Smash Pages Q&A: Sloane Leong on ‘Prism Stalker’

‘It’s a weird sci-fi biopunk adventure about colonization, autonomy, the pain of desire and the wonder, power and horror of expression.’

Comics readers might know Sloane Leong as the artist of From Under Mountains. She’s also drawn fill-in stories for a number of comics, including Prophet, Glory and Bravest Warriors, and has contributed to gallery shows, but starting this week, she will be known for Prism Stalker.

The ongoing series launches next week from Image Comics, and the first issue is simply stunning. It manages to convey a lot of information about this world, much of it through suggestion. Her pages quite frankly do not look like most comics pages but are instead complex works of design that echo the musicality within the story and defining the pacing. The story itself, which is about language and culture, memory and what is passed down, could not be more relevant today. Like the very best science fiction, the issue manages to depict something strange and truly alien, while drawing parallels to the present, the past and our own experiences.

For many, writing, drawing and coloring a monthly series is more than enough, but Leong is also finishing a graphic novel, A Map to the Sun, for First Second Books, and writing a regular review column for The Comics Journal. Happily, she somehow found the time to talk with me.

Leong will be at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend at Table #208 where she’ll have advance copies of the first issue for sale. It will be available in stores on March 7.

I like to start by asking people, what is it that brought you to comics?

I’ve always had a creative streak as a kid, making characters out of trash and writing stories about them, reading fiction voraciously and obsessing over animated movies and cartoons. I started reading comics during my pre-teens at my local Borders in Maui and plowed through manga series after series. Manga hooked me completely!

How do you describe Prism Stalker? What’s the book for you?

It’s a weird sci-fi biopunk adventure about colonization, autonomy, the pain of desire and the wonder, power and horror of expression.

Personally, the book is a meditation on my ancestral past and present, specifically a reflection on my Native Hawaiian and Native American ancestries, the social constructs imposed on those cultures and the oppression that followed. Its about how those past injustices and traumas to native people and the land they cared for reverberate through time and culture, twisting and warping, and rippled through the land itself. These are all issues I’m still learning about and processing today, as well as rooting out harmful ideologies and biases imposed by the dominant culture.

I’ve loved science fiction since I was a kid but have always felt left out of the genre, either depicted as a primitive being or an alien. Prism Stalker is carving out a space in all those imagined futures for natives and other marginalized people who identify with Vep and her point of view. It’s not an easy world she lives in and her desires and morals aren’t always clear cut and the ethics themselves are never black and white, especially in the place she ends up where hundreds of species and cultures are intersecting.

The question of language is important. You described another language forced on one as “an invisible gag” and I wonder how you’ve felt that in your own life.

That aspect of not being able to speak one’s ancestral language is mostly inspired by my Hawaiian heritage. Hawai’i is the only state that recognizes its native language as an official language but that was decided only after a long period of being outlawed that began in the 1890s. When I was in middle school in Hawaii, there was only a small group of kids that took Hawaiian immersion and at the time I didn’t have the opportunity to take it. With the idea of blood quantum so poisonously prevalent in the culture, it was hard to feel like I had the right to engage with my culture, that I wasn’t authentic enough. The Hawai’ian language is going through a resurgence now which is so exciting but a language dies every two weeks and with it, its history, the nuances of a unique worldview. It’s heartbreaking.

In Prism, Vep tries to communicate with her mothers but she only knows a few words and even then, the exact translation of the words references things she doesn’t remember well or even know, like the sky or birds. With the disappearance of language comes the disappearance of imagination and ways of thinking and that weighs heavily on Vep.

You had this previous relationship with Image because you drew From Under Mountains. What made you want to tell the story serialized in this way?

Honestly, I would have made it work as a monthly or a graphic novel or a webcomic! I’m a problem-solver and I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time so it would have happened in some form eventually. Luckily, Eric Stephenson took a chance on me and Prism Stalker, a story that will be niche at best, and I wasn’t about to let that slip by so I made a serialized format work for me and the comic.

How did the monthly format shape the story or the rhythms of the story?

I would say I’m still learning and honing my storytelling with each issue I draw but so far I’d say I like to have a combination of dense plot, decompressed character moments and an intriguing ending to hook the reader.

One aspect of your work I really love is the way you layout and design pages. Could you walk us through your thinking of how and why you wanted one page to look that way?

It’s hard to kind of go back through my process because a lot of it is intuitive, like seeing how the panels take up time and space on the page. For page 8, when Vep is in the adults chambers listening them play the gourd, I tried to see the beat of the song on the page, three panels stacked vertically to mimic the pounding rhythm with open panels on the side showing quick glances of the singing and dancing. I don’t know if that translates but that’s what I’m thinking about sometimes when I’m trying to panel, the sound of the scene, the depth, the temperature.

What was the key to finding the right color palate?

It’s hard to go wrong with color for me in the sense I have fun reacting to each shade no matter what I choose. I start with a base, usually a gradient to mimic a wash of color, and then build off of it by thinking about what color the lights are or what color the figures will be when its hit by that light and cast in shadow. Symbolic color plays a large role as well.

There’s a lot of music in the book. Are you thinking about the images, the designs, the writing, in musical terms?

I forgot, each issue will have a soundtrack. You can listen to the soundtrack for #1 here. The soundtracks will be posted on the Prism Stalker website as the issues come out. Riley (Neotenomie) is an incredible musician and she’s really layering the story with these tremulous melodies that convey how big the world Vep is in and how she feels from scene to scene. I’m lucky to have her collaborating with me on this!

As for your question, I’m always listening to music as I draw but I don’t think I’m thinking too literally, hoping to impose some literal translation of music forms onto the page. However, rhythm is something I think about, the way the eye bounds across panels and compositions, how the characters are moving and fast, so there’s a similarity there for sure.

What’s the science fiction and fantasy work that you love, the models you were thinking about when you began thinking about this story?

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, Akira, Battle Angel Alita, Blame!, Alien and lots of Cronenberg. Before I wanted to be an artist I wanted to be a vet or work with animals (I was an equestrian and trained polo horses for awhile, too!). Nature, animal cultures, biology, parasites, cancers and disease are fascinating to me and a huge inspiration; our bodies are these amazing wet machine churning and imploding on a cellular level, a wet machine that we use to dream, fight, feel and express ourselves with.

Do you have an ending in mind for Prism Stalker?

I do! But we’ll see if it changes as the story develops. Even issue to issue things are shifting, themes are exposing themselves to me that I hadn’t intended to focus on and characters make choices that I hadn’t planned. The truth of my experience is in my gut so I find trusting in those feelings and holding onto it as I draw leads me where I need to go in the story. Everything circles around that truth.

I know you’re also working on a graphic novel, A Map to the Sun. Do you want to say anything about that?

Yes, I’m working on A Map to the Sun simultaneously with Prism Stalker, which has been intensely draining but fun! Maps is a slice-of-life/coming-of-age sports drama that follows a ragtag group of girls forced to join their 10th grade basketball team. Like Prism, I wanted to show intimate relationships between girls, rivalries and bonds, and explore their struggles to find out who they are and how they can relate to each other. It’s slated to come out Spring 2019.

So when is first issue out? Any plans to mark the occasion?

It drops 3/7! I’ll be doing a signing at Floating World Comics that evening, sharing some original art and giving out some special posters!

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