Frontier Psychiatrist

Words & Pictures (for sub-literates): A Review of Alan Moore’s Promethea

Posted on: November 29, 2011

Promethea, by Alan Moore & J.H. Williams III

Alan Moore is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the history of comic books.  For people like me, graphic evangelists, it is Moore we most often turn to when attempting to sway the unconvinced of the medium’s potential.  He is a serious writer whose skill, innovation and effect on popular culture are on par with any author, in any medium, currently living.  From his early Orwellian fable, V for Vendetta to his nearly single handed creation of the Veritgo imprint through his groundbreaking Swamp Thing to the industry changing Watchmen to his stunning and disturbing exploration of the Jack the Ripper mythos in From Hell to his Victorian era meta-myth League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore is by turns brilliant, inscrutable and utterly singular.  He, is at times, maddeningly dense and, at others, refreshingly simple.  At his best, he is both.

Which brings us to Promethea.  At the turn of the 20th century, Alan Moore was given carte blanche to create a line of books which would mark his return to the fantastic edge of the graphic medium (this is the man who once said comics were about, “mad and beautiful ideas).  Promethea began as an inventive take on the Superheroine; an idea made flesh from the Immateria (the literalized locality of the human imagination) conjured to Earth by different hosts through creative channeling.  Thus, one of the people to “wear” Promethea was a painter, a cartoonist, an epic poet, etc.  For the first part of the series, she can essentially be understood as a thinking person’s Wonder Woman; a Goddess bringing light to the soiled material world.

Her current vessel is a young college student named Sophia Bangs.  Sophia exists in an alternate, millennial version of New York City where technology is just a bit weirder and a smidge farther along than our own remarkable world.  Sophia is doing a term paper on Promethea, tracking down all the various incarnations of the “myth”.  Very quickly, however, myth becomes reality when she finds, through the use of poetry, she can become the Goddess.  She fights genuinely frightening demons, goes against an ancient order bent on her destruction and takes a small tour of the Immateria with some of her predecessors, who watch her every move from their idyllic scrying pool just outside reality.

All of this is perfectly lovely, of course.  It’s clever, exciting, beautifully illustrated, refreshingly imaginative and, in the hands of nearly anyone else, would be the enjoyable trajectory for a long and satisfying story.  But Alan Moore is not anyone else and once Issue 10 happens (Sex, Stars and Serpents), the rules of the game change drastically and we, the reader start getting further and further from comfortable ground.

Sex, Stars and Serpents is one long sex scene.  Jack Faust, a supporting magician, makes love to the Goddess Promethea for nearly 24 luminously drawn pages, all the while explicating the mystical-spiritual-symbological significance of male/female sexual union.

Jack Faust:  The vessel between woman’s thighs is the cup’s highest aspect.  The Chalice.  The Grail of Divine Compassion.  The Holy Grail is female.  Remember that.  It’s the Essence of Female.

Promethea:  The Holy Grail.  Ahh.  The THIS is what all those Arthurian Knights were seeking, riding off on their quests…

Jack Faust:  With their lances held high.  Yes.  It’s obvious when you think about it.

After Issue 10, for better and worse, Promethea becomes something utterly unique in the history of Western literature.  Sophia/Promethea ventures off into the Immateria and thus commences a 22 issue (that’s 528 pages for those keeping score at home) exploration of the structure of universal consciousness using, alternatively, the Tarot and Kabala as symbolic-structural road map.  Make no mistake, it gets THICK from here on out.

As when Sophia and her two companions, Barbara and Boo-Boo, reach Chesod, the 4th Kabalistic Sphere:

Boo-Boo:  See, Four, that’s like the minimum number of points you need to define a solid three-dimensional object.  When the energy of God pours down into Being, this is the first place it truly materializes.  We’re right at the top of the fuckin’ Universe, where everything’s born into existence and it’s this place that nurtures and protects it.  This is the sheltering sky.

Sophia:  So, I suppose this sphere is where all the Sky-Gods and All-Fathers are represented, Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, Indra and so on…

Barbara:  I feel sort of…reassured.  Like I’m safe with grownups or something.  It’s this sapphire light.

Boo-Boo:  Yeah.  S’like this fuckin Mallarme poem I remember:  ‘The Azure!  The Azure!  The Azure!’

Promethea is not a work which may be understood casually.  Without some grounding in mytho-spiritual systems, the bulk of the series might sound like gobble-di-gook.  While Moore uses well-drawn characters, and their reactions of the various Spheres, to humanize what is essentially an abstract, spiritual experience, the learning curve is steep and, much like From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the more you know, the more you’ll get out of it.

That being said, the reader’s progress is assisted immeasurably by the astounding virtuosity of J.H. Williams, the illustrator throughout the series.  His abilities are staggering.  Whether it be the challenge presented by Moore’s insistence on only using the specific colors associated with each Sphere or the change in illustrative techniques from issue to issue (see the contrast between the Peter Max inspired wavy line work of Love and the Law, an exploration of the 7th Sphere, Netzach and the terrible, apocalyptic thick black on red of Life on Mars, concerning the 5th Sphere, Geburah), the magnitude of Williams’ accomplishment is hard to get a grip on.  He manages to both visualize the Universal concepts presented while managing to match Moore for density.  There are more than a few instances where, between Williams flood of visual detail and Moore’s relentless tide of ideas, the reader is left dizzied from mental heft.  Aesthetically stunning, illustratively complex yet narratively clear, there have only been a handful of artists in the history of the medium who have matched Williams’ achievement in Promethea, and certainly none for such a sustained duration.

The criticism consistently leveled against Promethea is its level of didacticism.  There can be no denying, this is a preachy book.  The majority of the series involves people moving through abstract landscapes describing what they feel and giving little lessons on the symbolic meaning of Kabalistic marginalia.  On that point, I will refer to Mr. Moore himself who gave, to my mind, a very adequate defense:

“There are 1,000 comics on the shelves which don’t contain a philosophy lecture and one that does.  Isn’t there room for one?”

If there is a problem with Promethea, it isn’t Moore eschewing typical fantastic action for talking head style pontification on the greater mysteries of existence but rather the exact inverse.  His interest is obviously with the journey into the heart of the Godhead. Thus, when we are perfunctorily sent back to the world of supervillains and science heroes, it feels half-hearted and pathetically small.  Without giving too much away, the resolution of Promethea could have been achieved without most of the supporting characters or action-comic trappings it gathered along the way.  There are some strange cameos of characters from the other books he was writing at the time whose inclusion seems to be an attempt to convince those angered by the lack of typical superhero hijinks that this is, in fact, a fun comic about people who punch things.  There is also a certain level of anti-climax involved after Sophia journeys into and through the source of all creation then quickly returns home and back to college.  I suspect Mr. Moore’s muses were guiding him towards continued high level abstraction but his narrative gut told him to bring it back to solid ground.  Perhaps I am in the minority in wishing he would have continued along the road towards mind-twitching illuminatory gnosticism but the nature of serialized comics abjures the possibility of revision thus what Promethea started out as and what it became had to be reconciled in the end.

Still, what a grand achievement.  Promethea is an illustrated spiritual guidebook of Creation, written and drawn by two of the greatest talents of their time.  It is relevatory, beautiful and endlessly edifying.  It is a supreme testament to the possibility of comics.

Promethea, by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III, is available through Wildstorm Press.

Jared Thomas is a playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter.  He writes sneaky trash fiction.  His works include Sandoval, The Raven King, The Last Amesha, Street Dreams of Electric Youth, Dog Eats Human, and The Rose Garden.

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