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Indie Comics Spotlight: How the Prométheé 13:13 team reverse-engineered a mind-bending journey
In English, it's not totally clear what exactly are the differences between comic books and graphic novels, especially now that so many comics are sold in collections. But in French, that's not a problem. "Bandes dessinées," which literally translates to “drawn strips,” is a classification of Franco-Belgian comics known for high art, hardbound books that don't feature any superheroes. Some are westerns, some are coming-of-age tales, and others are space odysseys. One of the most popular Bandes dessinées in recent history is Prométhée, by writer and artist Christophe Bec.
In Bec’s epic sci-fi fantasy, the human race is actually a vast experiment controlled by aliens. Ultimately, after years of seeing us flail about, they decide to finally stop their operation and wipe the slate clean by invading and destroying Earth. D-day occurs on Sept. 21, 2019, when at 13:13 military time, clocks stop working, planes fall from the sky, and the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis has a no good, very bad day.
The first issue of Prométhée debuted in France in April of 2016, and the book has been a hit ever since. So far, the series consists of nineteen 46-page hardcover volumes that, until now, had only been available in French. However, in 2018, Delcourt Group, the leading indie comic book publisher in France, collaborated with ComiXology to distribute Prométhée in English. They also struck a deal with ComiXology Originals to produce Prométhée 13:13, an English-language prequel whose story would dovetail nicely into Bec’s original work.
Written by Andy Diggle, (Green Arrow: Year One, The Losers, James Bond), with art by Shawn Martinbrough (Thief of Thieves, Batman: Detective Comics,The Black Panther, Hellboy) and cover art by Jock (Green Arrow, Daredevil Reborn, The Losers), Prométhée 13:13 follows the story of a woman who’s been having violent visions of the future, unsure of their validity or her sanity.
SYFY WIRE spoke with both Diggle and Martinbrough about what it was like creating a prequel from a popular foreign saga, and why looking an alien directly in the eye could make your head explode.
How did you both get involved with the project? Did ComiXology come to you?
Shawn Martinbrough: Chip Mosher, the head of ComiXology Originals, brought me in. We had worked together when they had adapted my previous series Thief of Thieves for Robert Kirkman at Skybound. Chip told me they were working on a new original series that Andy Diggle would write and Will Dennis would edit. I love Andy and I think he's a fantastic writer. We worked on The Losers and three arcs of Thief of Thieves together. And it really intrigued me, because I've never really done something exclusively for the digital market.
Andy Diggle: Will Dennis approached me initially, and he is one of my favorite people in comics. He's the editor who first put Jock and me together on The Losers. And of course, I love working with Shawn. He's just the best storyteller and a very nice guy and a pleasure to work with. Plus, he makes me look good!
How did you tackle such an expansive story?
AD: They gave me PDFs of Christophe’s entire series, and I bought myself a secondhand iPad just to read it. There's a lot of beautiful art and very dense texts, so it was a pleasure just disappearing into that for a few days. But because the story is so complex and has time paradoxes and multiple character arcs, It took me a while to figure out how to find a way into the story.
It sounds almost Whovian.
AD: Yes, there are definitely "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey'" bits to it.
SM: The scope of it was pretty impressive. Andy had the near-impossible task of reading all 18 volumes and trying to come up with a coherent narrative that could serve as a prequel. We wanted to introduce new characters but also play with some pre-existing ones and set up all the events that are going to happen in Bec’s series.
How did you decide on the prequel story?
AD: There's a time-travel aspect in Bec’s story, so I used that. He also established that some characters who have been abducted by aliens obtain the ability to see the future. Darla, our main character in 13:13, sees visions of the end of the world, but was told from a young age that she had a brain injury from an accident. Very quickly it’s revealed that she’s not crazy and her premonitions are real.
Does Darla work for the government or a corporation? Or is she just a regular civilian?
AD: I specifically wanted her to be an average, everyday person, because I've written so many scowly, tough-guy, action-hero types. We know that the apocalypse is imminent, I wanted to have somebody who was the opposite of that kind of hero. Someone who wasn't going to be saving the world. Someone who's completely out of her depth and would probably deal with it with the same kind of bewilderment and sense of barely restrained panic that I would in that situation.
So if she’s not mentally unstable, that means she really was abducted?
AD: Exactly. When she was a little girl, Darla was found floating in a lake and [had to be] resuscitated. She claimed that she had been kidnapped by a man from the moon, but of course, no one believed her. They assumed that her ramblings were hallucinations brought on by brain damage from hypoxia.
Over the years as she's grown up, she'd been convinced by her doctors that none of that was real, and she is on anti-anxiety medication. But then something happens right at the very beginning of our story where she basically comes to realize that everything she’s seeing is real. So we not only see the future through her gifts, but also we go back in time and get to see what happened when she was a little girl, and learn how it all connects.
Is she a vessel for one of the aliens?
AD: It's a concept that I took from Christophe's original series. Certain abductees had their eyes modified in some type of procedure. Basically, because when humans look at an alien in this universe, it makes their head explode. The people whom the aliens want to communicate with undergo this procedure to sort of switch off that deadly defense mechanism. A side effect is that it activates a part of the brain that processes precognitive abilities.
Giving someone on the planet premonition of the invasion you are about to carry out is kind of an inefficient way to carry out an attack, though.
AD: You're absolutely right. It took me a long time to figure out that there were two different groups of aliens. One one side you have aliens that are going to invade and another group who've rebelled and want to save humanity. They picked Darla for reasons of their own to be one of the people who's going to survive.
Did ComiXology ask you to include an African-American woman in this story?
SM: No, it was all Andy’s idea.
AD: Darla is probably closer to me than most of the characters I've written in that she's just a very ordinary person. Compared to most of the characters I've written, who tend to be people who deal with extreme situations all the time. I'm aware that I'm a white British guy writing about a Black American woman, and I’m slightly nervous that I’m going to get something horribly wrong. To be honest, I, I felt more that way when I was writing Shadowman (Valiant).
SM: I've been drawing stories with mostly white male protagonists as well, and it was a fascinating shift to go from that to a full-figured black female character as the lead of this series. His actual reference for her was Octavia Spencer. So I pretty much went with that, and Darla is a loose visual mix of Octavia Spencer and my wife.
How many issues are planned?
AD: Originally ComiXology, originally was going to release two 46-page volumes. But we wanted to get the first one out in time for SDCC. So we split the first book down the middle and released the first half. I'm treating it as a 96-page OGN. But the way it ends leads very neatly into the beginning of Christophe's main series.
Is there another precog story that you're working on? Is there another prequel in the works?
AD: Not yet, but I'd like to do more stuff with ComiXology, because I think they've got a terrific deal and they treated us really well. I'm going to take some time off once I've finished Prométhée to write a screenplay for myself on spec. When I return, I think ComiXology Originals will be my first port of call, because I've always wanted to do creator-owned stuff. I've been doing this for 20 years now, and I've got lots of stories of my own that I want to tell.