Art's Fiercest Spark Burns in Alan Moore's Promethea
Reviewed by Laura Blackwell
9 September 2002
Promethea, born a mortal, grew to womanhood in the realm of the imagination. Thanks to the loving efforts of poets, artists, and writers, she has walked the material world as a dream lover, a fairy princess, a merciful angel, a warrior queen, and a comic-book superheroine. In some form or another, she must return. Denizens of both our world and the sparkling alternate Earth of Alan Moore's graphic novel Promethea may deny her existence -- but real or not, Promethea, demigoddess of myth and fiction, is necessary. A new Promethea rises in the not-quite-here-and-now, where she struggles against both ancient foes and the stimulus-hungry amorality of her jaded times.
Award-winning graphic story writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, Top 10, From Hell) has expressed a desire to break away from the superhero genre that dominates the graphic-novel marketplace. With penciller and co-creator J.H. Williams III, Moore evokes the present-day Promethea as a "science heroine" of a glittering alternate New York, but there's no way to confuse her with either real-life figures or Spider-Man. Clad in golden armor, tattooed with symbols from Egyptian mythology, wielding a caduceus that glows with blue energy and writhes with snakes, Promethea is best described as a powerful living myth. These are the first three books of an ongoing monthly graphic novel, which has contributed to two Best Writer Eisner Awards (for Moore, 2000 and 2001) and three Best Letterer Eisners (for Todd Klein, 2000, 2001, and 2002) as well as winning its own Eisner for Best Single Issue (Issue #10, "Sex, Stars, and Serpents, 2001).
College student Sophie Bangs is researching a character called Promethea for her folklore class. The unusual name recurs in seemingly unrelated stories from a 1780 poem to pulp fiction to a long run in comic books. Although the works bear little resemblance to one another -- indeed, many of them are so dissimilar that each suggests near-total ignorance of the others -- Promethea retains certain characteristics. Almost all the Prometheas have dark skin, and many of them wear clothes with Egyptian and/or Greek motifs. Whether from Fairyland or Hy-Brasil, Promethea always hails from a mystical elsewhere. Piecing together the puzzle, Sophie arranges to interview Barbara Shelley, widow of comic-book writer Steve Shelley, who was the last to write a Promethea. Sophie arrives at Barbara's New York apartment full of stories and enthusiasm, only to be turned away with the caution, "You don't wanna go looking for folklore. And you especially don't want folklore to come looking for you."
At first, it seems the worst thing about this encounter is its impact on Sophie's term paper. When the city's resident science heroes, Five Swell Guys, hover their flying platform above Sophie to deliver a warning from their psychic team member, Kenneth, Sophie sees the encounter as nothing more than a random brush with celebrity. It is only when a living shadow pitches her from an elevated walkway that Sophie realizes that Promethea is more than a term paper -- and that there are humans, and other creatures, who would sooner kill than see her on Earth again.
The first, unheralded Promethea was a small child, daughter of a hermetic scholar in ancient Alexandria. When a murderous Christian mob attacked him -- much like the fate that befell real-life mathematician Hypatia -- Promethea's father placed her in the care of Thoth and Hermes, the scribe-gods of Egypt and Greece, respectively. They took her to the Immateria, the realm of myth and imagination, where she attained immortality as a story. At times, when the material world has felt the need of her, and when the seed of the Promethea myth has taken root in a fertile mind, Promethea has taken form to protect and mend the physical world with the tools of the Immateria.
It has never been easy. One Promethea saved wounded soldiers one by one in World War I, encouraging them and guiding them to safety. Another fought unseen battles in the legendary land of Hy-Brasil -- witnessed by many, but believed to be fiction. Yet another died at the hands of a loved one when her identity was made known. Each of them brought something new to Promethea, and each of them reveled in the more-than-life of a demigoddess, but each of them keenly felt the dangers of being Promethea.
Sophie's interest in the Promethea myth has given imagination's enemies a new target. Sophie must use her pen to stretch herself to mythic stature, to become the Promethea her age needs.
This shiny, ironic, retro-futuristic present, with its flying cars and "computerized smart-slime," is a smug era with a lamentably short attention span. It teems with ads for the one-note Weeping Gorilla comic, with billboards for Holo-Ho and similar establishments, and with news service TEXTure showing footage of everything from the New York mayor's forty-two personalities to the murderous antics of celebrity omnipath The Painted Doll. Disinterested in mythic resonance, listening only for the next sound bite, the people of the material world need something deeper than real. They need the spiritual substance that only a creature of myth can bring.
