- Posted by Johanna on December 1, 2008 at 8:53 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: written by Alan Moore; pencils by J.H. Williams III; inks by Mick Gray
- PUBLISHER: DC / WildStorm; $14.99 US
Promethea is perhaps the most pure expression of some of the key themes of writer Alan Moore’s work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.