Comics review: If you like space oddities, Prophet is for you

Prophet volumes 1 & 2 by Brandon Graham et al is like being slingshotted through a tunnel populated with all the weird beasts of Mos Eisley whilst a rat gently knaws off your arm, says Cara Ellison.

Comics love nominative determinism. See Wonder Woman: “How do those tits stay hidden in that strapless bathing suit marm, that really is the primary wonder here!” and Judge Dredd: “Hello Mr Dredd, Trick or Treaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”

There’s something initially teeth-grindy about a man whose name is "John Prophet", as if the attempts at nominative grandeur might endear him to the readership. Yet it suits the ham-fisted haymaker. Comics really have this down pat.

Now, Rob Liefeld's creation is back, in two volumes which document a series of Conanesque clones scattered around the universe of the far future. They seem to have been cloned from a guy called John Prophet - although nothing in this comic is entirely certain - awakened to restart the human empire.

The stories follow the journeys of individual Prophets on their given missions to encourage the empire’s new shoots to bloom. The Prophets are almost like intergalactic Indiana Joneses, except instead of traversing the ancient and supernatural, they move through weird sci-fi landscapes as if they know their every myth and custom. Sometimes there’s more than one clone in the mix; sometimes just a lone hero battling the savagery of a hostile planet with insect-like cultures. Whatever happens, the Prophet will probably end up with a terrible injury by the end of his narrative strand. And you will come away feeling estranged, weird and melancholy after being dragged on a journey through the slimeweird beastsludge of a decrepit future.

Prophet is a comic written, drawn and coloured by an unusually large assortment of writers and artists: Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple and Giannis Milonogiannis, with Richard Ballermann and Joseph Bergin III on colours. This diversity gives the comic a feeling of multiple perspectives with each strand of a Prophet’s story, as if you are looking through a different person’s lens each time. Simon Roy's art has a heavy, clumpy feel, which makes the character linger meatily in his panels, while Milonogiannis's little feathery strokes made me feel as if I were squinting through bright sunlight at Prophet, as if his movements were more dynamic.

The chapters are divided up between particular artists and writers, although the one feeling I had that was sustained through both volumes was of strangeness and melancholy. It was the sort of space-related gloom feel you get from watching films like Moon. In Volume One of the strange future, John Prophet awakes from a cryosleep on an alien-populated earth with his mission to send the first reboot signal out. Prophet hears voices telling him where he will meet his next contacts, and in the first chapter he negotiates gloopy pod cities of savage beasts with a caste system ordered by smell. Then he gets out of his spacesuit, fucks his gangly alien contact to obtain information, and eats some human meat. It's the obvious post-coital snack. Obviously.

The Prophets' attitude to their journeys is certainly not wide-eyed amazement. Instead that is left to the reader, who wonders, what exactly was the remit for the artists? Often, there is an obvious tongue-in-cheekness to Prophet’s expression, as if he is merely tolerating the absurdity of this sci-fi fantasy with a Bruce Willis-like stoicism.

The first half of Volume One is full of dusty, mucky colours: a feeling of grime and chalk where living things are bulging sacks of moisture waiting to be bust open by Prophet’s fist. The second half is blue and melancholy. Harsh lines depict the stark space station limbo that encases Prophet’s new mission: to return the human empire’s property to the sky. Towards the end, we focus on a little bot-like creature who is John’s "unhatched eggs, brought to life to fight", and the colours turn to faded pastels as the bot itself flies and floats through the air.

Volume Two is even grander in scale than the first, widening thhe net to illustrate how a Prophet clone has grown old through battles on his way to fulfil his mission. The worlds and aliens depicted are even more jagged, globular and faceless than in the first volume, but this time the art offers more contrasting colours with starker lines. This approach expands the universe, but seems to slow it down, which might indicate that some of the creativity of the writers is slowing down too: but it’s too early in the series to make that judgement.

The Indiana Jones role seems important to the centre of this comic: the Prophets are essentially very efficient, disposable trinket-retrievers or switch-flippers. The strange entities that each Prophet comes across are only means to an end: they are single minded, there to use the universe for their own ends. Another running theme is that the Prophets are always hungry, like animals. It’s a speedrun for them. A one-use existence.

And yet there’s a very pronounced absurd sense of humour to Prophet: in quiet moments sometimes there will be jokes where an alien might say to a living crystal: ‘So tell me again of the pod pot sex on Yiamian leafs. That was good,’ before the page will descend into an object crashing into a planet accidentally.

Prophet is a weird, wondrous journey through an alienating, bizarre universe. The Neanderthal-looking clones are not men of many words, and so it’s necessary to have their adventures through the surreal, whacked-out future narrated drily by an unknown voice. This is so that we can try, sometimes feebly, to work out what the flip is going on. Little is communicated by the sci-fi jargon which is often suddenly thrown out - ‘the forearm he’d left from Hiyonhoiagn’ being one example.

The narrator’s captions in Prophet read, in my head, like the narrator from Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, and the content of this comic is way more spaceweird than anything like the Red Weed. This is all a good thing: rarely have I read anything quite as creative and left-field as this; it’s like being slingshotted through a tunnel populated with all the weird beasts of Mos Eisley whilst a rat gently knaws off your arm. I guess if you like space oddities, this is for you.

An excerpt of Prophet, via WarrenEllis.com
DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage