High-concept sci-fi psychedelic action to the rescue?
One minute, Prism Stalker from writer-artist Sloane Leong is a deeply poetic and philosophical reflection on the fluidity of identity, the duties of family, and the loss of home. The next, it’s a high-concept psychedelic sci-fi thriller, awash in bright greens and blues. Later still, it’s an action comic, as our central figure, Vep, trains to fight off or tame some still-unseen alien force. By the conclusion of its first volume and arc, collecting issues 1-5 here, it’s all these things and more in unequal measure without much clear direction forward. The resulting product is an alienating and sometimes rewarding read for those willing to struggle through the denser moments.
Image’s solicit for the volume reads:
Far from the border of colonized space, a newly discovered planet teems violently with strange psychic life and puzzling telekinetic ecology. Vep, a refugee raised away from her devastated home planet as an indentured citizen in a foreign colony, is taken by a private military firm to assist in settling the new planet. What awaits her will test the limits of her will as she grapples with the strange power the planet exerts over her…
Unfortunately, that solicit conveys the main story beats much more coherently than Leong’s writing does in practice and little else is needed to catch readers up to where we, and Vep, stand at the end of this arc. Fortunately, the unspoken bits — the kinetic energy of the art, straddling the line between sketch and fluid in a dynamic way, the psychedelic highs and lows of the color explored in stunning range, and the poetic waxing of our main heroine — make this story stand apart from not only other sci-fi comics (save Southern Cross), but from other creator-owned books in general, in a truly unique way both for better and worse.
We are shown incredible things, mind- and reality-bending things, painstakingly brought to life somewhere out in the inky black void of space by Leong’s confident artistic hand, but we aren’t told enough.
It’s more than fine to leave some things unexplained. I for one, am happy to find my own meaning in the moving, spiritual and sparse prose Vep delivers between particularly moving experiences, openness to interpretation creates a personal relationship and experience that make comics like Prism Stalker so effective.
However, the crux of the issue is that almost everything written or spoken feels that way, which can’t be considered anything other than a failure in narrative design as far as I’m concerned. What’s missing, so desperately, is some sort of framing narrative — a prequel issue, a narrator, the occasional asterisk translation, anything to help with the denseness of the dialogue and plotting that eases the responsibility placed on the reader to stop after every page to not think about the effect things are having on Vep (a character I desperately want to like but can’t understand or relate to) but rather what she meant by what she said in just about every panel where concepts like “Echoes,” “Factures,” “Somas” — all related to the physical and spiritual control of one’s fighting ability — and more are introduced once and then expected to be understood ubiquitously.
The true success, then, is the visual language that Prism Stalker not only confidently espouses, but relishes in. Beautiful, evocative, psychedelic, and kinetic, Leong has honed in on a unified expressiveness that grounds the story when needed but also elevates it beyond the stars when appropriate. From the alien architecture of the environments, to the Dragonball-Z-like fights, and even still to the reality melting (literally) tripper moments, Vep lives in, effects change on, and controls a world unlike any other. This is the truly unique, unshakeable core of the story’s elements — its defining feature and triumph as far as I’m concerned. Still, it isn’t enough to defuse the confused central issues of the comic.
As Prism Stalker‘s first arc comes to a close, it struggles to make a case for its continued existence. Yes, there are hints of a central mystery, less-than-good intentions and the like. But they’re only whispers, while Vep’s voice remains as unfound as the dialogue and plot’s footing. It’s a complicated disappointment, for every line dripping with techno-speak, lacking any appropriate context, such as “A quarter of our students get early onset reflexive diacaustic dissonance” (issue #5) that refuse to help the already confusing plot along, there’s a beautifully rendered two page spread using the full color range of the best Grateful Dead posters telling another part of the story through an equally important, and more effective, visual language. All five issues contained within, through the overarching introductory setup of Vep’s journey from refuge, to slave, to warrior-in-training, struggle with this dissonance. But, as beautiful as it may be, I can’t in good conscience recommend a book that doesn’t seem to know what it is. Here’s hoping it solidifies its purpose in the future.