“John Prophet is awake” is a puzzle piece.

May 31st, 2012 by | Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been enjoying Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Ed Brisson, Joseph Bergin III, and Giannis Milonogiannis’s Prophet. And like everything else I enjoy, I’ve been trying to pull it apart to see how it works. There’s a lot to chew on, but one of the many things that’s captivated me is this, from issue 24:

“John Prophet is awake.” Something about that stuck with me, to the point where I went back and reread the series, looking for similarly gripping statements. It made me re-examine and really pay attention to the narration in the book.

Graham’s really blunt style in Prophet works for me. It’s pointed, too, if I can mix meanings for a minute. “John Prophet is awake.” “The Earth Empire is here.” These are statements that sound like threats. They sound like something is lurking around behind the words, or around the edges of the phrase, that’s waiting to jump out and ruin your day. Funnybook Babylon‘s Pedro Tejeda described it as foreboding. He’s right.

Part of why these little phrases keep catching my eye is that I’ve been reading James Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover for the past two weeks, and thinking about the other two books in the Underworld USA series for a couple years now. Here’s a sample of Ellroy’s prose from Blood’s A Rover:

The boss type looks pissed. The guys fan out. One guy scopes the Brylcreem, three guys walk to the rear. The boss type turns his back and tidies the candy shelf. The Brylcreem guy pulls a silencered revolver and walks straight up. The boss type turns around and goes “Oh.” The Brylcreem guy sticks the barrel in his mouth and blows off the top of his head. Silencer thud, brain and skull spray. No crash—the boss type just slides down the shelf row and dies.

Ellroy’s got a similarly blunt style, and as a result of how the books shake out, that bluntness is harrowing. It’s an indication that danger’s right around the corner, that life is short and mean, and that there’s no safe spaces, not really. It’s the perfect tone for Ellroy’s secret history of the ’50s and ’60s, because the prose crawls up underneath your skin and settles in. Even peaceful scenes are fraught with tension because of this. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ellroy’s books are only ever five short words away from brutal, life-changing violence. (More on Rover later, I figure.)

These two books aren’t connected at all. I asked Brandon if he had read any Ellroy and he said nah. But, that doesn’t stop them from working in concert and feeding off each other inside my head. Both of the books are in my orbit, and they feed off each other accordingly. One work enhances or alters my perception of the other, even though the two books are incredibly different from each other. I mean, it’s Space Conan vs Sleazy History — not a lot of points of comparison there.

But: “The Earth Empire is here.” “One guy scopes the Brylcreem, three guys walk to the rear.” Both of these statements foretell doom. They deliver a shiver before everyone gets down to business. There’s a connection.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to comics, obviously. It’s a product of taking part in any type of culture. But I like when these sorts of things happen, when I find a connection between works I enjoy. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and picking up on parallel paths in books or similar techniques is always interesting. Sometimes all you need to figure something out is to see someone else do something similar, and then you can apply that new knowledge to the problem you’re trying to solve.

I’m going to solve Prophet at some point. Ellroy just provided another tool for the toolbox.

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6 comments to ““John Prophet is awake” is a puzzle piece.”

  1. The directness of Ellroy is just amazing. I’ve read my way through his books and it’s obvious that he’s worked on his style and he’s really mastered in with the American Underworld trilogy or whatever it’s called.

    I think more comic writers could really do well taking pointers from Ellroy’s style. You can almost sort of see the panel breakdowns, like a jump cut in a french new wave film.

    Ellroy’s books are only ever five short words away from brutal, life-changing violence.

    Literally the best description of his works.

    Side note: I’ve always thought that RZA’s style of rapping – the train of consciousness word association stuff – was similar to Ellroy’s writing in that it tells a story with just the barest of words but it speaks volumes.
    case in point:

    “camouflage chameleon, ninjas scaling your building
    No time to grab the gun they already got your wife and children
    A hit was sent, from the President to raid your residence
    Because you had secret evidence,”

    I’m sorry this is all very scattershot, and it may not make a huge amount of sense to link the two (espescially since we should spend more time praising Prophet) but Ellroy’s sparse writing style just knocks me away with it’s brutal beauty.

  2. You know, I didn’t think to describe it as foreboding, but now I can’t separate that feeling from the narration. I think one of the skills Graham brings as a writer is his ability to give you that iceberg storytelling, where you get the feeling that you’re only seeing a tiny piece of a gigantic whole. It’s a skill that’s backed up by the artists he works with and their ability to show us vastly different worlds, environments, and creatures.

    What I love is that this really seems to be a Brandon Graham thing. King City was littered with one-off mentions of characters or ideas that could’ve supported their own storylines. It felt like visiting a city where you know that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never discover everything it has to offer.

  3. @David Fairbanks:
    Exactly. Prophet #25 was like that in spades too. That page where it’s going through the histories of the three brother john’s was completely epic. I wanted to read 1000 page epics about each one of them.

    “Tekite who felt so at peace in the Lux Glacies Caverns that he still carries a piece with him.”

    “Brother Hu–her eye un-repared so she’d always remember what it was traded for”

    In like 15 words we go from fearing the Pinwheel warriors to feeling sad about them.

    “the friend of the scale, the unkillable knife, the wave crester, the spiral jumper. The lord of Wolf-Rayet Star”

    Shit is so much fun.

    It’s why for a monthly comic it’s a very satisfying read. You feel like you’re getting a ton of story every month. It’s the opposite of decompressed storytelling.

  4. The storytelling in Prophet (along with artists that ‘get it’) is so strong that it creates its own atmosphere and gravity, and I agree with @bairfanx that his ability to create an entire universe out of a seemingly tossed off idea is a very rare and powerful ability for a writer to have. I desperately want to know more about this dark, twisted, and vaguely mournful timeline that he’s created.

  5. […] Analysis | David Brothers discusses how writer James Ellroy creates a sense of foreboding through his writing style alone, and finds it similar to the storytelling style in the new incarnation of Prophet, written by Brandon Graham. [4thletter!] […]

  6. I always felt like those types of sentences were Hemingway-ish too. Those short, declarative statements that allow you to bring in your own interpretation and don’t assault you with adjectives and adverbs and prescriptive meaning.

    “Nick drank the coffee. The coffee was bitter. Nick smiled.” – From the book “In Our Time”