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
David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.