virtually tactile. The photo-realistic style often lends itself to stunted motion, and while there are some sequential moments that stagger just a bit between panels, Secher’s sharp composition injects a fluid heft to the story as a whole. He balances and frames his subjects throughout with a delicate eye for maximum effect, delivering moments of intrepid introspection or brutality. Secher is all about establishing the weight and mood, hammering home the operatic elements to this sci-fi circus. He transitions between verdant establishing shots that alight the imagination and dramatic subject-to-subject sequences with a Hideo Kojima level of dramatic flair. And, look, the villain has giant robotic arms that are just so wonderfully ridiculous, it’s hard to believe how convincingly Secher transforms him into a legitimate figure to be feared. Secher’s work is stunning and not only fits perfectly alongside previous Metabaron artists (and upcoming artists such as Esad Ribic, Niko Henrichon, and Mukesh Singh), it sets a new bar for them.
The inherent challenge then in writing the widely accepted “unbeatable warrior of the universe” would presumably be to forge a believable conflict for the titular protagonist to confront. But this isn’t standard cape comics we’re talking about and Frissen knows this. The warrior clan of Metabarons have never been about simply besting foes, but taking on history and existence itself. With this foray into the Jodo-verse, Frissen tempers any urge to languish in the baser instincts and instead turns the cerebral horrors into animate beings in the form of the Techno-Admiral and, more importantly, the Anti-Baron.
Twisting the established Oedipal tradition of the son usurping the father, Jodorowsky and Frissen present here the doppelgänger interloper in an imitation game of ascendancy. Coupled with the id incarnate that is the comically giant-armed Roman Centurion on techno-acid Techno-Admiral, Wilhelm 100, and the fascist girth of the Technopope, Frissen delights in highlighting the one-dimensionality of these villains. Because, really, this is all as much soap opera as it is space opera. It’s dripping with melodrama, but wrapped in the warm embrace of sci-fi insanity. Characters speak almost exclusively in exclamations. Everything is bombast as though it were straight from Arthurian lore. Jodorowsky and Frissen revel in this as the far more complex themes dance hither and fro. The simplicity of the plot is buoyed by the richness of the larger schema of what’s come before and what’s being blazoned ahead. The familiar, and admittedly infectious, fun of it all is taking on newer challenges in the face of a mythic prophecy straight from the core of where the Metabarons come from. Our current Metabaron, in a state of self-imposed pacifism (alright, he still hurts people, but he’s drawing a Batman-like line in the sand on murder) now faces his most violent foe: universal change. It is a disruption to the established pattern of his familial line, given life in the form of the Anti-Baron, that marks the most interesting aspect to this latest addition of Jodo-verse crazy.
The Metabaron: Book One’s greatest detriment, however, is a familiar one to Jodorowsky’s oeuvre: it is overwhelmingly white (one green dude does not a POC make) and even more overwhelmingly male. Gone are the far more fertile examinations of the anima and animus that ran roughshod over The Metabarons, replaced with a facile approach to masculinity as kingmaker. With the inner-conflict of the parentless Anti-Baron, Jodorowsky and Frissen do explore the fragility of balance required in the Metabarons’ gender homeostasis that has allowed for their prestigious reign, but it’s not nearly as close to the core of this chapter as it deserves to be. Instead it feels more scratched upon than truly submerged in and that’s indicative of the more straightforward nature of this instalment than in the past. Perhaps it’s intended to be more of a foreshadow than an entrée, but as a standalone work, it’s disappointingly shallow in its overt male centricity. The warrior-monk status of our protagonist helps to assuage this somewhat, but the one woman given any sort of real attention has a role primarily focusing on her fertility and then she is literally replaced with a cow. So…yeah.
If you’re already all-in on the epic madness that is Jodorowsky’s Metabarons, then The Metabaron: Book One thoroughly delivers as the satisfying next chapter in the mythology. If you’re new to this circus, then be prepared to be welcomed with giant robotic gladiator arms as it’s impressively accessible in its decision to open with a more linear, grounded plot than its predecessor. It’s still as grand as ever, of course, blending soap opera with Poetic Edda and psychological equilibrium with tragic humanity. Frissen and Jodorowsky opt for a more straightforward opening act that spends as much, if not more, time with characters not named The Metabaron than with the titular warrior, but with a reassuring confidence that the real techno-meat has yet to be served. Bizarre, brutal, and beguiling, The Metabaron is a worthy addition to the impressive legacy and an accessible aria all its own.