COMMENTARY TRACK: Brandon Graham On "Prophet"

No one knew what to expect when Rob Liefeld announced the resurrection of Extreme Studios at Image Comics during the 2011 New York Comic Con. One thing was very clear, however; he was going after some unique and interesting talent, announcing Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell on "Glory," Tim Seeley writing "Bloodstrike," Erik Larsen writing and drawing "Supreme" and Brandon Graham tackling the writing on "Prophet." As each series debuted, the issues quickly sold out out, resulting in multiple printings to keep up with fan demand.

One of the most talked about books of the group has been Graham's "Prophet." The "King City" creator took the basic concept of a time-lost soldier and thrust him into the far flung future, dealing with a host of alien beasts, traveling cities and seemingly unstoppable enemies. Each Prophet, a genetically engineered clone sent out by the Earth Empire has a very specific mission programmed into him, but things don't always go as planned. Some get lost, some get destroyed and some get to take the spotlight in the issues of "Prophet" drawn by regular artists Simon Roy and Farel Dalrymple with Giannis Milonogiannis and Graham himself pitching in.

With more going on in a single issue than lots of comics and stories have in their entirety, CBR News sat down with Graham for an extensive interview about the building blocks of his world, working on someone else's character and the many influences he pulls from in coming up with Prophet's adversaries and allies.

CBR News: A lot of different kinds of comic readers are digging "Prophet," from hardcore indie people to capes and cowls fans. Has that been a gratifying reaction?

Brandon Graham: Yeah, it's been really cool. Most of the guys that I know who do indie comics still love some good [Jack] Kirby or Alan Davis. A lot of them got into comics through superheroes.

I'd love to see more of the genre lines blurred in comics. I'm always frustrated when I see mainstream comics throw in the indie guys in "Bizarro [Comics]" anthologies or whatever. I think [Michael] Deforge would do a great "X-Men" annual, and [James] Stokoe would kill doing a Galactus book. I guess sometimes indie guys become writers -- shit!

You've mainly done projects that are completely yours, how has the experience been working on someone else's property been for you so far?

It's been fun. I like being able to use [Rob] Liefeld's universe as basis for what we're doing. I can go back and look at his old work and try to think up what a place with these ideas would evolve into over thousands of years. I've been sending him emails asking, "Who else might be alive in ten thousand years?"

It makes me approach it differently, I don't think I'd ever be doing a story quite like this if Image hadn't asked me what I would do with "Prophet." I'm really happy I got the chance.Â
Had some of the concepts you've used in "Prophet" been kicking around your head for a while, or did they kind of roll out from thinking about how you'd handle this concept?

Having clones in it kind of played off of the other book I'm working on right now, "Multiple Warheads." There's clones in that, too. I thought it was funny to have two clone books. Aside from that, everything has come from talking over what kind of comic me, Simon, Giannis and Farel [Dalrymple] want to make.Â

A lot of it seems to come from watching or reading other sci-fi or fantasy stuff I like. I've been going through some old "Blakes 7" and Tom Baker-era "Doctor Who," along with the [John] Buscema "Conan." Â
Sometimes, new sci-fi stories can feel like rehashes of older ones, but "Prophet" has a really unique feel to it. Are you a hardcore sci-fi fan? Do you find yourself tossing ideas out that are too familiar to others you've seen before?I'm a big sci-fi fan, as are all the dudes on the book. I think Ed [Brisson] who's lettering it might be more into true crime.

In "Prophet," it's the execution that makes the ideas seem fresh. A lot of them are pretty basic "Heavy Metal" or "Conan" ideas, but it's been really fun to try to think of how we want to show things. Every idea gets put through this "Prophet" filter, thinking about the future clone culture and how much time has passed. 
Are you a fan of EC Comics like "Weird Science?" The book seems to have a connection to those kinds of comics. 

I like what I've read of EC Comics but I can't claim to know them well enough. Matt Howarth's old sci-fi comics and Fil Barlow's "Zooniverse," [Masamune] Shirow's "Appleseed" and the work of Moebius were the sci-fi comics that hit me really hard as a kid.

