Launched in 2012, the current Prophet series oddly began at issue 21 and immediately started making every other comic look hopelessly boring. It introduced thousands of new readers to the mind-melt work of independent genre trail-blazers Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, Farel Dalrymple and many others. Backed by praise from Planetary and Transmetropolitan writer Warren Ellis, the series quickly achieved a cult-like status among sci-fi fans and rode a wave of critical praise. It features the adventures of a handful of clones scattered across the universe in the far, far future, and as the story has progressed, these characters have drawn closer and closer together until they finally link up in issue #45—a finale of sorts.
The main title wrapped in Summer 2014 and was followed by a two-issue series, Prophet: Strikefile, a hybrid guide book narrative. This Wednesday, the narrative of one man’s war against his species reaches its homestretch with the four-issue Prophet: Earth War, and while its singular aesthetics and narrative complexity have alienated some readers, the series is one of the most refreshing space odysseys the medium can call its own. So before Earth War begins, allow us to tell you why Prophet remains the best science fiction comic available:
Prophet #1 Cover Art by Rob Liefeld
First appearing in 1992’s Youngblood #2, John Prophet is basically Captain America. He was a homeless man turned into a supersoldier, but originally programmed for evil instead of Nazi bashing. But the mad scientist programming him had a change of heart and decided to show Prophet the light of Jesus—seriously. Prophet was put in stasis during World War II, but brought out of hibernation in the early ‘90s after being discovered by the government-sanctioned superteam whose comic he debuted in. (He also discovered that he was taken out of stasis during the Vietnam War but forgot about it—which is also close to another Captain America story.)
In 1993, the character was given his own title, Prophet, which ran for 12 issues. It featured the hyper-bombastic, expressive art of creator Rob Liefeld, but quite a few issues were drawn by Stephen Platt, though his style lies very much in that same vein. The writing embraced uber-superhero comics and featured plots and characters culled from numerous other sources—from Jack Kirby’s comics to Liefeld’s own. (According to apocrypha, Liefeld intended the character to appear in X-Force.) The series then get a second series of 8 issues between ‘95 and ‘96 that hewed closely to the original in terms of tone and content.
Prophet #21 Interior Art by Simon Roy
The 2012 relaunch kicked off with issue #21, picking up the numbering right where it left off. But it was different. The new comic features art from Simon Roy, whose cartoonish style of art added stockier, grittier figurework and a softer texture with less harsh inks. This aesthetic stood in stark contrast to the more Jack Kirby-esque artwork of the previous Prophet artists, and it was more comparable to the amorphous tone of Guy Davis or the lithe, athletic style of John Buscema. It looked like the kind of thing you’d find in an issue of the offbeat, adult sci-fi anthology magazine Heavy Metal from the late ‘70s.
The narrative offered just as much of a paradigm shift. Written by Brandon Graham and Simon Roy, the first arc was like a Roy Thomas issue of Conan set approximately 10,000 years in the future. The setting was now a desolate waste and the only sci-fi elements were the inclusion of alien species that Prophet had sex with for information. Everything else felt like straight-up fantasy and read like a fever dream of a comic—something from a bygone era that rarely exists in any medium these days. But the end of the first arc blew up its own concept and set up a series’ worth of galaxy-hopping adventures featuring clones, Brain Mothers, Earth Empires and a cast of dozens coming together to wage interstellar war. It was Conan by way of Robert Heinlen and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And that’s because…
Prophet: Earth War #1 Interior Art by Grim Wilkins
As you can guess, that auspicious mixture of barbarian fantasy and militaristic sci-fi sets a book apart. Prophet’s rotating team of artists stems from influences including Heavy Metal and manga, giving the book a distinct, inimitable look buoyed by immersive storytelling.
The narrative draws from sci-fi—novels, television, comics and film—both popular and obscure, serving a comic more twisted and ambitious than any other monthly on the shelves. Ignoring the genre trappings, the oblique narrative functions more similarly to something from publisher Fantagraphics—there is little to no exposition, and the reader is expected to catch up via inference and context. This, combined with the sprawling, epic scope of the cast and narrative, usually requires multiple readings.
