Heroically strange

And so The Prophet concludes. What started as the ostensible re-boot of a retired and obscure superhero can take its place on the library shelves as one of the most extraordinarily inventive science-fiction comics in the English-language tradition, and hopefully as an enduring element of the canon that is being forged in this second Golden Age of the medium. It is unusual for such a singular vision to emerge from a collaborative process, but this volume is the work of two writers, Brandon Graham and Simon Roy, who are also among its four artists, along with Grim Wilkins and Giannis Milonogiannis. All its contributors have their feet firmly in the underground, and the story has the feel of a space-opera epic shot on hand-held Super 8, with all the colliding sensibilities that implies. Its most obvious antecedents are in the psychedelic bandes dessineés of the 1970s, notably Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud’s The Incal and Phillippe Druillet’s Loan Sloane series, but this is clearly a work that emerges from the burgeoning avant-garde of the contemporary American scene, and it’s good to see a publisher like Image standing behind it.

Earth War could be quite an opaque book, I imagine, to a reader who brings too many generic expectations to it: this is the kind of story that is usually straightforwardly told, particularly if its plot is relatively baroque. The plot of this book is extremely simple, and its telling is not exactly gnomic, but it is far from predictable – at times it feels capricious or whimsical, but for the most part it simply feels as though we are observing a future so alien that we are not qualified to ascribe cause and effect. Visually it is often confusing, but this is more a function of the bizarre biomorphology of its characters than of any particularly avant-garde or experimental approach to the art: this is cartooning, simple, iconically representative illustration, but it is the cartooning of bizarre and impossible forms.

Its potential opacity, its refusal to offer an easy interpretation to the casual reader, does not indicate a work which asks to be decoded however. It is not ‘difficult’ in that sense. Instead it offers other pleasures than those that are conventionally associated with space opera or with SF comics. Earth War demands that its reader set aside any desire for clarity or for specificity, and instead immerse themselves in the experience of looking at a sequence of images: its narrative is an affective one, a psychedelic tour through the fevered imaginations of its authors, and in this sense it is a pure comic, one which emphasises only those formal features that are the exclusive preserve of its medium. It is a place of visual immersion and of disorientating motility, in which visual aesthetics supplant plot and dialogue as the motive forces of the narrative. If you want to experience beauty through the medium of science-fiction, don’t look to the highly polished and technically audacious products of the mainstream, but here, to the fringes, where the strange is elevated to the status of the heroic.

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