Howarth did this great series called "Particle Dreams." I really like the fourth issue where a woman who gets stranded on a planet and teams up with a vampire squid-snake alien to fight an living crystal that's taken over the place. It's really fun stuff. And I like his "Konny and Czu" series where he managed to make really likable alien comics without having any humanoid characters in the book. The main characters are a centipede and three floating rocks.Â

When you're describing something in the script like the Tulnaka in the first issue or the Taxa caravan in the second, how much detail do you go into? Do you ever do reference sketches for your artists to work off or do they come up with the designs?

I think the Tulnaka was mostly due to Simon's execution. At most I would talk to him about having some kind of alien llama that got vicious when provoked. The Taxa caravan needed some sketches to explain how I was thinking of it.

There's a lot of sketches sent back and forth. For the Taxa caravan issue, I sent Simon rough layouts of the whole issue and had him tweak the layouts to suit him. We work real loose. Especially with Simon and Farel, it gets really collaborative to the point that it gets hard to remember who came up with what.Â
How has your relationship with Simon changed since you guys first started working together on the book?

I don't know if it has changed much. We worked together doing storyboards on an animated movie a while back, and we would do a lot of the same stuff then as we do now in "Prophet." Lots of hashing over what we're both reading and what we'd like to see. We talk about [the William Gibson novel] "Neuromancer" a lot too. I think we have a "Neuromancer"-themed friendship.

You often have panels and pages showing off Prophet's gear to the point where they've become something of a recurring element in the series. Where did that idea come from?

I feel like I've seen that kind of trick around in older comics. It's just like showing what's in Batman's utility belt. It's one of those comic tricks that makes the medium so much fun. You never have to work what something is into the dialog; you can just have an arrow pointing at it that says what it is.

I'm always interested in the details of things. What are the characters eating and what's in their pockets? I'd love to walk around an issue of "B.P.R.D." and look at all the books and papers on the bookshelves. Also, I think it helps to ground things to add that kind of detail that might not be that important to the story but is just fun to come up with.  Â
Will readers ever discover what happened to Earth or is the why of it not as important as the results?

It's not a big secret as much as it's just not what the characters in the story are interested in. Basically, when the human empire left Earth, all the alien races and other humans they'd enslaved were left behind to continue on and evolve into what you see in the comic now. 

The first issue especially has a lot of survivalist elements. Did you do research into that philosophy for the series?

There was a little research, but less than I'd planned. I had to resign myself to certain ideas as the story went in the direction that Prophets aren't smooth and covert as much as they're just tenacious and hard to kill. A lot of it was written on the fly and I'd notice things as I went, like how one of Prophet's first actions when he wakes up is to build a fire. Which seems like it could be a bad idea if his goal was to be at all covert.Â

You burn through a lot of ideas in each issue -- some people would have spent an entire arc dealing with something like the Jell City's spaceship origins. Are there elements like this you'd like to get back to in future issues, or are you looking for the next idea?

I'm really into the idea of trying to make dense comics that are worth reading more than once -- especially since we're asking people to pay $3 for 20 pages of "Prophet" and a five-page back-up. When I go to the comic store, the new books out are always competing for my money with the dollar bin. And there's a lot of 80s "Spider-Man" or "Dreadstar" comics full of stories that I've never read. So the dollar bin usually wins. I'm always trying to make comics that I'd buy myself.

A lot of the ideas are throwaway at first, but going back to them it's cool to reassess where you're at and see what you can build from. On the issue we're working on now, #28, I had plans for a bunch of new aliens and Simon suggested bringing back a few from earlier issues. I think that helps the reader to feel in the world when they get to know some reoccurring things and it isn't always just some new crazy Zor-cycles and zoobileyshafts every month. I mean, there's those too...Â

I laughed really hard at the panel in the first issue when the creature demands to be mated with and the sound effect is "Fwoosh." Is that something that was in the script or added later?

