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Words and Pictures: Prophet

A while back, I said 2012 was notable for two things in comicsworld: Image Comics and sf.  (Advance publication schedules suggest 2013 will also be notable for two things, btw: Image Comics and sf.)

I also said Saga, flagship of the trend, was a certainty for a Hugo nomination and a potential winner.  Still true.  If Saga doesn’t get a graphic story Hugo nomination I’d be a bit uncertain about the point of the category, to be honest (but I’m sure it will, so no worries).  If it doesn’t win … well, tastes vary and webcomics have a heavy advantage over print.  But it’s certainly the most accomplished sf/fantasy comic, of the broadest appeal, I saw last year.

So Saga’s probably my favourite 2013 Hugo-eligible comic.  But only by the narrowest of margins, because it was not the most unexpected, exhilarating, deep-genre Hugo-eligible comic I’ve read.  That prize goes to yet another Image sf product: Prophet.

It too would be a worthy nominee or even winner of the Hugo.  It won’t win, may well not get nominated (but there’s still time to get those nominations in!), because not enough people are reading it; it’s nevertheless remarkable, and feels more deeply rooted in the soil of the sf genre – prose, film, everything – than any comic I’ve read in a while.

PROPHET, Vol 1: Remission

written and illustrated by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, published by Image Comics

A highly abbreviated list of things Prophet brought to mind: Brian Aldiss, manga, Roger Zelazny, Moebius, Zardoz, Michael Moorcock, Barbarella, European sf comics and films in general.

I can’t even tell you why it dredged up every one of these and many other associations – the echoes are sometimes loose and subjective and faint – but part of it is just that Prophet felt like a madcap, disjointed sf novel (or film) from the 60s or 70s, in which the weight of ideas, the excitement of the genre’s freedoms and opportunities, is flooding out in an impressionistic, urgent way.  Exhilarating, like I said.

Throughout, the reader is shown glimpses of a big mosaic.  Connections, backstory, context, narrative through-line are all there, but they are not offered to the reader in simple fashion.  Where would the fun be if everything was simple, though?

“On the first evening he fights a domoeode wolfpack made more deadly by the cunning parasites that have bonded to them.”

There’s comparatively little dialogue in Prophet.  A great deal therefore hangs on the narrative captions, of which there are conversely quite a lot, mostly in the semi-omniscient 3rd person, present tense (a voice that’s not all that common in comics these days).

It’s a choice that works well here , feeling faintly archaic, grandiose.  There’s a  detaching, distancing effect between reader and main character(s).  That’s appropriate, because often there is not a great deal happening in his head.  (And because he’s not really the series’ main character in the conventional sense).

John Prophet, disgorged from a hibernation pod on a very far future, exotically unfamiliar Earth, has a mission.  He is a single-minded guided missile, aimed by someone, something, at a specific target.  There are other kinds of literally ‘live’ ammunition in the series, but Prophet himself is the first and most elaborate.

‘John watches as the alien cuts into his hide.  She pulls out of him the organ needed for her race to produce offspring.’

Prophet is technically a reboot of a popular 90s sf-superhero comic of the same name.  I’ve never read that original series and I gather this new one is profoundly different, so we’ll say no more of its antecedents.

This is weird stuff, much of it the responsibility of Brandon Graham, who’s probably one of US mainstream comics’ closest current approximations to an auteur.  He does much of the writing, with input from the various artists; but he’s also a highly accomplished artist, so he does some of that too.  Everyone’s multi-tasking.

And everyone working on Prophet is good.  None of the artists have a rigorously realistic style.  Taken together, the effect is more reminiscent of European, Japanese or indie US comics than of the American mainstream.  They all present strange, compelling visions of the exotic life forms and derelict technologies that infest this distant future.

‘Across the vastness of space John Prophet awakes.  On every world touched by humanity, from Space Station to Green Arms.  Thousands of John Prophets awake.  The Earth Empire is born anew.’

From John Prophet’s adventures on that unfamiliar Earth, we go to the adventures of John Prophets everywhere and the big picture (the Earth Empire is born anew) kicks in.

A long-tailed John Prophet journeys through a poisoned labyrinth on a desperate mission, stalked by something monstrous and sad.  A robot Prophet-partner seeks its lost master, anticipating the renewal of war.  A whole away team of Prophets hunt gigantic Nephilim on an ancient world and discover something even more dangerous than themselves.

Some Prophet readers seem to have spent much of their time not having a clue what was going on.  I suspect that’s partly because this reads much more coherently in collected form than in single issues, but certainly I didn’t have that problem – or at least didn’t regard it as a problem – and I don’t think any long-time reader of sf necessarily would, to be honest.  This is stream-of-consciousness sense of wonder stitched together by an episodic narrative.  That’s a pretty distilled, recognisable form of sf, isn’t it?

