Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Prism Stalker #2. Written and drawn by Sloane Leong (From Under Mountains, Change), this new series takes readers on an introspective sci-fi journey through a beautiful, dangerous alien universe. This review reveals major plot points. 

Sloane Leong wants you to feel pink slime dripping down your face. The grit of coarse sand between your fingers. Dried sheets of tissue blowing off your body like leaves in the wind. Leong’s new “bio-punk” Image Comics series, Prism Stalker, is a sci-fi story that prioritizes tactile sensation, and rather than relying on mythology, Leong pulls readers into this world through touch. She wants them to feel the shifting world around the central character, Vep, who comes from a tribe that was taken from its poisoned land, forced into an alien society, and cast as slaves that take on the dangerous task of harvesting eggs through song. Vep’s been recruited to join the Chorus Academy, which aims to create settlements on a newly discovered planet, and she finds herself thrown into a world much bigger than her sheltered hive inside an asteroid.

There’s definitely a rich, complex backstory for the universe of Prism Stalker, but that’s not what Leong is exploring on the page. She’s much more concerned with how Vep interacts with her environment and the people around her. The first issue details Vep’s routine in the nest while giving readers tidbits of her tragic past, and in the second chapter, the scope significantly expands as Vep is pulled away from familiar surroundings to somewhere even stranger. Prism Stalker #2 is a comic overflowing with imagination, balanced with a high level of craft and storytelling expertise that makes every choice confident and specific.

An early important moment in this issue has Vep looking out at the asteroid she’s been taken from to start a new life, and Leong puts readers inside Vep’s point of view as her home and family drift further and further away. The focus is on Vep’s eyes as she awakes from stasis, beginning with a tight close-up from above before zooming out to show Vep in a pink pod surrounded by fibrous green. The white of her bulging eyes pops against these dominant colors, and they remain the focal point of the panel. There’s one last optical close-up from the side, but then Leong breaks from the eyes with an above-the-head shot that shows Vep looking out at her surrounding.

The reader isn’t quite inside her head yet, but this is the first point where they’re looking at what Vep is looking at. When Leong does depict the world directly through the character’s eyes, she uses the point-of-view to enhance the tactile element with a panel showing the asteroid through openings in the aforementioned pink goo. This is a literal representation of what Vep sees, but for the final panel in this sequence, Leong reveals what Vep feels with a symbolic image that has a hot-pink celestial outline of Vep putting the asteroid between her fingers as a chain of hands reaches out in her direction.

With touch being such an important part of the storytelling, it makes sense that hands would play a key role in the imagery, and this panel is one of multiple instances where Vep is reaching to connect with the people she’s been taken from, who are represented by swarms of hands. Ariana Maher’s lettering informs the narrative in this sequence with color changes for the narration boxes. In that panel of Vep peeking through the slime, the narration is the same color as the gray asteroid, tying the caption box to the subject it is describing. For the following image, the narration becomes pink, tying those captions to Vep in the stars.

Leong avoids the industrial style that defines so much of modern sci-fi in favor of a more biological aesthetic, creating environments that are alive and in a constant state of flux. Vep and the other recruits travel to the academy in a giant creature that combines reptilian, avian, and cephalopod characteristics, and they sit on bulbous growths that absorb them as the living transport speeds up. When they walk up a long set of stairs to enter the academy, the steps behind melt away as the rail spits up tendrils that slither alongside them. At the top, walls made of a sticky, bubbling pink substance open up to create an entryway. You get the impression that structure aren’t built but grown, and these living environments transform to fit the needs of their residents.

When Vep experiences vivid memories of her past as part of the academy’s screening process, the panel borders become malleable membranes that push against each other until they collapse into two striking splash pages. Floral imagery begins to take over in the first page as Vep’s naked body falls through space toward a mass that is simultaneously blooming and melting. On the second page, Leong continues to combine the fluid and the floral with waves of pink and purple that look like a top-down view of a complex flower. A hand breaks through those layers with a splash and reaches toward a hand of solid rock, contrasting soft organic material with hard mineral.