The sound effects are all Simon. I'm a big fan of hand-done logos and sounds in comics. For the most part, there's not much of a real script until the end. I either send rough text page breakdowns like, "Page 2 -- the squid men take off their skin attacking John and he kills three of them," and we back-and-forth with the guys drawing its layouts, or I send my own drawn layouts. For dialog, like in that scene, I have to do tighter layouts.Â

That scene was fun. I was watching a spy movie where a guy goes back to his hotel room, and a beautiful woman he's never met is naked in his bed. It seemed really presumptuousness for her to assume he'd be into her. I was joking about how it would be if an older Alfred Hitchcock-looking guy had tried the same move. It evolved from there into that vagina chicken alien. Also, one of the themes we've been messing with is the idea of what would be normal to these creatures and people that are so far removed from where we're at.Â

When you're coming up with something like the world built around the caravan, do you sit down and figure out all the details at once or as they come to you in the context of the story?

I just work up from a basic idea -- I think it was just that I wanted to show Prophet having to interact with aliens while still traveling. For some reason, with "Prophet" I keep thinking of things that relate to trains. In issue #26, they talk about a whole intergalactic rail system. I mean, it's outer space sci-fi wormholes called the Cyclops Rail, but the idea's basically a railroad. But yeah, it's always real simple ideas that I try to tack details onto and then the guys drawing it tack more ideas on and then once they've drawn it I add more.Â

The Xiux-Guin Blade is one of the creepier villains in comics -- what was his genesis?

I think my end of that was just the idea that he should be a Kraven the Hunter alien. I think Simon had a lot of ideas for him. 

We've see that Prophet will mate with an alien, sit through a quick surgery and shovel shit to accomplish his mission while taking a few side risks like trying to protect the fossilized king. How much actual freedom do these guys have when it comes to making decisions?

They have a drive to do whatever mission is in them and a love for humanity and the Empire brain Mothers that can give them direct orders and force them to do something. Aside from that, they are their own autonomous beings. I'm looking forward to showing Prophets developing into individuals with all their unique experiences.

You tend to dole out information as the story goes without front-loading everything. We eventually see the voice in Prophet's head as the ghost girl and see other aspects of the world -- was that your intention from the very beginning?

Hopefully some of the fun of reading it is that we're not saying everything. A lot of how I write is me not knowing everything about the world when I'm doing it and giving myself clues for things I'll have to come up with later. It keeps it fun. In issue #27 Prophet gets a starship with a giant egg growing out of it, and right now I have no idea what's in the egg but I like considering the possibilities as I go.

The events of the 23rd issue really open up the world to this much larger thing. Was this a way to give you the opportunity to write pretty much any kind of story possible?

Originally, my plan was to have a second evolution of Prophets burst out of the clones, and the series was going to be about one Prophet who escaped that, fighting the others. But when the idea of doing 12 issues a year came up, I had to think of a good excuse to have multiple artists. 

Speaking of multiple artists, you got to work with Farel Dalrymple on #24. How did that come about and what was different about that experience? Did you have specific creatures or characters you were excited for him to draw?

I've been good friends with Farel since around 2000. We used to hang out a lot when we both lived in NYC. It was really fun to come up with his issues. Farel came up and stayed at my place for a week. We watched a bunch of old 80s Tom Baker "Doctor Who" episodes and talked about what would be cool to put in "Prophet."

I was mostly excited to be able to show Farel's work in a light that maybe people hadn't seen it in. I think he gets thought of as an indy guy -- and he is, I mean, we all are -- but he's coming from such a classic comic book background. I feel like he's that rare kind of artist whose work looks fresh now, but if you dropped him into the 1970s he could get still work at Marvel. So I wanted to do stuff with him that's more hard sci-fi barbarian comics.

I'm kind of cocky about the talent of the guys I'm working with on "Prophet." I think a lot of guys who do more personal work get put in an indie ghetto, but I think we can do something monthly next to an "X-Men" or "Batman" book and compete on that level.

The 24th issue also features a new form for John Prophet -- one with a tail. Does this imply that there are different versions of him for different terrains/planets?

