Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics(and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 49th installment.
I’ll admit it: I still don’t think I’m prepared to tackle everything that Promethea has to offer. After completing almost 80% of the Great Alan Moore Reread, and mainlining the work of the Magus of Northampton every week for almost a full year, I find myself in an odd situation. I don’t have an angle of approach for Promethea. Not an honest one anyway.
Last week I provided some context for the first dozen issues, and I mostly spent my time talking about what it wasn’t and then raving about the artistry of J. H. Williams III. But, in retrospect, I wonder if that approach wasn’t a kind of self-defense on my part. A way of dealing with Promethea without really dealing with Promethea, you know? Because it’s not just that Promethea is challenging – on the surface, it’s not, in fact, overwhelmingly dense, and, if anything, its ideas are overexplained – but rather that it demands a kind of sincerity from a good reader that I may not be able to muster as part of this ongoing project of ours. Promethea probably works best in isolation – not in the context of Alan Moore’s Wildstorm days, or the America’s Best Comics line, or as his last big explosion of superhero subversion/celebration – but as a text that demands a close reading for what it is. A good, old-fashioned New Critical approach, the likes of which John Crowe Ransom would have trumpeted.
I’m just warning you that after twelve months of bouncing from one Alan Moore project to the next, I may not have the proper patience and depth of focus to really go deep inside Promethea and reveal all of its ticking parts. And it’s not for a lack of trying. I’ve wrestled with this book, with this Absolute Promethea Book Two, for longer than I’ve read and reflected on anything else in this reread. But there’s something about issues #13-23 of the series that keep kicking me back out, like one of those carnival funhouses where you take a wrong turn and a slide sends you into a pile of hay behind the trailer.
So, I ask you to bear with me this week, as I try to gain entry to these most essayistic of Alan Moore comics, where his explication of the Kabbalah takes over the narrative and the story of Sophie Bangs’s journey becomes the chance for Moore to play the comic book version of Dante Alighieri. He takes us – with the incredible visuals of J. H. Williams to guide us – through a tour of Heaven and Hell and imagination and…everything.
Absolute Promethea Book Two (Wildstorm Productions, 2010)
The batch of issues that makes up this collection – originally published from 2001-2003, but Absolutized nearly a decade later – frames itself, not just narratively, but also visually, around the interlocking spheres of the Kaballah.
By this point, the comic has long since transcended its humble roots as an ambitious Wonder Woman deconstruction and become something obviously more personal to Alan Moore. This middle stack of issues – the second book of the three Absolute volumes – is either where Moore allows himself room to explore his own questing for mystical knowledge and the connections between fictions and reality and the substructure of the universe, or it’s where he sits us down and explains all that to us with Williams III providing the pyrotechnics. Maybe it’s both of those things, and that’s what makes it alternately frustrating and completely spectacular.
Promethea, though, is still true to its origins as a superhero comic book spectacle. Moore never completely abandons that awareness, and when the story becomes more about telling instead of showing, he still has Williams III making beautiful marks across the pages and he presents the complex historiographical ideas in an easily digestible way. He educates the reader, carefully. This isn’t just a Wildstorm comic that happens to be packed with ideas and ambition. It’s a comic that knows it’s addressing Wildstorm readers and beckons them to join the adventure into some heady ideas that matter to Moore.
So he doesn’t go out of his way to mystify. Instead, he chooses to speechify.
Stacia, former and maybe current (but it’s not the way it used to be) best friend of protagonist Sophie Bangs, speaks for the potential reader when she says, “…this is some complicated crap here.”
But Sophie, as Promethea – all sci-fi/magic Egyptian splendor – gives us all the necessary introductory lesson. It’s Kabbalah 101, complete with a visual of the ancient graphic on stones at the character’s feet: “It’s an old Hebrew knowledge system,” says Promethea, “…it’s intended to encode all conceivable existence in a single glyph.”