As I said, it feels a rather 60s or 70s-ish form to me, though I’m not sure how objectively reasonable that association is.  It’s the kind of comic that invites a subjective reaction.  The reading experience felt oddly personal.

‘Crowned around this world sits the Armscye ring that was used to move this planet into an unfamiliar orbit.  To act as an anchor world in the Cyclops Rail.  It’s filthy with giant worms, leaching off of the ring’s energy.’

There are occasional oddities or infelicities of language, but it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they’re mistakes or deliberate, tonal choices.

There’s also a mighty blizzard of often fleeting and unexpanded science fictional tropes and details.  Much of it’s familiar: a post-human Earth, mind-controlling parasites (organic and crystalline), alien hive societies, clones, gateway-based galactic transport systems.

Fun, but I got an even bigger kick out of the stuff that felt at least part-new and visually exciting.  The inflatable Star Skin suit that encases one of our heroes like a pink transparent jelly baby during his fall from a huge, humanoid craft to the manufactured planet below.  The yoked train of mega-beasts crossing the ruined Earth; the front one consumes dirt and vegetation, which is passed back through digestive tract to mouth to digestive tract to mouth until it emerges at the end as a substance used to build houses.

‘The friend of the scale, the unkillable knife, the wave crester, the spiral jumper.  The lord of the Wolf-Rayet star.  The old man, great grey grandfather Jonathan Prophet, has awoken.  It has started again.’

Gradually, things cohere (but not a lot).  Hints of the grander narrative emerge.  Maybe this whole first volume is only really a prelude.  I find that an exciting prospect since, having written all this stuff down, I think I like Prophet even more than I realised.  Maybe even more than Saga.

It won’t win the Hugo, like I said, but it’d be hard to complain if it did, because this is ambitious, imaginative science fiction right down to its deepest bones.  It’s lightning in a bottle, and by a long, long way the richest, strangest sf journey any comic of last year took me on.

3 Comments on Words and Pictures: Prophet

  1. I’m nominating Prophet. A dozen issues in, though still occasionally a bit baffling, it’s the comic I look forward to the most every month, possibly even more for the art than the story, though it’s a great example of how they work together in comics. The Hugo probably shouldn’t matter much to the comics world, since voters have shown a very limited awareness of what’s being done with SF in comics, but hopefully the existence of the category will increase SF fans’ willingness to check out the good stuff. With Prophet, Saga, Saucer Country, among others, it seemed like an especially good year for SF comics…

    • Good to hear! And yes, on the whole the Hugo isn’t a particularly big deal to most mainstream comics folk (although there are exceptions: I’m sure Paul Cornell would be extremely happy to get a nomination or win for Saucer Country).

      The whole comics in the Hugos thing is interesting and complicated. I could easily write whole columns about it, but I don’t suppose anyone wants to see me getting on my soapbox at such length.

      (I’ll just get on my sopabox briefly here, instead)

      If you look at the full lists of nominated comics, as opposed to just the handful that get through onto the final short list, they’re notable for their diversity and credibility. They generally include most of the stuff that the comics commentariat would agree is the best of the best; it’s just that a lot of that stuff doesn’t get enough nominations to reach the final vote because not quite enough folks are reading it. So the awareness is there in the sf community, but not terribly widley distributed. That’s nobody’s fault, unless it’s the comics industry’s, for having allowed their medium to decline from a mass market to a niche.

      Like I said, I’ve got no doubt Saga will get onto the final Hugo ballot. Assuming that’s the case, it’ll be fascinating to see what happens, because it’s going to absolutely clean up in comics industry awards in the next year or two. There’s a very, very widely shared view that it’s by some distance the best thing to come along in quite a while. So the folks who really know comics mostly think the best comic out there at the moment – on both technical craft and entertainment terms – bar none, is an sf/fantasy epic. Are the sf/fantasy folk who decide the Hugo going to disagree? We’ll see …

      By the time I’d finished writing this column I’d almost come round to the idea that personally I’d give the Hugo to Prophet rather than Saga, and there are any number of other plausible contenders, so I don’t think Saga has to win or anything, but if it doesn’t it’d be fascinating to try to understand why not. It’s certainly got the sales figures to support a run for the rocketship (unlike Prophet 🙁 ).

      (dismounts from sopabox)

      • Thanks for the reply. I agree with your take on it. There’s no reason Hugo voters have to agree with the comics critics or audience, necessarily. I would just hope we could reach the point where most of the best SF comics can somehow up on the nomination list, so that SF fans who don’t follow comics will hear about them. Last year’s shortlist actually wasn’t bad, but the winner was the one entry that I hadn’t heard of or read!

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