It’s old news by now, but it’s still fun to bring it up: in his contextualization of Charlie Sheen last year, novelist Bret Easton Ellis framed his approach around the notions of “Empire” and “Post-Empire.” Some people were confused because Ellis didn’t define his terms, but rather dished out some examples in the midst of his commentary.
Like Susan Sontag in her “Notes on Camp,” Ellis defined his topic not by saying “these terms mean this” but by showing several things that fit into his categories. And make no mistake, though his piece centered around Charlie Sheen’s career, it was really a manifesto about what it means to be a cultural empire in decline. But Ellis doesn’t offer a condemnation of such a trend, merely an observation that this is where we are, this is where we have been, and some people seem to be aware of it while others pretend not to be.
Honestly, I’m not particularly interested in the distinctions Ellis makes. I think it’s interesting enough that he makes them, but where he draws the line and the terms he uses don’t much matter to me. In literary studies, the notion of Post-Colonialism has long been a thread of discussion and analysis, and though it’s traditionally applied to 20th century British literature, the same kind of thinking could — and is, sometimes — applied to American literature as well.
Or, you just might bundle in discussions of modes of expression into the mix, and say Ellis’s “Empire” is “Literal” and his “Post-Empire” is “Ironic,” with the examples he cites falling into place quite nicely. Robert Downey, Jr. is literally a celebrity, and Ricky Gervais is ironically a celebrity, and so it goes. But Robert Downey, Jr. was once an ironic celebrity too, and some of the things he has said and done in the past would be as “Post-Empire” as anything else Ellis provides as an example. The lines blur, and it’s more about whether or not people take themselves seriously or not. Or how convincingly they pretend to.
Augustus Caesar? That guy was Empire. Caligula? Post-Empire. Etc.
No, I’m not much interested in that.
But what I am interested is the comic book equivalent of such thinking. And to bounce off of Ellis’s terminology and bring it back to our home court, let’s play with some new labels: Extreme vs. Post-Extreme.
Extreme is “Youngblood,” circa 1992, written by Rob Liefeld and Hank Kanalz, drawn by Rob Liefeld.
Post-Extreme is “Youngblood,” circa 1998, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Steve Skroce.
Extreme is “JLX,” circa 1997, written by Gerard Jones and Mark Waid, drawn by Howard Porter and John Dell.
Post-Extreme is “Superman: Grounded,” circa 2010, written by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Roberson, drawn by Eddy Barrows and friends.
Extreme is “Avengers: The Crossing,” circa 1995, written by Bob Harras and friends, drawn by M. C. Wyman and friends.
Post-Extreme is “Dark Avengers,” circa 2009, written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by Mike Deodato.
Sure, Extreme may be the name of Rob Liefeld’s studio, but it’s more than just the Liefeld aesthetic at work. It’s the sensibility of the “extreme,” in visual style and bombastic narrative. Post-Extreme my not be any more subtle — it may not even be good — but it is a rejection of the visual and narrative excesses with a deeply ironic underpinning at its core.
Still, Liefeldian Extreme is a strong barometer. Bringing Jill Thompson on to “Deathstroke” would be, for example, definitely Post-Extreme.
So let’s talk about “Prophet,” the 2012 series by Brandon Graham and company that has not only embodies the Post-Extreme aesthetic, but has done so on a series that was born from Extreme itself, and even features, on Graham’s first issue — “Prophet” #21 — a slogan that says, “1st Issue in a Bold New Era for EXTREME!”
Contrary to that assertion, “Prophet” is a “Bold New Era for the POST-EXTREME,” but that would have just confused the same kind of people who were confused by Bret Easton Ellis. Also, it would have been more letters, and more letters means smaller font, which means less EXTREME.
But Post-Extreme, by its very nature, is less extreme in every way. While the original “Prophet” series — and I don’t know anyone who has read all the issues of the original series, in its various volumes — was joked about at the time of its release as a mistitled book (“Hey,” the jokesters would say, “Shouldn’t it be called ‘Profit’? Haw haw hee hee”), the new “Prophet” of 2012 was immediately hailed as some kind of renaissance for old Image comics, only with the word “renaissance” not meaning “rebirth,” but instead meaning “these are good and different now.”
Brandon Graham’s “Prophet” is good and different, but its most important quality is that it’s defiantly Post-Extreme. It’s good because of what it is not.
Well, that’s not totally true. It’s good because of what it is, but it’s most easily understood for being good because it’s not the Rob Liefeld/Dan Panosian/Stephen Platt series of old. And that’s, of course, a kind of snobbery. One that assumes that a sci-fi comic that looks more like a European graphic album is inherently better than a sci-fi comic that has muscle-bound heroes screaming and leaping across stark geometric background. I won’t judge your preferences.
Jack Kirby’s “Silver Star” is Extreme, by the way. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s “Astro City” is Post-Extreme.
Thus, one can look at issues #21-28 of “Prophet” and see that the series must be good simply by its nature of not looking like it’s the same series that was once drawn by Dan Panosian and Stephen Platt. The artists working with Brandon Graham — including Graham himself, who drew “Prophet” #26 — are not comic book artists working in the typical American superhero tradition. Simon Roy draws like someone who should be published by Les Humanoides Associes, Farel Dalrymple’s inky cartooning comes from the streets of Alt-Comics, and Giannis Milonagiannis draws scratchy Otomo-influenced pages with a style born in the ghetto of zealous webcomic production. Those guys don’t look like 1990s-era Dan Panosian or Stephen Platt. Their landscapes don’t look anything like any comic published by Image Comics in the 1990s. They are shockingly different than what has been done before with this character, with this series, and so they must be good.