Even its release schedule is different from the successive delivery of monthly chapters: issues trickle out at a leisurely pace, its creative team more concerned with quality than punctuality, and its format is reminiscent of other, more international schools of comics production.
Prophet: Earth War #1 Interior Art by Simon Roy
Prophet took the idea of an American sci-fi serial and transformed it into a work rooted in French and Belgian influences. It comes out when it’s done, it’s expansive, it’s ambitious, but it’s also self-contained and built with a finite life—a far cry from the soap opera structures that drive most mainstream books. It draws heavily from those French storytellers and incorporates influences like Caza, Enki Bilal and Philippe Druillet into its aesthetic, and borders novelistic in its approach to world-building and pacing.
Prophet takes the idea of a typical American pamphlet comic and turns it into a double-feature. It devotes its backmatter/advertising pages to showcasing the work of cartoonists who lack advocates in the mainstream, creating something akin to a musical single—with an A-side and a B-side—hitting you with two little nuggets of art in a single package.
It swerves again with the two Strikefile issues, which use the idea of an encyclopedic guidebook as a launching point. But the two entries turn that conceit on its ear, becoming a Borgesian mid-point between short story and essay, narrative and non-narrative, expanding the world of Prophet in myriad directions. It manages to introduce new concepts, expand on old ones, and fill in some of the 10,000-year gaps between the relaunch and the original series.
Prophet #26 Interior Art by Emma Rios
While the series’ main story is all killer, no filler, each issue also features back up stories from cartoonists like Matt Sheehan, Malachi Ward, Lin Visel, Sloane Leong, Ron Ackins, Polly Guo, Fil Barlow, Daniel Irizarri and Daniel Warren Johnson. Pretty Deadly co-creator Emma Rios even dropped an in-universe short, and forthcoming issues of Earth War are scheduled to include back-ups from Sarah Horrocks, Sean Witzke, Ian MacEwan and Sloane Leong.
The backups sing—down to the last. And more than that, it gives some of the best cartoonists exposure to get their work in front of brand new eyes. The stories aren’t tonally dissimilar from the main Prophet series, and they round out the deeply-serial elements of the book, serving as lushly-rendered palate cleansers to prep you for the next issue.
Prophet #25 Interior Art by Giannis Milonogiannis
Writing in comics is more complex than the sole construction of dialogue and plot. The writing includes those elements, but it also paces the story, paces the page and dictates the placement of the dialogue, the “acting,” the composition of individual panels and the mood and tone established by the coloring. Because of these complexities, much of the actual “writing” in the medium is done in the art.
On both levels, Prophet delivers in a big, bold way. The plot is expansive and explosive—an ensemble piece that cuts back and forth between its characters like an ensemble masterpiece, driven by high-concept science fiction and overflowing with visceral violence. The artists explicate that plot extraordinarily well. Dalrymple, Roy, Milonogiannis and the rest of the crew differentiate the Prophet clones with the smallest quirks of dress, behavior and speech pattern. Joseph Bergin III and others use color to heighten the mood, establish tone, establish and convey space and energy—something not enough colorists even try to do. Ed Brisson (occasionally credited as “The Bri$$”) carefully places the lettering so that it reads intuitively and organically, obscuring the art as little as possible. Ultimately, the comic is just as concerned with plot as it is with world-building, character studies, set pieces and ideas.
Some people have complained that the series is too obtuse and complicated, but an attentive reading will dissuade anyone of this perception. However, Prophet isn’t the exposition-heavy story the superhero set may be more familiar with. This world is only hinted at or alluded to, but this strategy makes it feel lived-in, authentic, genuinely alien and paralyzingly huge.