“Each of those ten spheres is called a Sephira,” she continues. “Sephira is just a Hebrew word for number…The twenty-two paths connecting them are the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So it’s as simple as one, two, three, or A-B-C.”
Simple. But it contains everything.
“It’s also the road atlas for Heaven,” Promethea adds, “and I’m going to be needing it soon.”
Thus, the entire structure of Book Two – or whatever these issues were called when they first came out – is laid out in front of us. Sophie Bangs – the Promethea of this era – will journey through the spheres and continue her spiritual exploration while providing an illuminated experience through the Kabbalah for the reader.
Does that sound like your typical superhero comic book story? No, it does not.
And it isn’t.
But while Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III set Sophie on her journey, and spend plenty of time getting her there – and hanging out with her while she’s off in other lands – they never lose sight of the Earthly realm. This is where the complexity of the work comes into play. I think its achievement is not in its cool-teacher, feet-up-on-the-desk lecture on the way we’re all…like…connected, man. But in the way that stuff (which, yes, I’m a bit glib about, but I told you I have trouble being sincere in the face of a text like this) contrasts with the conflicts back home.
Stacia becomes the Savage Sword of Promethea while Sophie’s incarnation of the character is away in other realms, and there’s always a tether between the flights of fancy and the depravity of the “real world.”
It’s a necessary layer in the text and, without it, Promethea loses its mooring and becomes a massive digression toward pure ideas, without any kind of emotional or narrative weight. It verges on that even with the Stacia interludes reminding us of what is at stake. But that’s largely because Moore spends more time following Sophie’s Promethea into the Heavens. And because J. H. Williams takes what he showed us in Book One and then amplifies it tenfold. His work in Book Two is – and this is not hyperbole – among the greatest comic book work every produced in America.
I’ve already dropped Dante into the conversation, so let’s have James Joyce join the fun as well. In Joyce’s Ulysses, there’s that “Oxen of the Sun” chapter where the novelist performs a verbal high-wire act by mimicking the development of the English language as the chapter unfolds, tracing the history of grammar and usage not through explanation, but through transformative use. The chapter starts in one language, morphs into others along the way, and ends in a kind of futurespeak. J. H. Williams III does something of that – or the comic book equivalent of that – in this middle arc of Promethea. He co-opts famous artistic styles, not just from other comic books, but from the history of fine and commercial art as well, and uses those bold visual distinctions to trace the journey through each sphere of the Kabbalah.
I remember reading Joyce when I was just out of college and recognizing in “Oxen of the Sun” that he was tracing something about the development of the English language as the chapter developed, but I didn’t necessarily recognize many of the specific homages.
That’s the same reaction I still have to this section of Promethea. I have training in art history, but not enough to decode all of Williams III’s allusions. Some are obvious, like the Moebius-style Moebius-strip pages, or the Van Gogh sequences in blues and yellows, but the range of artistic styles adopted by Williams III is incredible, and I know that for every two I recognize, there are a dozen others that I can’t confidently place. It’s probably going too far to say that this stretch of Promethea contains the entire history of representational art within its pages, but if you did make such a declaration, you’d find a lot of evidence to support your case. Williams III simply – no, not simply, but astoundingly ambitiously – captures more than I can process. But that doesn’t make Promethea impenetrable, because the allusions are not necessary to understand Sophie’s journey as she peers into the face of God but the complexity remains nonetheless.
See what I mean about my difficulty in approaching Promethea directly? I’ve written the entire post and still barely scratched the surface of this volume.
Maybe that’s for the best. My words can only provide so much context and so little explanation compared to what Moore and Williams III offer inside the pages of the book. Best to read it again – or for the first time – yourself, and offer your thoughts about other aspects I’ve neglected. It may not be too deep or too complex for one person to absorb, but there’s no reason to absorb it alone. Promethea is for all of us. And though I still feel like I’m outside the book, looking in at the wonders inside, at least I had another try at navigating the funhouse. And I’m eager for a return visit, maybe another year from now.
NEXT TIME: The series ends, not with a bang, but with a poster.