Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

24 Jan 2017

(Graphic Novel) The Saga of the Metabarons by Alejandro Jodorowsky (author) and Juan Giménez (illustrator)

(Reaction) Branding Fate by: Jose Angelo Singson

T.S.M. (The Saga of the Metabarons) narrates the history of a dynasty of near perfect, peerless warriors known collectively as the Metabarons. The term Metabaron is both a hereditary title and an official function that is held by several characters in the vast intergalactic empire that the story revolves in. A Metabaron is akin to a retainer or a yojimbo of the feudal age, this time though in the service of the rulers of the known galaxy.

This multi-generational tale is told from the vantage point of two robots, Tonto and Lothar, machine-retainers of the latest and last of the Metabaronic line. Ironically, the last Metabaron was never given a name because, according to his father-mother Aghora, as a perfect warrior his abilities transcend the need for a name. Tonto and Lothar serve as narrators, Greek chorus of sorts helping the reader make sense of the story and to move the tale along, and as an occasional, annoying comic relief.

The author displays a deep regard for the importance of a common cultural identity and heritage and The Saga of the Metabarons is exactly that and more: a visual thesis of humanity struggling to surpass itself, revolving around the supposition we are all the sum total of our own subjective history. We, despite living in the present, are a people shaped by our past and the past, no matter how sordid, cannot be denied as affecting our futures.

Tying past and future is the lineage of the Metabaron. A hawk-shaped birthmark is passed from one Metabraon to the next. This birthmark is a literal link to the past as all the combat experience, bravery, and cunning of all who have worn the hawk-mark in the past, are bestowed on the current holder of the title.

This birthmark is transferred to each subsequent Metabaron, but before this transference of spirit each successor is forced to endure gruesome mutilation rituals. The subsequent mangled organs and/or limbs are then replaced with cybernetic parts, both for normal movement and often as a concealed weapon. The ritual then culminates in a duel to the death between father and son, validating the fact that the victorious Metabaron is indeed the perfect warrior without equal. Ironically, this ritual of mutilation, limb-replacement, and patricide shapes the clan of the Metabarons into a unique, if incongruent, combination of brutality and deep familial love.

Throughout the series this respect for history shows up as homages to its various inspirations---Dune, for its use of messianic themes and deadly, esoteric sororities as plot devices. Oedipus, for themes of incest and fate, notably when the Metabaron Aghnar’s mother Honorata’s spirit-essence inhabits the body of his comatose wife, Oda, so she could sleep with him all in an attempt to preserve the Metabaronic line. Their incestous union and bears him a son, the merciless Steelhead. Horrified by this act of incest, Aghnar shoots the child’s head and in keeping with the Metabaronic tradition of limb replacement his head is replaced with a complex sensor array designed by Tonto---earning him his moniker---that eventually becomes the only name he is known by.

Throughout the course of the series there are several recurring themes and it is these themes that tie it together into a dynamic whole. Deep, profound themes such as personal development, the transcendence of humanity, and the dynamic tension between familial love and duty were tackled in each Metabaron’s generation, as seen in their own unique approach to the role and challenge of fatherhood. Fatherhood, in each scenario, is made infinitely more complicated by their strict adherence to Bushitaka, the code of honor that unites the Metabarons, and the foreknowledge of the ritual duel of succession that all Metabarons must inevitably face.

Much like the members of the cursed Buendia Family in One Hundred Years of Solitude, there is a certain air of tragedy and mortality that accompanies each character in the series. I liken this to seeing someone walking into a deadly trap and it many cases that proves to be almost literal as one knows that each Metabaron is fated to die a gristly death at the hands of his son.

There is also a definite air of darkness and moral ambiguity that pervades the fictional universe, lovingly called by fans as the Jodoverse. Despite the immense technological and medical advancements in the Jodoverse there are still entire planets filled with the poor and the wretched and access to miraculous technology is strictly regulated by heartless, impossibly avaricious hegemonies.

Each character in the series that comes into contact with the Metabaron clan is also marked by a moral ambiguity; each having an ulterior motive spurring their actions. In fact, throughout the series, entire blocs, like intergalactic trading guilds and military juntas, are presented as generally lacking in concern for the welfare of the millions of nameless, faceless inhabitants of the many planets under their rule, nearly to the point of caricature. The Jodoverse is literally and figuratively a cold, dangerous, and ultimately, uncaring universe. /

The concept of fate is another frequently featured theme in the series. Each character is moved by a mysterious sense of greater destiny that affects each action and decision. This sense of destiny makes every act epic in scope in terms of importance as miniscule events in the past, even the seemingly insignificant, tends to ripple outwards into the future setting larger-than-life events into motion.

An example of this is Honorata’s mysterious and timely appearance to Othon offering a chance to perpetuate the Metabaronic line after he becomes a eunuch by a disastrous twist of fate and the accidental death of his only son by his hands. Honorata is revealed to be a member of the enigmatic Shabda-Oud sisterhood, an out-and-out homage to the Bene Gesserits of Dune; and as in Dune her objective presenting herself to Othon is to produce through their union the messianic figure, the Perfect Androgyne, a hermaphrodite being with immense psychic powers; who they believe will lead the universe into a golden age of peace and prosperity. Instead of producing the fabled Perfect Androgyne, however, she bears him a son, out of genuine love and to honor Othon’s desire to continue the family line. In doing this she fails her mission to the Shabda-Oud sisterhood, earning their enmity and a vendetta is called out for her and the Metabaron clan. This vendetta plays out in later generations in the series.

It is interesting to note that androgyny is an obsessive theme covered in many of Sr. Jodorowsky’s works. This obsession seems to stem from the author’s eclectic blend of shamanistic and occult beliefs. Reading through the series one gets the impression that the author views humanity as largely incapable of any true development because of the vast differences between men and women because these differences cause conflict. It strikes me that he sees both genders as each having essential characteristics for achieving enlightenment but never enough in and of itself, hence the unique conclusion that perfection lies in the state of androgyny.

