By Jarrod Jones. Prism Stalker is a stunning book. We’ll just get that out of the way. It’s vibrant in color, that’s obvious at first glance, but read a few pages into its debut issue and you’ll find quite a bit of life contained within.
Sloane Leong is no stranger to thoughtful, art house speculative fiction. She makes the kind of fantasies that come armed with grand operatic themes but are also paired with a self-aware alternative aesthetic. She’s done work with Brandon Graham, most notably on Prophet, so if you know what that series was about you might think you’re prepared for what Sloane can get up to on her own Image title. Before my first read-through of Prism Stalker, I certainly did. And I was completely wrong.
The themes Leong explores in Prism Stalker are challenging even with the completely foreign alien locale, which is largely comprised of organic superstructures and glowing polyps. Most of the issue takes place in a memory. If you experience a feeling of disorientation at first, well. That’s deliberate.
Leong throws us in the deep end at the very beginning. Deep is where her ideas thrive. And what’s on her mind? Even if you’re only somewhat aware of the world around you, that becomes apparent almost immediately. Leong’s ideas, and her own worldview, are what give Prism Stalker its incredible might.
“I feel like a lot of sci-fi has a lot of apocalyptic stories, but for native people? That apocalypse has already happened,” Leong tells me. “We’ve had our land taken away from us, we’ve been subjugated, pressed into a barren land to live with no resources. We’ve had our language banned and erased, our history burned. And we’re still here.”
I spoke with Sloane Leong on a Sunday afternoon in Seattle during Emerald City Comic Con about Prism Stalker, science fiction in general, and the vital importance of color, both on and off the page.
1. If you could, please break down the central premise of ‘Prism Stalker’.
Sloane Leong: It’s about a young girl named Vep, and she’s a refugee from her home planet. And while she’s this indentured servant at this refugee camp asteroid, she’s forced by a galactic military organization to help colonize a sentient planet.
2. It’s a story of a people displaced, manipulated, and forced into servitude. Without giving anything away, the first issue has an especially chilling ellipsis attached to it that speaks about how displaced people are ever at the mercy of their would-be benefactors. How much of our world’s many refugee crises are a part of the makeup of ‘Prism Stalker’?
SL: I actually draw a lot from my native Hawaiian ancestry! During a slight overthrow in the late 1800s — the 1880s and the 1890s — Dole, the pineapple dude, came over and literally overthrew the monarchy with his goons. And after they accepted a hierarchy of immigrants where, for example, they would treat Japanese people really well so that the rest — Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipinos — would be like, “Oh, we hate them,” and there would be in-fighting. That sort of manipulation and oppression is referenced strongly in the story.
3. One thing I love about ‘Prism Stalker’ is how color informs memory. The central character, Vep, is first presented to us in a state of reflection about her mother, and it’s the colors that Vep remembers most strongly. Why do you think color is such a powerful storytelling tool?
SL: I feel like I’m just really attracted to color. Growing up in Hawaii, we have vibrant nature — flowers, fish… fish that are, like, burning neon, you know, flashing in and out of the water… [Laughs] So there’s the visual attractiveness of that. Kind of like smell — how we have such strong recollections of memory though smell — I feel the same way with color. A lot of colors just wash over me where I can recall certain experiences, so I try to apply that to what I’m working on.
4. I was reading through the first issue and I couldn’t help but marvel at the gradients you use in your pages. How do you construct these gradients and how often to they end up dictating the mood of a given scene? Or is it the other way around?
SL: I definitely use color to set the mood. I like to gradiate between scenes as well. I think it’s just a nice way to cut from scene to scene while also kinda forcing the eye forward — like there was some sort of movement there — in the backdrop. It can be subtle or it can be very intense. That’s basically how I use it.
I also really like flat coloring with my ink because it’s kind of messy and textured. That’s what I go for.
Just out of curiosity, what do you use?
So I use Clip Studio Paint, and the coloring thing for that is awesome. Basically you can have your inks in one layer, and then have colors on the bottom but it’ll fill it in for you as if it was on the same layer. It’s really fast to flat for me. [Laughs] It has a really great watercolor brush that is, like, great. I love it.
You wield it well.
Oh, thank you. [Laughs]
5. You said something in an interview with Book Riot back in February that stood out to me because I’ve long felt the same way: that sci-fi is “clean, white, angular—[it] reflects a sort of Anglo/Western ideal”, which has made a lot of popular sci-fi, in my mind, very stale, very played out. What did you feel you had to bring to ‘Prism Stalker’ to give it its own unique identity?
