Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Prophet

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series. 

1. Though it is building an expansive world and story at an intentionally gradual pace, Prophet has already told numerous fascinating and complete smaller stories, too. The first three issues (#21-23 because this is technically the relaunch of an old Liefeld title) could have been an entire mini-series and left nothing to be desired. The same is true of several single issues that followed. But every one of them has by now revealed themselves to also be a tiny piece of an enormous overarching narrative, which makes their individual wholeness that much more impressive.

2. The language of the series shifts playfully between the strictly factual and the deeply personal. Nowhere is this truer than the third-person narration captions, which sometimes sound like a tour guide welcoming us to a scenic new area, and other times give significant insights into the nuanced mental and emotional states of the cast. But you can find it in the dialogue, too, most noticeably with the white and red word balloons of the Earth mothers (white tends to be emotional material while red is for facts and orders). This lingual dichotomy is essential to the tone of the project as a whole. It explores this distant future from both scientifically detached and psychologically intimate viewpoints, which helps to weave a more intricate narrative tapestry more quickly.

3. All the artists are fantastic, so here's what I think they each do best: Simon Roy has the strongest Prophets, expressive and stoic in the right mix, with a clear caveman influence to their shape and movement. It's why Roy was the perfect choice for the opening arc, and he plays heavily to these strengths in the most recent issue (#32), which he wrote and drew in its entirety. There, he explores the humanity (or inhumanity) of being a Prophet by bringing one together with a band of primitive humans. Farel Dalrymple creates the most hideous, terrifying aliens, bringing more of a horror edge to this space story. The Ixtano Circus in issue #30 has the most abundant examples, but the strongest is the Prophet in #24 whose body has become twisted and ruined by a toxic environment. It's a thing of beauty in its ugliness. Giannis Milonogiannis is my favorite, because he does grandiosity better than anyone. The slow and ground-shaking steps of ancient beings the size of mountains, scenes of widespread combat from the old war against the Empire, the floating bodies of dead and sleeping space giants. Milonogiannis can capture these enormities in a single image (though, to be fair, it's often a two-page spread) and his visuals last in my memory more vividly and long-lastingly than most. Finally, there is Brandon Graham, who is primarily the writer but handled art as well for issue #26. Stylistically he's somewhat gentler, giving the vastness of space a calming effect. It feels like he has a great reverence for everything he draws, and it makes me feel the same way. The art of his issue may be soothing, but it is no less awe-inspiring when that is what the story calls for.

4. As we learn of the reach and power of the Empire, we simultaneously see some of its weaknesses, not the least of which is the seemingly-tenuous control it has over its army of Prophets. Even the first Prophet we meet questions and sometimes goes against the voice in his head telling him to stick to his mission. The next guy (with the awesome tail) ends up breaking free of the Empire's control completely. And the the most recent Prophet, John Ka, disobeys a direct order from her masters and tricks them into killing the enemies of their intended targets. She still joins up with the Empire as she is supposed to, but only after this deception. So in spite of what is clearly a vast network of well-trained, mentally-manipulable soldiers, the Empire may not have as tight a grasp on the universe as it expects to, and I am interested to see how that plays out.

5. There are many examples of days or even weeks passing in the space of a single panel and/or through the use of a single caption. The events of this book so far seem to span months, possibly even a year or two, and all of it is taking place after many ages of inactivity and slumber from both sides of the conflict. I love that this is a war no one is rushing into. The Empire and its enemies have to acclimate themselves to this future, organize their forces, and plan their next moves, and everyone seems to be doing so at a deliberate pace. So Prophet matches that pace as a series, within each issue and also in its overall storytelling methods. Switching focus from one Prophet to another, spending as much time in the mundane moments of their lives as the exciting ones, the book gives everyone and everything enough space to be completely explained, examined, and enjoyed.