Androgyny therefore becomes both the penultimate objective that humanity strives for in the series and at the same time a fool’s errand. It is the prize several factions’ work towards achieving, from the Shabda-Oud sorority to the ruling intergalactic leader, and is used by the author as plot device throughout the series. The concept is also another metaphor for the desire of humanity to rise above its own restrictions, viewing gender as a flaw that hinders humanity from reaching a higher state of consciousness and social order.

Initially though it seemed to me that the Metabarons, despite their wealth, battle prowess, and formidable psychic powers, were always victims. Victims of cruel twists of fate, as in the case of the first Metabaron Othon, who after managing to gain a son despite his condition, refuses to raise him, disdaining him as a freak. Victims even of their own code of “honor,” as in the case of the second Metabaron Aghnar, who laments how cruel his childhood is as he is raised to become the perfect warrior but is instructed to endure as these are the requirements of the warrior code that he must uphold and maintain because it is his clan’s legacy.

They are even seeming victims of their own character flaws, as in the case of Melmoth, the composite-being Metabaron. The part of his persona, formed by the poet Zaran Krleza could not overcome his petty preoccupation with physical beauty, revealing how shallow he truly was, eventually rejecting the wife he fought so hard to woo.

Despite their seeming helplessness in the face of their twisted fate as a clan this is when the themes of transcendence and surpassing the human conditions shine through best as the individual Metabarons endeavor to rise above the cruel circumstances they find themselves in. Othon finally learns to accept his son, Aghnar, finally seeing that speed and cunning make for a warrior every bit as deserving of the title of Metabaron as one possessing pure brute strength. Aghnar’s cruel childhood and rare condition develops in him an unmatched cunning and insight in combat. Krleza’s trivial obsession with beauty and abandonment of Doña Vincenta Gabriella de Rokha triggers a long dormant steak of human kindness to wake up in the otherwise harsh Steelhead; resulting in a schism of their fused consciousness. Krleza’s abandonment of Doña Vincenta opens up an opportunity for Steelhead to redeem himself to his estranged wife, which in turn, allows for the preservation of the Metabaronic lineage.

All these ambitious, philosophical themes are woven into a dark but playfully imaginative universe that is immense in scope and yet oddly familiar. All in all, The Saga of the Metabarons is one of the most original works of sci-fantasy literature that I have come across in a good, long while and the ending of TSM; as expected of a dynasty of super-beings inhabiting a such a vast imaginary universe, is pretty open ended. The characters and concepts bleed over into other comics penned by Sr. Jodorowsky, so one is compelled to seek out other works of his to get a full appreciation of the scope of the Jodoverse---which is suspect was the intention of the author all along.

Review:

There was a lot of hype surrounding this highly lauded sci-fi epic. First, it is a graphic masterwork of a well-loved maestro of the European science-fantasy world, Juan Gimenez, and on that point it delivers and delivers well. Visually, it is a real treat. Sr. Gimenez’ art is gorgeous enough to be framed and hung on walls. Second, the infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky, an eclectic mix of madman, occultist, and poet, authored the story so you know that he would be drawing ideas from deep and distant wells of imagination and incorporating them into a heady mix of equal rocket fuel and poisonous kool-aid.

I am however, truly on the fence as to whether I really enjoyed it because of the pure originality of the author’s imagination and the sheer eye-candy of the artist or hate it because it read like a supermarket cart going down a cobblestone street at 90 miles an hour…

The story unfolds with little regard for flow or literary tradition. The series is a panoply of disparate inspirational influences: pulp space opera classics, Greek tragedy, Biblical characters, and most famously, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. However, despite the odd hodge-podge of sources the series manages to tie it all together into a dynamic, if oddly flowing whole; similar to the sources it drew from but completely original in its approach and execution.

The setting, the darkly oppressive Jodoverse, is a vibrant juxtaposition of technology, nature and truly alien vistas, masterfully rendered by Sr. Gimenez showing us a glimpse of possibly the finest and most horrible of what humanity might produce. I feel however that a large portion of the series impact can be attributed more to the artistic talents of Juan Gimenez more than Alejandro Jodorowsky, and I cannot help but sneer as it echoes much to closely the oddball combination of Steelhead and Zaran Krleza.

As for the flow of the actual writing, like I said, it gets top notch for sheer originality. Oddly though it drags in certain parts, but travels in breakneck speed in others. What proves to be the greatest challenge though is the sheer amount of quasi-philosophical, new age musings that streams through and from the pages. These concepts tend to pile up on one another changing and adding new ideas before seemingly the full train of thought is completed.

The grand themes of fate, destiny, duty and transcendence of the human existence central to the stories are tackled relentlessly but go in odd directions---again possibly intentional given the limitations of human language. However, these themes do manage to tie the entire series together into a semi-congruent mythology that makes the characters quite human; thus generating a degree of sympathy for the characters despite their achievements, superhuman abilities, and general “oddness” for lack of a better term.

My biggest objection is the robotic narrators. Although they served as an effective, if unconventional Greek chorus, their banter could have been done away with entirely if you ask me. Oh, and the over use of the prefixes. Man…the author uses the prefix "paleo" on virtually every other mention and this I counted to be certain: there is a mention of the word “paleo” on every page and maybe for variety he then uses the prefix techno or meta or electro or bio or mecha as a descriptor. You’d think that an author as original as Sr. Jodorowsky would come up with something more original but I guess all that originality was burnt up in the production of this saga.

Love it or hate it, The Saga of the Metabarons is truly a sui generis body of work.

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