The vibrant coloring of Prism Stalker makes it look like Coco’s sci-fi cousin, imagining an alien setting of neons and pastels that are full of intensity and wonder. Those colors are also connected to the natural world, and Leong is drawing inspiration from plants, insects, birds, and aquatic life. It would be easy for these colors to have a synthetic quality, but the texture in the linework and the subtle shading keep them rooted in the organic realm. Prism Stalker #2 ups the contrast, and the scene of the screening process stands out because it moves away from hyper-saturated shades for a dominant palette of pale pink and purple that is easier on the eye. This makes the neon elements much more aggressive in the mix, and the screening becomes a mental assault thanks to the coloring.

Image Comics often feature some sort of backmatter, and Leong takes a minimalist approach but still uses this space to stoke excitement and highlight specific themes. Prism Stalker #2 ends with a gallery of two pin-ups showing Vep in action, giving readers their first taste of what her new prism implant can do. Angular black bolts shoot out of her palm in the first image, and the second has the prism emitting waves of bright energy. It’s still unclear what the function of that energy is, but these images are compelling teasers for what’s to come, promising an increase in action after two issues that are very much focused on atmosphere and putting readers inside this world and Vep’s mindset. The back covers of Prism Stalker are abstract images reminiscent of petri dish artwork (check out the petrifiedrainbow Instagram account for some gorgeous examples), and it reinforces the book’s biological aesthetic with cellular psychedelia.

Prism Stalker is a complete multimedia concept, with a tie-in website, soundtrack, and animated trailer. The website, designed by Stephen Lovell, has the trailer running across the top, but it’s not the only thing that’s animated. The organisms on the cover of issue #2 move in and out of the background as you scroll, and there’s a puddle of purple that expands and oozes around the page. Visitors to the site can find information about the released issues as well as Soundcloud links for each issue’s original song by composer neotenomie, who blends electro-industrial and new-age musical elements to create a soundscape that exists between tension and serenity.

The trailer takes that soundtrack and applies it to animated shots from the comic, and even though it’s only 30 seconds long, it’s a rewarding supplement because of how it adds motion to the still panels. One of my favorite things about the trailer is the animation of the title, and the shifting color gradients filling “STALKER” emphasize the letters’ prismatic nature. It changes how I look at the logo, and now I perceive that extra bit of movement even though it’s a static image.

Prism Stalker has a multimedia presence, but this doesn’t feel like a comic-book pitch for a movie or TV show. Leong respects the medium too much for that, and she takes full advantage of the creative opportunities provided by the comic-book page. The trailer opens with a shot of a lavender-colored Vep floating through blackness in a fetal position, and looking at this moment on the page shows how comics can do things other media cannot. Vep has an out-of-body experience as she’s absorbed into the living spacecraft, and over the course of nine panels, a psychic projection of her emerges while her body is swallowed up.

There are three identical panels of Vep’s physical form in the sea of pink, and between each are smaller panels showing her mental journey, beginning with a sequence of two shots before speeding up with a sequence of three. There are different rhythms happening here, and while her body is experiencing everything at one uniform pace, her mind is accelerating through the void. The most clever thing about this sequence is the final panel, when the projection awakens and bears witness to the cosmic landscape around her. It’s a long horizontal rectangle that represents the expansion of her consciousness, and the placement of Vep inside the panel aligns her directly under the three panels above, completing a journey out of darkness and into the light.

In addition to being an exceptional cartoonist, Leong is also an intelligent, thoughtful comic-book critic, and her Comics Dragnet review round-up for The Comics Journal offers a comprehensive examination of a wide variety of webcomics every month. It’s always refreshing to see creators take an active role in critical discourse, and her knowledge of art history and process creates enlightening observations, particularly when she’s dissecting trends. Her recent review of Mildred Louise’s Agents Of The Realm breaks down the evolution of the “Tumblr style” that is popular in the current generation of webcartoonists, and Leong has a keen talent for contextualizing artwork so that readers can understand the foundation and evolution of certain aesthetics and learn more about technique. Comics Dragnet reveals the amount of other comics that she incisively engages with, and that eagerness to expose herself to other creators and analyze their work helps her evolve as an artist. Prism Stalker is a remarkable next phase in Leong’s journey, and it’s a leap forward that showcases her ambition and skill.

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