Right, exactly. They're all made from the same John Prophet template but they've had to make an entire army so you get female Prophets and Prophets made to live in bizarre environments. Prophets made to be solders and Prophets made to be thinkers. Prophets made to dance and love and whatever -- okay, maybe not dance, but there are Prophet wives for Prophet sex, male ones, too, but still called wives in the same way female Prophets are all still called Brothers. I guess there could be some made to dance, too, if they were made to be sent to a world that communicates through dance. Sure, why not. 

Artist Giannis Milonogiannis came onboard with #25. How did you come across his work? His style looks different from the other guys -- was that a concern at all?

I knew Giannis through Simon. They're kind of comic book pen pals. I was a little wary at first because I feel like Simon and Farel have a kind of link in their styles. Their stuff feels like more classic western comics, but Giannis is coming from a lot more of the Japanese drawing influences I have in my own work. The manga stuff, like Shirow and Otomo. He's really impressing me with his "Prophet" pages and I think his work is taking the book in cool new directions I hadn't planned.

You dropped another bomb at the end of #25 with this older, de-programmed Prophet. Have these first five issues been setting the stage for a bigger conflict to come?

Indeed. I feel like the first issues were a set-up for what starts in #25 with Old Man Prophet.Â

You wrote and drew "Prophet" #26, which features a pair of robots freeing themselves --

I wrote, drew and colored #26 by my lonesome, lettered by the talented Ed Brisson. It's about one of Old Man Prophet's soldier robots, a Jaxson. He's been sleeping a long time and wakes up hearing the Empire signal that was sent out in #23. So he's got to try to warn Old Man Prophet. It happens kind of before #25, but the way that long distance space and time work in communicating in "Prophet," it could be after. I get into some of that in the issue.Â

What can you tell us about #27 and how the events we've seen so far will come together with Old Man Prophet and his brewing conflict with the Empire?
I'm doing a thing in "Prophet" where a month of the story passes between each monthly issue; I think it was only like a week in Simon's first three issues though. So Old Man Prophet's been traveling on the back of a worm and living off of the food in it's external web stomach. He's looking for his old friends.

The issue happens along this series of these mini planet pods that exist in river of atmosphere held in place by an estuary of solar winds. The main aliens who live there look kind of like horses made out of trees.

The first trade was recently solicited. Are there plans for any bonus material?

I'm not sure yet. It might be cool to get some of the sketches and layouts into it but nothings been decided.Â

For the cover of #27, we've got a Prophet mask that Giannis drew that you can cut out and wear. Hmmmmm -- it's probably less likely that anyone will want to cut up the collection just to look ridiculous. 

Between yourself, Simon, Farel, Giannis and Emma Rios on back-ups, you've got a solid stable of artists working on "Prophet." Do you see yourself bringing in more people in the future?

The back-ups are always going to be different people. I feel like it's such a cool chance to get the work of artists I'm really excited about out there and ideally see publishers pay more attention to. Next issue, we've got a back up by Lin Visel, who does amazing work but for the most part has only done comics online.Â

There's so many fantastic comic artists just not making it to comic shelves. And not all just new guys -- I was really happy to get both Fil Barlow and Frank Teran to do back ups and covers. Barlow's "Zooniverse" -- that I read when I was 10 -- is one of the books that first showed me what was possible in comics, and Teran's work in the 90s helped me stay excited about this medium.
With the Emma Rios story, that was the first time that she'd written something for American readers. I think the five pages she did shows what a fantastic storyteller she is by her lonesome. I'm looking forward to seeing her write a lot more.

As far as the main storyline, it'll mostly be Simon and Giannis, with me and Farel showing up for a few issues. I want to keep it pretty tight as the storylines get more involved.

"Prophet" #27 goes on sale on July 25. If you're behind and want to catch up, the first trade paperback, "Prophet Vol. 1: Remission," drops on August 1.

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Tags: image comics, rob liefeld, giannis milonogiannis, prophet, brandon graham, simon roy, extreme studios, emma rios, commentary track, farel dalrymple

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