The Science Experiment: How Graham & Roy’s ‘Prophet’ Revival Smashes Expectations [Sci-Fi Week]
If you’d told me a few years ago that outstanding science fiction could be spun out of a reboot of an old Rob Liefeld comic with that one guy with the swords who grimaces a lot and has padding glued to his face, the first question I’d have to ask is, "Which one guy with the swords was that? There were a couple."
The answer would be Prophet, one of the most fruitful experiments to come out of the 2012 retooling of the defunct Extreme Studios line, and one of the most genuinely enthralling sci-fi comics of the past decade.
The protagonist of Prophet is John, crossing an Earth so changed and alien that it might as well be another planet, on a mission to locate the G.O.D. satellite and call his brethren home. John is also a man in deep space with a tail, on a dying ship with a holographic little girl guiding him forward. John is also a woman caught between loyalty to her programming and her superiors and loyalty to her brother, who has gone native. John is also an old man angry at the revival of the Earth Empire and on a mission to stop it. John is also John’s lover. John is also a dozen things besides.
This is not, despite appearances, a session of the RPG Everyone is John. Instead, it’s a post-everything future with clones --- all of these Johns are descended from the same man, adapted to different environments (cheaper than terraforming). It sets the tone for the book --- things start complicated and stay that way.
The storytelling style of Prophet is simultaneously incredibly detailed and purposefully vague. Some details are glimpsed; others are delved into. Above all, Prophet is big; the storytelling sprawls across a galaxy made no less small and no less alien by the spread of humanity across it. It takes its time, because to travel great distances takes time and effort; everything encountered along the way is fundamentally alien. Not in the sense that it’s incomprehensible, but rather in that it follows the logic of life --- eat, drink, reproduce --- but takes all the different paths that even a casual delve into our own world’s zoology shows life capable of being.
There is a heavy element of the survivalist in Prophet; survival’s never a sure thing, there is a lot of travel, and it’s all narrated with a minimum of dialogue and mostly narration captions. It’s one half old-school sci-fi pulp story, and one half the world’s most bizarre nature documentary, like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom taking a stroll through the D&D Monster Manual.
John is frequently shown eating whatever he comes across, a potent reminder of how life is cruel in this future; John and his various duplicates live lives where they are constantly avoiding and exploiting the systems around them, but none of them are ever fully at peace within them.
The art team --- with line art by Simon Roy, Farel Darlymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis, and colors by Richard Ballerman, Brandon Graham and Joseph Bergin III --- is the equal of Brandon Graham’s script.
Graham, it should be noted, often shares story co-credit with the artistic collaborators on Prophet, and occasionally all credit is given to the artist --- and it’s not hard to see why. Beyond professional courtesy, the storytelling would not be what it is without their efforts.
Every alien, be it a fungus from space, insectile people worshipping gods, or hyper-adaptive jelly, evokes a sense of pages of hidden details, supporting the idea from outside our view, like the foundation of a building we never get to see.
This world is never clean or sterile, even on board the spaceships; everything is wet and mushy. The first thing John Prophet does is barf up his survival kit. Arms are lost, scars are gathered, and sometimes, someone’s just got to have sex with a bug to complete the mission.
Special mention must also be given to the letterer, Ed Brisson, who works with the art and coloring teams to match sound effects to the art, and goes the extra mile to use special lettering techniques to convey a sense of mood or distance, such as when alien speech is show in a word balloon with a translation awkwardly overlaid on top of it.
Lettering, even more so than coloring (and Prophet’s colors are never less than the equal of the rest of its collaborators’ skills) is an unappreciated art form, and Prophet gives us a glimpse of what it can achieve.
One thing that sticks out is that, of all people, the robot called Diehard from Youngblood shows up. I have never read Youngblood but since I stepped into a comic book store more than twice in the early '90s, I know of him. He’s the guy with the cables around his armpits who’s named after a car battery. Seeing him in the pages of Prophet --- and the fact that this revival starts with a brand new issue #21 --- is a reminder of the goofier origins of Prophet. Having a character that is so '90s down to the bones actually feels out of place in the heavily pulpy universe of the revived Prophet.
It’s not a dealbreaker, though. Robots will always have a place in science fiction, even when they start to fall in love with lizard assassins.
Also of note is that starting with the second issue, a cavalcade of fantastic writers and artists tell brief backup stories that are all sci-fi themed. They may or may not tie into the world of Prophet, but given the staggering vastness of the world, across expanses of time and space that are beyond human comprehension, they may as well be. They’re a fantastic place to find out if you have a new favorite up-and-coming writer or artist.
There’s the old saying in comics that there are no bad characters, merely ones that haven’t had a chance to shine yet. This revival of Prophet is one of the best examples of that --- smart, ambitious, sprawling, never talking down to its audience for a minute, it’s a comic everyone should at least try, if they’re curious about sci-fi, the potential of half-forgotten comics characters, or just really good comics in general.