Monday, April 25, 2005

fragile PROPHET #1 - advance APE review

fragile PROPHET (which I’ll hereafter refer to as Fragile Prophet, ‘cause I’m not the fancy type) is an upcoming four-issue miniseries from Lost In The Dark Press. I picked up a preview copy of #1 at APE this year and it was my favorite “find” – oh, I picked up a lot of other stuff I loved, like a bunch of mini-comics from the good Mr. Jeremy Tinder and the big new trade collection of Arsenic Lullaby, stuff I knew going in that I would love, but this was my favorite book to discover.

Fragile Prophet is the story of a young autistic boy and his older, caretaker brother as they discover that the afflicted younger sibling has the power to see the future. The opening issue follows them quickly through a tumultuous time in their lives as they discover and begin to cope with this ability, and closes as the young one, Jake, sees a disturbing vision of his own future that throws a powerful twist on their relationship.

Most books of this kind – those with an outlandish, almost supernatural premise – will choose to focus on developing either the characters or the plot, and filling in the weaker element with a “classic” standby. If the plot is the point, then the characters will be standard tropes to get the audience familiar with the territory and to let the writer focus on being clever; if the characters are the point, a stock plot will prop up the narrative while the writer spends his or her time building character with dialogue and exploring relationships to endear the cast to the reader. This book chooses to explore some ambiguity and intrigue on both sides of the equation, and it’s a refreshing combination.

Esau – the older brother – is the voice-over narrator, bringing us up to speed through his recollection of “how it started.” The opening sequence, with Jake lost in a Target-esque department store, is funny and sweet, as we see a few brief moments of the brothers’ normal lives. Writer Jeff Davidson’s dialogue sets the tone for the rest of the book – the character’s speech is natural and believable, but with just enough rhythm and punch to ascribe some fast character traits and make the reader start asking questions. The revelation of Jake’s abilities is a great moment, with more humor and uncertainty, and a funny kind of innocence that reassures me this is not another heartless exercise of intellect – later scenes explore the idea that Esau may be abusing his role as Jake’s caretaker to cash in, and in many books this would be a foregone conclusion: of course Esau would be neglecting his brother for financial gain, and of course he would either pay the price or finally learn his lesson. This book seems to have a little more compassion and thoughtfulness for its characters and does not drive us to believe anything so obvious. It’s possible that Esau isn’t making the right decisions, certainly – his affection for his brother is plain and his wit is charming, but there’s a bit of a slacker vibe to him that signals early on that he might not be right about everything.

It’s also nice to find that the plot of the series seems to have more than just a couple threads in it; while this opening issue wastes no time in moving the main characters to the cliffhanger ending, a number of smaller plot threads and character relationships are introduced, and most of them are pretty promising. On their way to fame, the boys spend some time in a traveling carnival, entangling themselves in all the bizarre and shadowy dangers that go with such a scene – a strangely half-menacing, half-ridiculous enemy introduces himself and disappears, and I expect to see more of him as the series continues. Other interesting characters get some good lines in the second half of the issue, but I don’t want to spoil too much for those who won’t read it until the summer.

The artwork is in a very unique style, one that balances the personal warmth and creepy uncertainty that the script calls for – the writing and the artwork are very well matched here. Stephen R. Buell has a style that reminds me a bit of the old Aeon Flux cartoons on Liquid Television; the anatomy is slightly skewed, the faces stretched out, but there remains something very viscerally human and personal about the characters he draws. It’s just stylized enough to make the reader a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit unfamiliar, but without alienating us from the characters. It’s a subtle balance and while I can draw comparisons to existing work, I don’t think I’ve seen comic art quite like this before. Funny, charming, creepy, weird – everything about the book as a whole is represented in the artwork, which suggests an unusually unified effort on the part of the two creators.

I have one quibble, and it’s a technical one. The lettering in this book is confusing. Dialogue doesn’t bounce back and forth visually, as it should. The order in which I am supposed to read the word balloons is not clear, and that makes me stop and review all the different bits of dialogue and reassemble them for myself, taking me out of the story while I figure out how to read it. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed before the main run of the first issue sees print, but if not, I imagine it can be resolved in the second issue.

At any rate, while it’s irritating, it’s not nearly irritating enough to keep me from recommending this. The style of this comic is something new to me, and it’s subtle and nuanced; I don’t know whether to shudder or smile as I read these pages, and if I find myself doing both, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable contradiction. The emotional punch behind this unusual style is resonant and friendly, and I look forward to seeing where the creators will take the rest of this story.


EDIT: A nine-page preview, depicting the opening scene (in which we discover Jake's power), is available here:

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