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
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle