“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, line tears in rain…”
Or Paul Atreides discussing his Orange Catholic Bible. Or, “Readings on the PKE meter are off the charts!” Or:
These are lines from Blade Runner, Dune, Ghostbusters, and Image’s 2012 hit Prophet, pieces of tremendously successful, influential, immortal science fiction. And what do they mean, really? Practically they mean nothing. You may as well ask for striped paint, for all the use these words will do you informationally. But these are not useless, or frivolously included things. What they do is function emotionally; what the first three mean are, in order:
“I’ve had experiences so grand and powerful that they traumatised me,”
“I have a book of rulings that informs my moral agency,”
And “I appreciate, with trepidation, prospective damage to our surroundings.”
What these do is connect the humanity of their speakers with the humanity of their audiences—they do this in tandem, in symbiosis with the establishment (through the literal, unreal “meanings” of the exact phraseology used) of the irrelevancy of the character’s exact experience to the viewer’s. They tell you, the viewer, how a feeling heart and thinking mind appraise situations that are so strange that they can only exist through new, specialist language. The mixture of invented phraseology with accessible emotional impact allows audiences to believe in whole new worlds by serving them up in meals your system can digest—instead of simply building a world and describing it, trying to create an avatar into which the viewer or reader can slip, leaving belief up to personal preference and active consideration.
By creating psychological sameness between the protagonist and the audience, the audience instead becomes a vessel for the experience of strangeness that the character is having. It’s the difference between conversation and telepathy. The gist of the passage, the meaningful content of the speculative description, functions as a scart lead between the main terminal (that’s you) and the totally strange alien technology (the odd, made-up, imaginative fiction), plugging A into B and allowing information transfer despite the apparent inapplicability of future society, space society, ghost science, etc., to your own real life. Poetic empathy allows a story full of strangeness to “work” for you, but what’s the value in the strangeness, of itself?
The value is challenge. To experience newness and discomfort, and to be moved by the expanse of what isn’t you. To engage with wonder, and sit in dialogue with the longing in your human spirit. To better recognise what’s not strange, perhaps. And just for sensation. “Oh—imagine!” is not a useless thought.
The meaning within “Andronicles, who grew his own Teuthidan lance” is laced with the vision of John Andronicles, watching, staring. The passage means “this man has stamina and the ability to nurture.” Further reduced, it says “look at this man care.” Guess if Andronicles lives?
The greatest asset of Prophet (2012, Image Comics, helmed by Brandon Graham) is the storytellers’ combined ability to measure the finest combination of unrealness with truth, and to evaluate what should, and what should not, be literally explained. See how it begins:
What’s is a tulnaka? It’s one of these things. What is this thing? All we know is, “a tulnaka.” But it can be assumed that this thing is not the protagonist of our story. It’s given no name, and it’s shape is not humanoid (we’ve seen the cover, after all). So we begin a story with a strange beast that’s (in our opinion) beside the point, and the subject of our interest is introduced as beside the point to the world he’s about to enter. A tulnaka is something we don’t understand and it’s has its own life and own concerns—between us and it, there’s total irrelevancy. The story Prophet introduces irrelevancy (being mutually obsolete) immediately and continues to evoke it as a primary theme. It introduces it through refusal to explain; through correct evaluation of what’s important for you or I to understand about this strange future Earth if we are to understand the plight of John Prophet. Just like Roy Batty’s plaintive memories of the shoulder of Orion, the unexplainedness of this tulnaka connects us to the lost cause at the heart of the book.
When John enters the narrative on the next page he is described as “a man,” not a clone or a Prophet or an altered humanoid or whatever else he is or might be. He’s “a man.” So is your brother, so is your dad. And he has a name, almost immediately. John Prophet. He’s an individual, just like you.
Contrary to the vagueness with which speculative language that describes nothing real deals in, Prophet is also served well by listed inventory. The field kit assigned to John—that he is assigned a kit is all the explanation we’re offered of why he would be—is laid out in panels of its own, annotated, as a soldier might check it (that’s character writing), but for a reader’s satisfaction too. What is he carrying? How might he solve problems? We can see, we’re prepared, and we’re also primed for empathetic regret if he runs into a situation in which none of these will serve. Here utility is used to enhance connection. We might not know exactly what these tools can do (à la the PKE meter), but we appreciate the practicality of the man and his mission, the training that the presence of specialty tools imply, the stoicism and basic suffering behind a need for pills, and so forth. It’s also makes him seem lonely? These trinkets are all he has.
