*Promethea — Recommended

Promethea is perhaps the most pure expression of some of the key themes of writer Alan Moore’s work.

Promethea Book 1 cover
Promethea Book 1
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It’s the story of Sophie, a college student in the near future. She’s been studying the various mythical appearances of Promethea, a warrior woman who’s been the subject of epic poems and pulp illustrations and comic books. When an evil spirit attacks, Sophie uses the power of story and imagination to become the latest version of Promethea, guided by previous incarnations. In other words, the stories we immerse ourselves in affect who we are, and we can become whatever we imagine ourselves to be.

The city is a paean to science, with floating taxis and neon screens and flying police saucers and and immediate media narration and its own team of protective “science heroes”, the Five Swell Guys in suits. In addition to a relatively straightforward “use magic to fight the bad demons” plot, there are tons of throwaway ideas and background information here that are wonderful creations in their own right. Take, for example, Weeping Gorilla, a crying ape who thinks one sad cliched catchphrase at a time. At first, he seems like a throwaway running gag, but later, he becomes more as others invest emotional power in him. The same goes for the foul-mouthed version of Red Riding Hood who pops up as a guide.

Promethea Book 2 cover
Promethea Book 2
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Then there’s the Immateria. (Aren’t these names perfectly chosen? Impressive-sounding and evocative.) That’s the land of fiction and myth where the previous heroines still live. Various versions of Promethea were invented as they were needed by their authors, whether a failed poet in the 1700s falling in love with a dream version of his maid or a female illustrator of pulp magazines in the 1920s fed up with the lewd sexism of her male editors or an artist who imagined himself being the ideal woman. I particularly like the little-girl version who annoys the others; she speaks like the Little Nemo character from the classic early strip.

The gorgeous art by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray perfectly stands up to the demands of the text, bursting with images and fully packed, like the story itself. Creative vistas bring form to Moore’s ideas and principles. In addition to showing all the details and characters and events, there are elaborate page designs that work in mystical elements, adding to the feel of a book that reveals more to you the more you invest in it. And their Promethea is classically exotic, full of power and magic.

Promethea Book 3 cover
Promethea Book 3
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This first volume establishes the premise and shows Sophie the meaning of compassion, insightful reason, and righteous violence. Book two continues Sophie’s trip through the character’s history and the land of imagination. William Woolcott, a gay writer/artist who was the host of Promethea during her most playful time, as a children’s comic, teaches Sophie about the wonders of physicality in a sequence illustrated with treated photographs.

Like the end of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, Moore sets up traditional superhero structures — oh, no, a band of demons are attacking a hospital! how will Sophie transform into Promethea to save the day? — and then undercuts the reader’s expectations. Instead of a solo hero evoked through some grandiose gesture, Sophie uses poetry to open the door and then brings through multiple versions of female power. Or she ends a decades-long vendetta through amusing the next generation instead of battling them. The ability to improvise outside of existing patterns is Sophie’s strength.

Promethea Book 4 cover
Promethea Book 4
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Book two continues the physical theme with Sophie looking for more magical instruction, which she winds up obtaining by having sex (as her alter ego) with a troll-like old man fortuneteller. In addition to representing many readers’ fantasies, this sequence marks the transition from story to instruction manual; from this point forward, the book becomes Moore’s lecture about his ideas of how magic works, beginning with a walk through the Tarot as representative of human history. The art, in conjunction, becomes symbolic, with allusions and anagrams, references and experimentation galore.

In books three and four, Sophie as Promethea goes venturing through the higher planes and the planets, representing the Kabbalah Tree of Life, in search of a departed former heroine, who is herself seeking her former love.

Promethea Book 5 cover
Promethea Book 5
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As book five opens, it’s three years later, and Sophie’s in hiding from the FBI, who have enlisted Tom Strong to find her. The style returns to more traditional comic book art temporarily, before Promethea’s final transformation brings about the end of the world in a uniquely Moore-ish way. The last issue is barely a comic any more, with line drawings and captions scattered over pastel swirls of color which combine to make two large poster images.

Although superficially resembling Alan Moore’s take on Wonder Woman, by its end, Promethea symbolizes unlimited potential in an eye-opening series celebrating imagination and magic.

Letterer and logo designer Todd Klein has a page with comments on selected covers from the series. Here’s an annotation site.


19 Responses to “*Promethea — Recommended”

  1. Rob McMonigal Says:

    Promethea was great–I really need to re-read it again soon. I agree with just about everything you’ve said here. I think it’s arguably Moore’s finest work.

  2. Paul O'Brien Says:

    I think it’s massively overrated, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to admire in it, and the technique is dazzling. But ultimately it’s just a glorified lecture about magic, and as irrelevant in its own way as the closing years of Cerebus.

  3. Rich Johnston Says:

    See I loved the closing years of Cerebus.

