[9 January 2014]
Something that gets discussed a lot in comicbook criticism is narrative decompression. Often, it’s viewed negatively, like when a story that could’ve been contained in a single issue is stretched into a multi-part arc, or what should’ve been one arc becomes two, or a major event story needlessly spreads to multiple titles, or what have you. Individual panels or whole scenes will be called out for their obvious pointlessness, placed in the middle of important events just to pad out an issue’s page count. But decompression doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Much can be gained from letting a story take its time, gather all its myriad pieces and position them just so, building itself up and out gradually until it becomes the complex and compelling narrative force it aims to be. It just takes the right kind of story and storytellers to pull this off, a tale that can support the weight of multiple moving parts and creators who can keep track of them all and keep them moving forward. That’s what you get in Prophet, a meticulously slow-burning sci-fi epic that takes its sweet time but never wastes space or loses momentum for it.
Back in the day, Prophet was a title created by Rob Liefeld as part of his Extreme Studios imprint at Image Comics. It was short-lived, however, and after more than a decade without any new issues, Image relaunched Prophet (along with a handful of other old Extreme books) in 2012 with a brand new creative team and direction. Set in the far distant future, the current series has only the most tenuous connection to what came before it, acknowledging the established histories of the characters but so far removed from them temporally that they barely matter. It is its own project with a unique outlook and voice, repurposing Liefeld’s creations for something completely different.
The new series is primarily written by Brandon Graham, but one of the most beautiful and enjoyable things about it is how closely Graham and his many collaborators work together, on both the art and story. Regular artists Simon Roy and Giannis Milonogiannis have each taken a turn at being the sole writers for a single issue, and have been credited as co-writers several times as well. Graham has also contributed as an artist on more than one occasion, and many issues have multiple artists working together, each of them drawing his own small section of the story but nobody ever clashing stylistically. The artistic duties are split up based primarily on which members of the cast are being used. More specifically, the artist will change depending on which of the many John Prophets is the focus of a given scene.
Because John Prophet is no longer just one man, he is a literal army, innumerable clones of the original superhero who have all been upgraded or modified in some way by the Earth Empire for which they work and fight. That Empire lost a huge war some thousand years ago and disappeared for a while, but it’s back with a vengeance now, so Prophets all over the universe are being woken up and called back to action. That is the set-up at the beginning of the book, but even then, it takes some time to get all the facts. At first, we see only a single Prophet, eventually named Newfather John Prophet, emerging from some sort of stasis pod on a harsh and unrecognizable Earth with a mysterious mission to complete. Who he’s completing it for and why are left obscured in the beginning, but his journey is still a fascinating one. As he travels across the Earth of this imagined future, the reader discovers it with him, and there are a lot of interesting creatures and concepts introduced along the way. Graham and Roy, as writer and artist respectively for this whole opening arc, invent all sorts of new species and societies for their setting, making it a rich and credible sci-fi environment. So for the first three full issues—#21-23, because for some reason Image picked up the numbering of the relaunch where the previous run had left off—Prophet appears to be about one man exploring and struggling to survive on a planet he once called home as he attempts to complete his mission. And even if that had been the book’s whole premise, it would’ve been plenty for an ongoing series, but it turns out it was actually just the tiniest tease of what would come.
At the very end of the arc, Newfather John reaches his destination and is pulled up into an orbiting vessel of the Empire’s so he can be used to activate countless other Prophets across the cosmos. In the next issue (#24) we see a whole new Prophet (with a whole new artist, Farel Dalrymple) wake up and complete a mission all his own, and suddenly the question of “What is Prophet about?” feels harder to answer. It’s not just one guy’s adventures in the future anymore, but instead it’s the story of an Empire being rebuilt one piece at a time, told through the more personal exploits of individual soldiers. Yet even this interpretation only stands up until partway through the following installment, when a third Prophet, Old Man Prophet (drawn by Milonogiannis), arrives in a blur of fury and bloodshed to fight back against the Empire, and begins to assemble an opposing army.
A mere five issues in, then, Prophet manages to introduce itself and then redefine itself twice, which may call into question my original point about the book’s decompression. Surely that’s a lot to do in a relatively short time, no? Well, yes, it certainly is, and it’s true that each issue is quite compressed, so that a lot can happen within the pages of any one chapter, and often does. At the same time, five issues with three different protagonists—despite their shared name, they are distinctly different characters—is a large-ish amount of time from the start of a series to the point where the reader knows exactly what it’s about, and the Prophet-vs.-Prophet war isn’t even really all this title has going on, anyway. So big picture, there’s an immensely decompressed unifying story that runs through every issue, and the details of what it is and where it’s going still aren’t totally clear a full twenty-odd issues deep. Yet a huge part of what makes that work is the fact that each issue provides a thick and satisfying slice of the pie, so even without being let in on everything that’s going on and/or what it’s leading to, the audience is always given something of value for their money and time.
The creators are also smart enough to tie up some threads while advancing others, so that the book doesn’t becomes a tangled mess of unfinished plotlines. There are moments of closure at various levels all the time; sometimes it’s a character’s internal conflict that resolves, other times it’s a huge event with important ramifications for the entire series. The pacing of these final beats is unpredictable, and every narrative door closed opens more than one window, so it’s not as if Graham and company began by lining up dominoes and now we’re merely watching them all fall down. Prophet gets larger and more sprawling all the time, even adding threats that are bigger than the Empire and its intergalactic conquests to complicate matters further. Because the book is so patient, letting the story dictate its pace rather than the other way around, every new problem thrown into the mix is given all the space it needs to make sense and play out organically until it reaches its natural conclusion. From an idea as simple and intimate as a budding romance between two of Old Man Prophet’s allies to something as big and high concept as a being of pure pain traveling through the universe on autopilot and psychically taking control of every living creature in its path, Prophet’s got room for it all.
I won’t detail every storyline or cast member involved, because first of all it would increase the length of this column a hundredfold, and secondly I doubt if I’m even capable of remembering everything. Indeed, the series will often bring back a location or character or idea from several issues prior that I don’t immediately recognize, because there are so many memorable bits and pieces that a few of them are bound to fall through the mental cracks, even for a more observant reader than I. But the creators are careful not to make the audience rely on past knowledge to appreciate any new installments. It can enhance the experience if you know the history, but being unfamiliar with it won’t detract in any noticeable way, either. Sharp, tightly-written narrative captions are one of the most reliable aspects of this title, keeping everything clear no matter how complicated the overarching story becomes.
There are no signs of Prophet slowing down or waning in its ambition and scope anytime soon. On the contrary, even with the vastness of what it has already accomplished, the series continues to expand its cast and narrative all the time. And had its creative team not so quickly proven itself capable of managing such a jigsaw puzzle of a story, I imagine I would’ve walked away some time ago. But this series is exceptionally well-built, perhaps the finest example of comicbook decompression currently being published. Every new facet, no matter how big or small, is given all the attention and time it needs to be explored and understood completely, but there are so many of them being actively developed at any one time that the book as a whole never feels slow, light, or wasteful.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.