Despite being a Liefeld creation and emblematic of the visual excesses of the ’90s, the original run of Prophet did not feature a great many uniform pouches. It’s good to see this rebalanced.
As John sets off on the mission, he’s driven to complete, the world around him reminds us of his strangeness (that loneliness again) by having the freakish fauna look at him without comprehension. Like the tulnaka, we don’t understand it, and it doesn’t understand him. But we do, a little, because we relate. It draws us closer, as the world seems wider.
The subtlest things go unspoken. Going about his business as the captioning discusses plot and intrigue, John ties on a strange mantle (below). It’s drawn, but it’s not acknowledged in text or emphasised with closeup. This panel has the fumbling humanity and compassionate intimacy of Crying Freeman removing his underpants before sex, as discussed here, but it also prepares the reader to understand John’s practicality by appreciating it without being told to. Here he ties on the pelt; on the next page, the environment is described as being a smell-based caste system. Obviously, he wears this dead creature to disguise his alien odour. It can be understood, but it’s not said. It’s not said because it can be understood. Once again empathy is built by the discarded impulse to over-explain details to a willing, intelligent audience. And the audience is rewarded or on a later page when their assumption is confirmed in passing (to the right).
A second example of the narrative turning to its audience to say “you get it, of course” is below. Living star ships are not a new concern. Keeping examples within the American comic book milieu, the X-Men have been communing with giant, sentient organisms swimming past the stars for more than thirty years now. It cannot be pretended that a “living ship” is a concept that’s likely to surprise any given member of the projected audience of Prophet. And so—the pretense is not made. No glorious or menacing vistas, no double page spread, no purple prose in caption. Just “…is the corpse of the living ship that…” and a cross-section of its dead and riddled anatomy.
Utilitarian delivery of information is the right approach here because “living star ship” is not as unreal as a PKE meter was in 1984, or an Orange Catholic Bible. Literally unreal, to be sure, but a culturally established thing. Invocation of this concept is concrete, it has conventions to rely upon. What the reader needs to know is that John’s environment is gross and that he’s putting up with it, and that the civilisation around him is so different to current humanity’s that it will choose to live in a big dead mouldy monster. Using what we can understand—living star ships—to establish what’s we can’t; this rot-based culture doesn’t only respect the reader enough to trust their empathy, but also enough not to blow smoke and pretend that a living star ship is something just made up and awe-inspiring in itself. Prophet is respecting your (pop) culture, here. And mine.
Just as deftly as it evaluates which parts of itself can be explained by the reader’s prior cultural experience, Prophet decides what can go told, not shown. John caught something to ride (below) and the narrative is leaving that capture uncovered. He can do that. Take it for granted he can do that, because if he’s real at all he’s a man who can do that. Do you doubt it? Or does what you’ve learned so far about this John Prophet told you he’s a practical man with wide experience, honed reflexes and access to stimulants, very physical, observant, analytical and strategic? Have you been reading about a man who could do this? Then, when it’s tells you so, why not believe? Prophet tests you, tests itself. Is it giving you enough that you trust it—can it take the magic carpet on a loop-the-loop yet? As Princess Jasmine said, “…yyyYess…”
And off we go. Prophet just keeps going. Innovation, evaluation—every issue introducing more otherworldly strangeness through the lens of the humane emotional gist, reusing classic science fiction aesthetics and motifs in unelaborate, stoic ways. Majestically huge space robots lying defunct and damaged in issue two aren’t there to be marveled at or pondered. Of course not, everybody saw Unicron in theatres in 1985. They’re just space ships, and their bigness is relevant because they are environment. John has to get somewhere fast, and an environment being big makes that a problem. Everything that you might call “a reference” is—I’m struggling for expression here—so unannoying. Prophet takes everything it uses so seriously; it’s mature, unsentimental, no more afraid to add shadow to its landscape than it is to highlight. It works smart, and it is smart, smart work.