That’s how that particular line of thinking goes, as thin and feeble as it may be.
But there’s something to it.
Sure, different isn’t always good. When Ernie Chan follows Jack Kirby on a series, that doesn’t mean Ernie Chan’s work is amazing just because it doesn’t look like Jack Kirby’s. When Jeff Purves followed Dale Keown on “The Incredible Hulk,” Purves’s work didn’t look immediately wonderful just because his lines were thin and Keown’s had been bold. James Harren looked out of place when he followed Tonci Zonjic on “Heralds,” just as Zonjic had looked wrong for “The Immortal Iron Fist” after following David Aja. Different sometimes leads to disappointment.
But when different means a fundamentally different sensibility and a new story arc to go along with it — as we get in “Prophet,” relaunched after years of being largely forgotten — I’ll take different every time. We have plenty of more of the same. We get that every month. Something that looks as different as its predecessor as Brandon Graham’s “Prophet” and looks different from almost anything else racked next to it on any given Wednesday? That’s worth paying attention to.
But that alone is not enough. That’s not enough to make “Prophet” feel like one of the best comics of the year, which it is. I liked it even more after rereading all the issues again last week. It has more on its mind and in its heart than just surface-level artistic differences.
One thing it does particularly well is emphasize the exploration of its physical space. That’s an exceedingly rare thing in comics. For every “Conan the Barbarian” or “Y: The Last Man” which give you a travelling tour of their world while the story is being told, there are a million comics that center around a few familiar locales and a few recurring threats. But even with “Conan” or “Y,” the geography tends to have a sameness to it. Yes, there are superficial differences, but how many bustling cities with mad kings and dystopian suburbs with angry women do you need before you realize that the world-building in those comics is less important to the creators than the character conflicts?
In “Prophet,” the world-building is what matters most. The “character” of John Prophet is almost irrelevant, except as a guide through that world. Look at it this way: John Prophet isn’t even a defined character — in Brandon Graham’s writing — except for what he does. And there’s more than one of him. John Prophet is a name, one shared by innumerable clones, all of whom moving to converge toward some ultimate goal. And in the eight issues of “Prophet” so far, how much has any version of John Prophet even spoken? In the first issue, he vomits and grunts and doesn’t say any words until the final sequence, when he speaks merely three halting sentences total. In the second issue, he says four words total, other than a bout of laughter. He says four words again in the next issue — total — before meeting other John Prophet clones who talk a little bit more than he does.
And it goes on. Prophet — no matter the incarnation — is more interested in deed than word, but what makes the adventures of the various John Prophets so much more interesting than most other comics is that Brandon Graham and his artistic collaborators go to the trouble of making the landscape distinctive, and making Prophet’s interaction with the landscape seem especially ridden with strange and alien conflict.
In writing or speaking about “Prophet” earlier this year, I may have called the series “elliptical.” That’s the kind of word I would normally use for a series like this, one that seems not particularly interested in the traditional structure of rising action/climax/resolution and seems more interested in exploring its world in a meandering, patient way.
But that kind of comment, that kind of thinking about the series, was based on my own misreading. A double-misreading, really. The first misreading was that I was thinking about the series in single issues, instead of seeing the story arcs that were in development. As single issues, it does seem elliptical, because the larger shape of the plot structure is not telegraphed in each installment. But reading all eight issues shows that the overall structure is actually blatantly simple and direct. The first arc, in “Prophet” #21-25, tells of the activation of the clones around the galaxy and the return to action of the “old man,” presumed to be the “original” John Prophet. The Brandon-Graham-drawn issue #26 is an interlude about one of Prophet’s robot companions, full of a different perspective on events. And issues #27-28 are moving toward the reunion of the Team Extreme, with the recharged Diehard and more action sure to come.
The other part of my misreading was that I was looking for the traditional structure of rising action/climax/resolution to come from the protagonist/antagonist relationship. A good story needs a great villain, they always say. In “Prophet,” the rising action/climax/resolution occurs in every issue, but it’s a battle between the various John Prophets and the landscape they find themselves in. It’s like a birthing metaphor, first as the one Prophet moves to activate the horde of Prophets, then as old man Prophet reassembles his “team.” Except, in this birthing metaphor, the womb is filled with deadly, horrible creatures and the nursery is a war zone packed with danger and death.
Brandon Graham does a couple of other things to subvert expectations in the series, like draw an entire issue about bulky robots without a human in sight, when he’s best known for drawing lovely human figures interacting with one another. Or the way in which he relies on third-person narrative captions, a literary mode in a comic that is beautifully, brutally visual
But above all, this Post-Extreme comic is good because it’s different, and it’s different because it’s good. In a comic book industry filled with chatty heroes in board rooms and nonsensical twists and turns and relationships arranged for mainstream news coverage and ambitious blandness, Brandon Graham gives us a relatively silent hero on an intergalactic mission to reclaim humanity, while the far more fascinating alien landscapes overwhelm us all.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.