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
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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