6. There is an astounding singularity of vision considering the rotating group of artists on the title. Yes, everyone has their own artistic strengths and flourishes (see thought 3 above), but there's also a level of visual homogeneity, at least atmospherically speaking. Wide open spaces, settings reminiscent of the Wild West, alien races that are plantlike or buglike or both, John Prophet as grizzled and brooding---these can be found no matter who is doing the drawing, and it adds a cohesiveness that could easily be missing. So often when artists swap in and out like this, the change is stark to the point of being distracting. Somehow, the Prophet team has found a happy medium. Each artist has a distinct style, but the underlying visual feel of the book remains steadily the same.

7. The moment in Prophet #25 when Old Man Prophet suddenly bursts from the corpse of a Nephilim and so swiftly kills not only two other Prophets but their Earth mother commander...chills. I can still remember reading that scene for the first time and physically sitting up straight (I like to read comics lying on the couch) with excitement. And I didn't even know the full significance of the character yet. It was just such a powerful, well-timed moment, and it represented a clear promise of larger things to come. It marked a shift in the focus of the book. No longer just telling disconnected tales of different Prophets trying to survive, it instead became more personal and established more firmly a long-term story through the introduction of this anti-Empire protagonist. That was when I began to refer to this my favorite current series, and I haven't stopped since.

8. Brandon Graham, who wrote or at least co-wrote the first eleven issues, makes science fiction seem effortless. I have no doubt that it is, in fact, the result of tireless work, but the number of creatures, planets, cultures, biological idiosyncrasies, and the like that he introduces every damn issue is just an embarrassment of riches. And I admire that the scope of this series is so large that Graham will quickly abandon a setting or society in order to move us onto and into the next one. It keeps the book fresh, constantly expanding its world and history. Of course, many things are seen more than once as well (Qid-Pids come to mind as a race that's apparently everywhere), establishing a baseline consistency for the story even as it continues to grow outward and upward.

9. Ed Brisson has lettered every issue. Fantastically. Stylized and easy to follow, his work never gets in the way of the art but won't let you ignore the words, either. And the word balloons of alien symbols covered by balloons with their English translations is brilliant in its simplicity. My guess would be that Brisson did not invent that technique (only because it seems so obvious once you look at it as a way to handle translation), but he uses it expertly either way. The best bit of lettering work is the white or red dialogue balloons of the Earth mothers I mentioned above. It heightens their creepiness and, somehow, helps display the extent of their power. Brisson is one of the most regular elements of the Prophet experience, so he must be doing something right.

10. I love the cover art for this title, which almost always consists of either a single Prophet engaged in some adventurous activity or a gorgeous view of some sci-fi scenery. I guess #30 is really more of an alien than it is scenery, but because it's such a plantlike alien it creates the same feeling as the more scenic covers. The point is, this book knows exactly what it's about: Prophets traversing this beautiful, fantastical universe. The covers express that plainly and clearly, which is sort of rare in comics and something I always appreciate.

11. Like Brisson, Joseph Bergin III has been a reliable aspect of the book as the colorist from issue #24 on. The first arc was colored by Richard Ballerman, who is just as skilled as Bergin III, but only ever worked on Prophet with Simon Roy, making him less responsible for aiding the visual consistency I pointed to in thought 6. Bergin III may even deserve most of the credit for that consistency, and certainly a heaping portion of it should be directed his way. He can capture any environment, and move seamlessly between pages that are a wash of one color and those that are more detailed and realistic. Though his palette tends to favor neutral tones, he can pull out the brasher and more startling reds and blues when appropriate, which helps the many and varied action sequences stand out from the pages around them. Again, there's no question that Bergin III is a great talent, because he's been a part of so many issues of such a strong series.

12. Even though they have conflicting goals, I always find myself rooting for whichever John Prophet I am reading about at the time. As versions of the same man, they all posses an admirable bravery and sense of honor, even when they're working for an invasive evil empire. They are tough, quiet, and sure, and even the "bad guys" appear to be decent human beings at their core, despising injustice and desiring companionship. I love that consistency, and it demonstrates how fully-realized this character was in the minds of the creators before the book even began.

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