4 Elements: Emma Rios’s Excellent ‘Prophet’ Backup ‘COIL’ [Complete Five-Page Story]
Two tales, more than any others, left me really, really excited to be a reader of comics in the past month or so. One was Al Ewing and Brendan McCarthy's Zaucer of Zilk, a delightful day-glo plane crash into the deepest, glam-est jungles of optimism. The other was Emma Ríos's backup in Prophet #26, "COIL: a clone story," with color flats by Roque Romero. It's short -- just five pages long -- but it was good. Better than good. "Email your friends a bunch of cuss words because you can't express how good it is just yet" good. The backup has been released online now, thanks to a printing error, and we've got all five pages of it, plus four reasons why you should read it and be amazed.Prophet, of course, is a relaunch of the early '90s Rob Liefeld character that has been masterminded by Brandon Graham and a group of visionary cartoonists like Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, Frank Teran, and more. All you need to know is that John Prophet wakes up so far in the future that everything he ever knew is long dead. Nothing's ever that simple, though. Where Prophet was once a single man with a single mission, the Prophets in Prophet are clones that have been scattered throughout the universe, linked to each other by their shared purpose. Each issue features a done-in-one story, and each issue fleshes out the new universe that Prophet is exploring in enticing bits and pieces. Each artist on the series has their own take on things, giving the world of each Prophet a distinctive and alluring look. I reviewed the first issue of the relaunch back in January, and you can buy all of the current issues digitally via comiXology. Start with issue 21.
Emma Ríos is handling the writing and art for the backup story in this week's issue of Prophet, number 26 (the issue is written and drawn by Brandon Graham, and we previewed it last week). I first really stood up and took notice of Ríos's art during her time creating Marvel's Osborn with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Jose Villarubia. She took a stutter-step approach to violence, throwing down massive blurs in the middle of otherwise still scenes to emphasize motion, that I really enjoyed. It showed a willingness to break out, to experiment with how she portrays reality, that I found myself greatly appreciating.
Check it out below and read on for my analysis.
"COIL" feels perfectly in line with Ríos's experimentation on Osborn. If you look at it from a distance and just take in each page as a work of art unto itself, you'll notice something interesting. Page one funnels your attention down into a single black panel by narrowing the focus of the page from top to bottom. Even when Ríos goes wide and shows us the monster, it's placing our focus in the center of the page, away from the edges. Pages two and three emulate the fall of Prophet from the top of the chasm to the bottom. Pages four and five are read vertically, a series of four columns instead of X number of rows. But it's never difficult to read. The art clearly shows where you need to go next, despite (but really due to) the nontraditional layouts.
On top of that, Ríos has created a very dense tale. There's a lot going on here, a lot of things to see. Pages one, four, and five all feature 11 panels, while the spread of pages two and three feature at least 21 discrete panels, depending on how you choose to count the next-to-last tier of panels. That makes for 54 panels over the course of five pages. Most adventure comics would have half that. As a basic generalization, a lot of these types of comics tend to stick to five-to-nine panels per page. That gives you panels big enough to show Spider-Man's full figure as he's punching Batman in the face, for example, or a chance to fill panels with intricate details.
Decompression Plus Compression
Ríos, though, is willing to go small, to give you just the bare necessities in terms of detail. Instead of delineating every single aspect of the John Prophet clone's struggle, Ríos zooms in on specific moments. The first page starts with two close-ups, one of John Prophet blocking a blow from the spider's legs with his blade, and another of the spider striking Prophet's shoulder with another leg. And then, in panel three, Ríos goes wide and shows us the moment when Prophet's arm comes off. The spider's arm is a blur of motion, rising out of the panel like a tree trunk and then fading into the distance behind Prophet. Ríos goes small again and we see Prophet catching himself on a web, his DolMantle sealing the raw stump of his arm, and two grumbled expletives before we zoom out and really take in the situation.
The moments Ríos chooses to illustrate aren't just random bits of the fight. They're crucial. They're building blocks for the action taking place on the page. We've seen the giant Kirby-style fight scenes before, where titans battle each other and fights are over after maybe half a dozen punches. This is something different.
That image of Prophet suspended over the chasm at the top of pages two and three, leaping for his life, is fantastic. There's something cartoonish about the chase scene. It's like the scenes in monster tales where a little guy in a boat catches a fish, only to find that that fish was about to be eaten by a much larger fish, which is in turn eaten by a larger fish, which is finally eaten by a whale, crushing the guy in the boat. So it goes with the first tier on pages two and three. There's an unfathomable horror off to the left, and an increasingly small series of monsters as you progress to the right. Prophet is in trouble deep, clearly.
But what elevates the chase is going from that first tier of panels to the second. We see his sweat, his bared teeth, his breath, the way his eyes narrow when he focuses on running. And then a foot: life-off. But it's not enough. There's a hand grasping for purchase, and then... nothing. He's falling.
That first panel echoes throughout the page. Prophet falls to safety, wakes up, and looks at his surroundings. The cliff that begins in panel one stretches down to panel twelve and properly introduces Prophet's arachnid nemesis. Then, in panel 21, panel one comes back to haunt Prophet again, as we learn just what would happen if he were to fall out of the spider's web.
The scale is impressive and terrifying all at once, and there's no caption that lets us know just how dangerous a situation this is. There's just these brief intrusions of heinous danger, even in the midst of relative safety, to remind us. It's background storytelling, subtle storytelling, and it's so good.
The more immediate danger to Prophet, the monsters, are appropriately monstrous. I think comic book monsters tend to be either ambiguously demonic, sexually suggestive and slimy monsters, or regular things grown to absurd size. Ríos takes all of these categories and slams them together into something that feels fresh, creepy, and just this side of comprehensible. Monsters need to be alien in order to be properly scary, and Ríos nails it.
Every monster in this thing feels like it has a traditional monster at its base, but what Ríos does with that foundation is killer. The spider monster has a creepy mouth and off-center teeth, and there's something very similar to moth antennae on its head. There's a yeti-like creature that's a quarter mouth. The thing that's swallowing the yeti reminds me of a Cthulhu-style monster, but then I looked closer and saw that its limbs also have mouths and the tentacles/flaps have suckers of their own. Even the monster that rescues Prophet isn't the beautiful butterfly that I expected to see. It's not even Mothra. It's wet and gross, with tattered wings and fuzzy legs. It's as much a monster as the creatures that wanted to eat Prophet.
They all look great. They're exactly the kind of incomprehensible beasts that make comics so much fun to read. We go to comics to see something that we'd never see in real life, and Ríos more than delivers. "COIL" is the kind of story that makes me jump out of my seat in applause. It's a prime example of why comics is such an interesting art form, and a nice example of someone pushing the form forward while seeking out ways to improve their own craft.
According to Ríos's tumblr, this is her first work that she wrote and drew for an American audience. Going by the quality of these five pages, I'll follow her wherever she wants to go.
Look for Prophet #26 tomorrow at finer comics stores and digitally from comiXology. The book features a full story by Brandon Graham and this backup story here. (The backup story has a minor printing error in print with a few duplicated captions, however.)