Prophet #38 Cover by Jim Rugg
In the last few years, science fictional comics fall mostly into post-apocalyptic, Star Wars-inflected space opera, post-cyberpunk or a mixture of both. The Massive, Trees, Lazarus, Saga, The Private Eye, Black Science and The Wake are fantastic and wonderfully original, and not all of these titles fit squarely into the aforementioned categories. But outside of material you’ve got to search for, the majority of sci-fi comics do fall into these camps, making Prophet stand out for its tone, aesthetic, pacing and scope.
It’s set in space, but instead of drawing influences from Star Wars or the western Star Trek, Prophet’s DNA is constructed from ‘70s Conan comics, Robert Heinlen novels, Dune, Vietnam-parable The Forever War, Moebius, the aforementioned Enki Bilal, Philippe Druillet and Tom Baker Doctor Who. The result is an anarchic, imaginative sci-fi that is more intelligent, artistically engaging and original than any other sci-fi comic. It’s a harder sci-fi, but one as concerned with style as it is with substance, its characters as it is with codifying its own rules.
Prophet #29 Interior Art by Farel Dalrymple
Simon Roy—who also co-wrote his storylines, the upcoming Earth War as well as all of issue 32— was the first artist on the book, but within a few issues, the team brought Old City Blues creator Giannis Milonogiannis and The Wrenchies’ Farel Dalrymple into the fold. Graham, the voice behind King City and Multiple Warheads, even took on writing and illustration duties for an issue. As the series continued, though, the team ballooned to include almost two dozen of the best living cartoonists. 2014 alone saw the release of solo issues by Dave Taylor—a somber, poetic elegy to the late-Moebius—and Ron Wimberly—whose full range of talents are on display here. Orc Stain’s James Stokoe and Sabertooth Swordsman’s Aaron Conley even offered a few pages.
With the release of Strikefile, though, the series’ list of contributors reached a pedigree of unparalleled proportions: Grim Wilkins, Sandra Lanz, Onta, Geoff Darrow, Matt Sheehan, Malachi Ward, Addison Duke, Rob Liefeld, Ron Ackins, Xurxo Penalta and half a dozen others.
Prophet #45 Cover Art by Simon Roy
While all these cartoonists may be working on the same series, they’re not necessarily working on the same characters. To put it simply: each cartoonist works with one specific John Prophet clone, so the adventures Old Man Prophet are drawn by Giannis Milonogiannis, Farel Dalrymple draws the stories of the tailed Prophet, so on and so on. Each artist’s specific aesthetic represents the points of view of each character, and so the visual identity of the book as a whole is nonuniform, but the visual identity of each ontology is clear and distinct.
It’s an interesting conceit that’s rarely explored in other comics—an artist representing a singular viewpoint, purposefully switching styles to switch perceptions. In a single panel, the plotline transitions as half of the panel is drawn by Roy and the other by Milonogiannis. It culminates in the finale (Prophet #45) of the main series with the core team of artists jumping back and forth, from page to page and panel to panel, trading licks with each other like dueling pianos. Riff after riff of one-upmanship. The result is a stupefying comic that died out with the ‘90s, where—bringing it full circle—the Image founders were doing covers for each others’ books, inking each others’ pages and laying out each others’ pages (just for fun).
Island #1 Cover Art by Brandon Graham
Debuting late last year, Island is the new anthology magazine headed up by Brandon Graham and Emma Rios. The series is an alchemical fusion between an American pamphlet comic and British sci-fi magazines like 2000 AD. When it was announced, the aforementioned Heavy Metal was invoked, though Graham did specify that he’s going for less of a teen boy approach. The magazine features 20-30 page stories from a veritable army of cartoonists, including Graham, Rios, Farel Dalrymple, Michael DeForge, Jose Domingo, Matt Sheehan and Malachi Ward, Amy Clare, Ludroe, Marian Churchland, Will Kirkby and Kate Craig.
Like Heavy Metal, Island features non-comics work, too, setting it further apart from other comics magazines. So far, issues have included illustrated prose, interviews with contributors, spot illustrations, and drawn lookbook spreads, and it’ll be interesting to see what other non-comics work Graham and Rios include in the future.