SL: I really wanted to lean into organic form and shapes; I don’t think you see that too much in general sci-fi. I like Cronenberg, he’s really good — I love eXistenz, and that, like, nasty little kidney Nintendo. [Laughs] You know? I wanted to explode that city-wide. I wanted everything to be alive, colorful, fluorescent… Nature uses color to communicate a lot, so the city that Vep will end up at in the next issue? Color is how they tell time because they’re completely enclosed in the city. So people will see polyps flash yellow and they’ll know it’s noon time… Anyway, I just really love organic shape. I’m also bad at drawing architecture, so I’ve made a creative excuse to avoid drawing it. [Laughs]
6. ‘Prism Stalker’ will be your first ongoing saga. Why did you decide to publish it through Image?
SL: I’ve been self-publishing since I was a teen, and I wanted to have, I dunno, the accolades of having a publisher. [Laughs] My friend, Brandon [Graham], has worked with Image for a long time, and he was like, “Hey, you should just pitch it there.”
I like that they’re very hands-off. There’s no editorial team at Image, you know; you kind of have to get your own editor if you need one. And, really, [Prism Stalker] didn’t need to have any other hand besides my own. Because it’s very strange and very specific to me, both as a woman and as a native person. I’m not too used to — I mean, I like doing mini-comics and short comics, so I’m like, “A monthly? Okay, I can handle that.” And also I just, like, submitted it, and before I had a chance to like go anywhere else with it they said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll take it.” [Laughs]
7. How do you prefer to read science fiction? Do you prefer deep-dive series, or the short stories with gut-punch endings? Both have their place, certainly.
SL: Yeah, no, I’m a voracious reader. I read the monthly science fiction magazines. Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons… love it. Every single one I’m like, “Yes, I got to read this right now!” [Laughs]
But, yeah. I love really super-complex worlds. N. K. Jemisin’s great, Aliette de Bodard… Yeah, you want to talk sci-fi books… [Laughs] I’m all over it.
8. It has a recognizable athleticism to it, but then there are also terrifying Chimera beasts slinking about. There’s a recognizable humanity, contrasted beautifully with the alien worlds these characters inhabit. What kind of style references were you using in the conceptualization of ‘Prism Stalker’?
SL: I appreciate you saying that. In this first issue, Vep is basically just a laborer in a tiny little work suit. In the rest of the series, she’s going to get this kind of freeform-like uniform egg that will let her change her clothes at will. There’s going to be a lot of different costuming, a kind of homage to “magical girl” transformations. She’s not going to wear anything frilly, but she gets really cool armored clothes meant for different geographic environments.
I really like Yukito Kishiro’s style. I like his combination of skin-tight uniforms with long trenchcoats. Battle Angel Alita also has really cool cyber-punk uniforms. I would say I draw from for this a lot.
9. You tell stories about what life can be instead of spinning world-threatening yarns. It feels as though you avoid the surface level stuff and get to the heart of people. How often should science-fiction tell stories imbued with that level of optimism?
SL: I feel like a lot of sci-fi has a lot of apocalyptic stories, but for native people? That apocalypse has already happened. We’ve had our land taken away from us, we’ve been subjugated, pressed into a barren land to live with no resources. We’ve had our language banned and erased, our history burned. And we’re still here.
There’s an intense sense of survival without the feeling of looming dread. Like, we’re here, we’re going to continue to rise despite this extreme culture-wide tragedy. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get at. In Prism Stalkers, the world is kind of semi-utopic. The government in place there is called The Chorus, which hints at this sort of harmony. There’s actually hella alien cultures, and they all speak “standard” — meaning they communicate in standard sign language and standard speaking language.
So there’s like this veneer of a utopia. But there’s a lot of ethical issues that are going to pop up, like the types of being… like, does a being deserve to live, does it deserve agency if it can’t communicate with me or I can’t understand it in any form at all. I’m going to explore things like that.
“What price harmony?” That kind of thing.
10. Favorite Ursula Le Guin novel, please.
SL: Ooh. It’s a short story, but [The Ones Who Walk Away from] Omelas. I love short stories that punch so hard. It’s so tiny but it perfectly encapsulates a world with troubling morality. It’s a tiny little perfect gem.
‘Prism Stalker’ is in stores now.