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
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era