Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker, a new series from Image, is a lush, psychedelic, and ambitious series that grapples with colonialism, complicity with oppression, and the borders of the self without ever steering into didacticism or cynical box-checking. The word “worldbuilding” makes my gums bleed, conjuring either a text bogged down with endless exposition (because god forbid your readers not be aware of every detail of your research and design process) or deliberately opaque (smugly suggesting a world so impossibly dense with detail that you can hardly expect to be exposed to more than a delicate truffle-like shaving of it), but the world of Prism Stalker manages to be complex and richly developed without being wankily self-serving, a feat more impressive given that Leong has said that the idea for the series has been gestating for years. Her story and characters have emerged fully realized and sure-footed, without the extra baggage that often comes with extended percolation.
Prism Stalker’s protagonist is Vep, a humanoid descended from a tribe whose home, Inama, was destroyed in a terrorist attack and whose family has been displaced to another planetoid where she labors behind the scenes of the tourist industry. The younger Inamans have been quarantined from their elders, and Vep’s identity is fractured as a result. She is not a part of the world where she lives and works, but her connection to her roots, down to the Inaman language that she struggles to learn covertly, is strained where it is not severed entirely. After a bold rescue of one of her fellow workers, Vep finds herself recruited for what amounts to a police academy, whose purpose is to tamp down resistance from both within and outside a newly established colony run by The Chorus.
The series is visually overrun (or maybe overgrown) with membraneous textures. Space in Prism Stalker is less a void than a substrate through which bodies, planets, and memories ooze and osmose. Leong finds fertile ground in the fractal-like parallels between the biological and the cosmic; the pulsing, luridly vibrant world she crafts would look equally at home under a microscope or through a telescope. Vep is transported to the academy inside a living creature rather than a ship; meanwhile we see the space between her transport and the planetoid bridged by sinuous ropes of hands, her tribe and her family’s pull on her made physical. In an Octavia Butler-esque detail, the student quarters at the academy are opened by using a palm print to pass through the wall into a room that generates all necessities from its substance.
Once the action movies to the academy Leong deftly threads the needle between enjoying the pleasures of boot camp cliches while also maintaining a keen critical eye toward them. There is an unabashed pleasure in watching Vep develop her physical and mental skills, but we’re never allowed to forget that her training is the result of coercion or that it is ultimately in service of a colonialism. We root for her to succeed, but with the sour realization that her achievement will make her complicit in enforcing what appears to be a corrupt project. Vep is a survivor first and foremost, and, as someone accustomed to having her choices constrained, she is understandably motivated by the possibility of earning a new home for her family (land grants are a rumored reward for good performance). Moreover, as she later learns, there are consequences for failure: like all the trainees, she has received an implant that makes her unable to survive off-planet, the alternative to success is a lifetime of forced labor and permanent separation from her family.
Vep’s struggle to succeed at the academy is complicated by her having spent her whole life in a defensive posture. When we see her strength and agility, it is always in the context of interceding on behalf of someone weaker. For the first time she is being asked to dominate rather than protect, and it doesn’t come naturally to her. One of the instructors sneeringly describes Inamans as “stubborn, not strong,” one of several times hierarchies and biases among species are alluded to. When Vep meets other Inaman’s at the academy in Issue 4, they respond with hostility, being from a tribe that didn’t flee Inama after the attack and views the tribes that did as traitors and cowards. At the beginning of Issue 3, the trainees are assured that the native species (The Chorus calls them “wildlife”) they are meant to overpower are “considered alive but not at a level of intelligence to allow them autonomy,” making them “fully subject to our rationale and good will.” Leong has an ear for the euphemisms and carefully phrased dog whistles of powerful entities and deploys them judiciously without leaning on the overburdened linguistic cliches of dystopian sci-fi (look, I also love Starship Troopers, but enough’s enough).
In her training, Vep’s past trauma makes her vulnerable to the energy attacks endemic to the colony’s native species. Echoes are psychic projections into the mind of an opponent, whereas forms are thoughts made manifest. The manifestations of the attacks are visceral and exciting (Leong is definitely an innovator in the body horror department), but the visual differentiation between the echoes and forms are a little muddy. The risk in physicalizing mental states, which Leong does frequently and expressively throughout the series, is that they become hard to distinguish from physical ones. These porous distinctions come to bear elsewhere. One of the instructors tells Vep that she may possess an empathic organ called “redsense”; in a battle with a “low level hostile” that she undertakes to remain in the academy, we see the first evidence of this co-permeability as her thoughts meld with her opponent’s, visually churning together. The moment gives lie to the claim that the wildlife she must dispatch isn’t intelligent, and raises the question of how Vep will manage this ability in light of the moral dilemma it has surfaced.
Leong sells moments like this deftly throughout the series, and they are frequent. There is a banality to the inherited traumas, moral compromises, and institutional cruelties that populate the series, but the world never appears as a flat dystopia (well, at least no more than ours does). Prism Stalker, rendered in all its rich color and complexity, weaves a fuller tapestry.