I first met cartoonist Sloane Leong last year at Small Press Expo (SPX), arguably the premier festival for American indie and small press comics. In Bethesda, Maryland, Leong appeared alongside Iasmin Omar Ata, Chris Kindred, and Tillie Walden on a panel I’d organized about page architectures, particularly in Japanese comics. Leong, 27, is a self-taught artist of multiple ancestries who has been self-publishing since she was about 16.
She’s currently based in Portland, Oregon, where she’s hard at work on two major projects: A Map to the Sun (First Second), due in 2019, and Prism Stalker (Image Comics), whose run began yesterday. A Map to the Sun, a slice-of-life basketball comic, came up on the panel in the context of sports comics, of which the Japanese are true masters. But relatively little was said about Prism Stalker, Leong’s anti-colonialist biopunk story featuring Vep, a space refugee separated from her family.
Prism Stalker is all neon colors and sound, particularly unique because the work comes with its own original score. Last month, Leong and I exchanged emails to discuss what Prism Stalker is all about.
VICE: I've been reflecting a lot on the impact of sound in storytelling and how that is conveyed in print media. I listen to a lot of soundtracks because they're the quickest way to ambiently return me to a world or to a story while I function in the real world, in my own story—so I was excited to learn that Prism Stalker has taken the route of an original score, composed by Neotenomie, as opposed to the making of playlists or suggested listening. What was the decision process there, and how are the score and the comic linked?
Sloane Leong: I feel the same way about music and its effect of helping lull me into a narrative. I had been following Riley [Neotenomie] and her frequent collaborator Porpentine, a writer and game designer, for a while and really connected with Riley's soundtracks for Porpentine's amazing games. Riley's music has this really reverberant underlying base to it and I knew she could capture the airy, echoing environments in Prism Stalker while also conveying the inflections of subtle emotions that Vep experiences throughout the compositions. I don't have a lot to do with the creation of the music besides providing the comic for inspiration, so I trust in her skill and taste completely.
One of the beauties of comics, some say, is that the story is entirely paced by the reader. Though prose can be read as quickly or slowly as a reader wants, the consumption of images and motion in comics is different to this sense; the reader is control of the action. But: the mp3 for issue #1 is three minutes and two seconds, a defined length of time. When you and Neotenomie discussed the creation of these soundtracks, did this sense of time factor into it? How is it designed to be listened to?
I originally asked Riley for something about a minute long, little atmospheric vignettes that would be sonic snapshots of the world. Riley went above and beyond, providing these beautiful lengthy pieces that really move with the comic and still have space to breathe. I imagined that after the first reading (a link to the music is on the last page), the reader could go through the pages again to the beat of the music, letting it move them along at its own pace. I think it adds a heavy layer of emotion, anticipation, and tangibility with Vep's world.
In the vein of sound: talk to me about language in this comic. There's an intersection between sound and image involved in the way much or most of the world—that is, our world—communicates, and it seems like you very much get at that with the way characters discuss language and how language is shown.
Language plays multiple crucial roles in Prism Stalker, as connective tissue to the past, a carrier of culture, as a tool of assimilation, and as a shaper of our mental and physical realities. Most of the comic is spoken in a standard [language], but when alien cultures can't communicate what they want in it, which happens often, their visual written language seeps through. For Vep, we see her mother's language in its native written form: she can't understand it, so neither can we. I find the dynamism of language really fascinating in how it captures the world around us, contours our reality, and influences our perception.
There's this example I always bring up from this professor from several years back, I'll quote it: "Tuvan [a Turkic language out of Siberia] has a word iy (pronounced like the letter ‘e’), which indicates the short side of a hill. It turns out that hills are asymmetrical, never perfectly conical, and indeed one of their sides tends to be steeper and shorter than the others. If you are riding a horse, carrying firewood, or herding goats on foot, this is a highly salient concept: You never want to mount a hill from the iy side, as it takes more energy to ascend, and an iy descent is more treacherous as well. Once you know about the iy, you see it in every hill and identify it automatically, directing your horse, sheep, or footsteps accordingly." That's just a tiny example of how language is able to apprehend a feature that may go unnoticed in the world around someone. In Prism Stalker, I'm extending this idea into an alien universe, where language is not going to just convey features of the immediate environment but foreign biological and cultural experiences, inhuman sensations. This becomes one of the focal points of the story early on, because translating previously unknown, indecipherable knowledge is suddenly communicable and becomes a form of intimate psychic combat.
This kind of leads into the idea of weaponized language, something introduced in the first issue. One of the most common ways to colonize a people is to destroy their language, "to induce a historical amnesia" and to reconfigure a culture's history so that its seen with the colonizer's eyes—desolate, weak, defeated. Colonizers reframe the oppressed culture's history and make their [own] conquests romantic, seductive. If the language and therefore the culture is effectively obliterated, this leads to a cultural alienation and subsequently an identifying with the colonizer because to a colonial child, what else is there? I could go on and on about this interplay of storytelling, language, and power, but that's what the comic is for, so I don't want to spoil it too much.
What went into the design of the settings? I'm curious about what went into decisions about the colors and shapes and forms involved.
Growing up in Maui, one of the world's most geographically diverse climates concentrated into such a tiny place, I was surrounded by oceans, volcanic deserts, and forests! That varied geography is only topped by the aquatic landscapes, fields of brightly colored corals in all these crazy shapes and these flashing neon fish. It's hard not to take inspiration from those! I also just wanted to try something different, brightly colored organic forms in the genre aren't really common for the setting, it usually ends up that aliens and their planets have a more minimal Western European take on architecture.
When you first described Prism Stalker to me, you used the term "biopunk." What's the significance of that term to you? What do you imagine it will mean for readers?
I don't know how readers will take it. Usually they imagine something goopy? But yeah, biology, and how we apply what we learn from this field, is a constant source of inspiration to me. I think it was a few years ago someone stored 700 terabytes in a single gram of DNA? EXistenZ-style Gameboys are right around the corner! But besides Cronenberg, I was also inspired by Octavia Butler's work, like the living architecture and ships the aliens use and the symbiotic relationships she created. Those dynamics resonated with me, especially growing up in Hawaii, where the importance of and respect for animals, forests, and corals was taught in schools and throughout the community. Corals are colonial, hermatypic, symbiotic communities that protect coastlines and provide habitats. They're incredible! So making the architecture of the city and modes of transportation living things in Prism Stalker was a start to conveying this overall utopic feeling, that this society respects all living things and wants to live in harmony with everything else. But being alive and being sentient are two different things…
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow J. A. Micheline on Twitter.