    I may have been alone. It sure felt like it.

  4. Paul O'Brien Says:

    Well, it was… certainly unafraid to be different.

  5. Timo Raittila Says:

    I congratulate anyone who liked this. I think mr Alan Moore really wrote Promethea for himself. I have read the full series and still don’t know what is what.

  6. Rob McMonigal Says:

    Timo–I think it helps if you have at least a smattering of occult knowledge, which I do. For me, it was a very visual presentation of things I was (somewhat to very) familiar with. I can’t say if that’s the reason why some people like it and some people don’t.

    Johanna, if you don’t mind me asking–how much did you know of the mystical themes Moore presented when you were reading it?

  7. Johanna Says:

    Well, I read some Tarot in high school (until it told me to stop), but that was just a lark. I’d done a little reading about alternate ways of perceiving the universe, both mystical and quantum physical, but I wouldn’t say I knew very much at all about the Kabbalah or any of that.

    Then again, I imagine most traditional comic readers are already familiar with some ideas of magic, anyway, which is what makes this choice of presentation so clever, I think.

    Since I read all five books in a weekend, I didn’t feel bad about skimming, or just looking at the pictures when it got too deep for me, either.

  8. kate Says:

    I found Promethea a LOT easier to deal with in tpb form, in fact. I tried it in pamphlet form and it really did just feel like a treatise on magic(k) and all didactic and… hostile.

    But in tpb form, it’s both a treatise and a story that holds together, and I liked it a lot /as/ a story. (And the art is fantastic. Obviously.)

  9. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Dec. 2, 2008: A blunt instrument Says:

    [...] [Review] Promethea Link: Johanna Draper Carlson [...]

  10. Doctor Says:

    I followed this series for the first 15 issues or so, but I found it frustrating. I kept wanting him to make it more story-driven, since he’s such a great storyteller. I loved the “Five Swell Guys” subplots that were happening in the background. Maybe I should have read Tom Strong instead.

  11. Scott Says:

    It took me three tries to get into the story (first as pamphlets, then as collected editions), but by the time I’d finished the first collected edition I was definitely hooked and couldn’t wait for subsequent volumes.

    Promethea toys with many ideas I’ve had floating around in my head and it was just wonderful to see them on the page, making sense, and being so delightfully and imaginatively illustrated.

  12. Scott Dunbier Says:

    God, I wish the horizontal Absolute Promethea had been approved… Now that would have been a book.

  13. Jason Michelitch Says:

    “But ultimately it’s just a glorified lecture about magic,”

    Yes, there’s a huge lecture element (which I find to be a plus as opposed to a negative — I guess most people fall more the other side) but there are also some very full, interesting characters who have revelatory, human moments of thought and feeling. Not to mention lots of clever bits that make me smile. Yeah, there’s less plot than in other “novels”… but then I’ve always found plot to be massively overrated, to be honest.

  14. Jason Michelitch Says:

    The only quibble I ever had with Promethea was the inclusion, toward the end, of the other ABC characters. It stirred my gut-reaction against creeping continuity, a reaction that maybe wasn’t warranted in this specific case. It did feel like it sort of infringed on the specialness of the book, breaking the hermetic seal, so to speak. I’d be interested in anyone’s reactions who didn’t read the other ABC books — I read them all, so I didn’t have any trouble knowing who was who. Maybe it didn’t bother other readers, and I should just get over it?

  15. Johanna Says:

    I agree with you. (I didn’t follow all the ABC books, but I was familiar with them.) After all that high-toned philosophy, it was weird to see standard superhero faceoffs. And to return to that art style.

  16. Storm Sunday: Teamwork is the Ultimate Gestalt! « stormantic Says:

    [...] down the Heavy Metal illustrated version), study the Kabbalah (or at least read all the volumes of Promethea by Alan Moore and J.H. Wiliams III), and reread the Dark Phoenix Saga.  Then play the X-Men [...]

  17. Scott Says:

    Well, Absolute Promethea V1 has been announced for a 9/30 ship date.

  18. steve mckinney Says:

    I loved this book…it’s one of my favorites. What’s wrong with a glorified lecture on magic? How often does anyone get a beautifully illustrated lesson in an ancient art or craft of any sort? And, I might add, a very worthy topic of exploration that still figures substantially in our culture today although we’re usually not aware of it. Occultism, like conventional religion, is at the core of our society and even if you disagree with it, in the words of Sun Tzu, “know your enemy”. I just wish school had been taught like this. Moore’s Promethea is a brilliant “crash course” in a discipline that takes a lifetime to master.

  19. Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics » DVDs Worth Watching Says:

    [...] described as producing “popular and enduring titles” (shown: WildCATS, Gen13, Promethea, The Authority, Ex Machina). That’s followed by coverage of the Death of Superman and Kingdom [...]

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