Thrust into the role of Promethea with little more than a handwritten poem full of cross-outs, Sophie must learn the rules of magic in order to protect herself and her two worlds. Magic does not answer to wishes, but to reason and ingenuity. The former Prometheas guide Sophie through the Immateria, teaching her to use the holy weapons: the cup of compassion, the sword of reason, the pentacle of worldly knowledge, and the wand of will. Moore and Williams weave the story around the suits and major arcana of the Tarot, Tantric lore, the Sephiroth of the Kabbalah, astrology, and probably other schools of magic as well.
In the hands of a lesser creative team, the plot would collapse under the weight of symbolism and literary allusion. Some writers would bury their story under piles of quotations or turn their characters into talking bibliographies. Even in Moore's excellent pseudo-Victorian The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adventures, it's easy to get sidetracked by the literary allusions and forget about the actual events. Moore and Williams work together to keep the concrete references as part of the story and the setting. Symbolic references sometimes enter in the background or as a decorative border, but they never impinge on Sophie's transformation in Book One, her lessons in magic in Book Two, or her journey accompanying a friend through death in Book Three.
Promethea's tone changes from solemn to arch to sprightly, sometimes in the course of a few panels. Williams's attractive, expressive art makes the shifting landscape of the Immateria as real as Sophie's poster-plastered room and the sulfur-belching demons as solid as Sophie and her worn-out mother. The layout adjusts to the demands of the story, using bubbles and even frameless construction as well as traditional boxy panels. Some stories, like Book Two's Eisner-winning, tasteful Tantric tutorial, "Sex, Stars, and Serpents," combine several of these elements to striking effect. In the same volume, "Pseunami" uses a "wide-screen" format, requiring the reader to turn the book on its side to read the long, seamless panels.
Williams lays a strong foundation, and the rest of the artistic team builds Promethea to great heights. Inker Mick Gray sets definite, but delicate, lines not unlike Jae Lee's work on the Inhumans limited series. Colorist Jeromy Cox handles flesh tones and candy-bright clothing under every light from near-darkness to retina-scorching brilliance, and makes them all look equally alive. Legendary letterer Todd Klein (The Sandman) employs a number of different fonts and word balloons to illustrate the characters and their predicaments. Williams occasionally steps aside for notable guest artists. Charles Vess, who illustrated "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (The Sandman #19), the only series-based graphic story ever to win the World Fantasy Award, sets his pen to the earliest Promethea story in Book One's "A Faerie Romance." Digital artist Jose Villarubia fleshes out the images to hyper-realism when Sophie follows the path of pentacles in Book Three's "Rocks and Hard Places."
All three hardcover volumes contain original cover art, but Book One also includes Alex Ross's alternate cover for "The Radiant, Heavenly City" (Issue #1) and Williams's concept sketches. The dust jackets bear exceptional art as well; the way the back covers track Sophie's progress without spoiling the story is particularly pleasing. I have been unable to verify the contents of the paperback edition of Book One, but can confirm that it matches the hardcover's page count. The paperback cover also features original art, but is different from the hardback.
Book One begins with a bonus essay on the fictitious Prometheas. The only extras from the single issues not found here are the "Little Margie in Misty Magic Land" short, found in the 64-page America's Best Comics special issue, and the impressively literate letter columns, which serve as a makeshift bibliography of influences. All hardcover editions come with sewn-in ribbon markers, an elegant touch accentuating the fact that these books are not to be skimmed, but read.
Such trimmings make the books sound indulgent, and such professed depth makes them sound dull. The true genius of Promethea, however, lies not in its immense beauty or its effortless erudition, but the way these things are blended with humor and with daily human life, fusing them into one shimmering, vital, yet accessible, work. It doesn't seem a bit odd that ordinary Sophie, who sleeps in a t-shirt and underwear and chows down on Achocolypse Pops every morning, is also Promethea, a magnificent demigoddess and self-described "holy splendor of the imagination." Promethea embodies everything that is human -- more than that, everything that a human can dream. Ever shifting, ever radiant, Promethea is the flame of imagination that casts the light of meaning on our lives.
Laura Blackwell lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she writes reviews and short fiction. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the archives. She has yet to emit a bluish glow or speak in poetry, but if she ever succeeds, you'll be the first to know.