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 48th installment.
Alan Moore was supposed to work with Brandon Peterson on this, the Wildstorm-relocated expansion of his original plans for Glory – the abandoned Wonder Woman analogue comic conceived near the end of his tenure at the Extreme Academy of Comic Book Arts and Sciences.
But Promethea became something else when J. H. Williams III joined the collaboration, and the artist let the writer know that he preferred to work in double-page spreads instead of single-page layouts.
Promethea became more expansive than it might have once Williams III was paired with Moore. It took a while for Moore to completely tap into the potential Williams III was capable of, and to use the double-page, richly-ambitious double-page layouts as a complex tapestry of ideas, but their collaboration led to distinctive comics right from the beginning.
Promethea, 32 issues filled with gorgeous artwork, running from the final months of the last century into the early months of 2005, is an astonishing, amazing comic.
But I’m not sure if it’s enjoyable.
Absolute Promethea Book One (Wildstorm Productions, 2009)
Though there have been recent rumors of a widescreen reprinting of Promethea—like Frank Miller’s 300 collection in the use of the double-page spread as a single, double-wide page—the best currently available version of the series is the massive three-volume Absolute edition, one of the final projects of DC’s now-defunct Wildstorm imprint.
Book One reprints Promethea #1-12 without any behind-the-scenes sketches, production images or bonus features of note, but that’s okay. The twelve issues are more than enough to give the book its enormous heft and, at the Absolute size, Williams III’s art (with inks by Mick Gray and colors by, mostly, Jeromy Cox) is stunningly displayed.
Unlike Moore’s other longer-than-twelve-issues forays into comic books, this entire project (barring a tiny Charles Vess sideline journey and a few pages of haunting digitally manipulated photographs) is by a single penciler with virtuoso skill. Prior to Promethea, readers may have known the work of J. H. Williams III (though most probably did not), but by the end of the series, he was rightly heralded as one of the best artists in the industry, and it’s a status he has only expanded upon ever since. He’s that consistently spectacular, whether it’s playing around with a variety of visual pastiches in Batman: The Black Glove or using wildly accomplished styles in different ways in the same story in Batwoman: Elegy.
I know this is The Great Alan Moore Reread, but this week it feels a lot like The Great Tribute to the Amazing Talents of J. H. Williams III.
That happens when you look at his pages for any length of time. Blown up to Absolute size, you can’t help but feel even more overwhelmed by the astonishing visual bombardment.
Yet, I said a handful of paragraphs above that I’m not sure if Promethea’s enjoyable. How does that make any kind of sense with Williams III blazing away at the reader’s eyeballs with his vicious artistic gifts?
Okay, the art alone makes the series worth reading. And as a series of images and a story told through those images, it’s highly entertaining.
It’s the Alan Moore side of things that might be the problem.
Not so much of a problem that the series suffers or falls into any kind of category of “bad comics” or makes itself unworthy of the Absolute treatment or even necessarily suffers in comparison to Moore’s more famous works.
But it does have a problem, and its problem is that it’s an essay about magic and love and imagination and life in the form of a millennial Wonder Woman saga.
So each time I read Promethea—and this reread was the third time all the way through the series for me—I struggle with it. It’s not a comic that lends itself to even the vaguest hints of escapist entertainment, though it seems like it might in the first few issues. It’s a comic that challenges the reader by being something different than what it presents itself to be. It kicks off a story about a new incarnation of a very old—and very familiar—kind of superhero, and then it soon becomes a comic about apocalyptic events and issue-long sex scenes that are instructional about anthropological patterns throughout history before culminating in an entire chapter devoted to an explication of the Tarot narrated with rhyming couplets.
That’s Book One. It gets more essayistic and frustratingly, gloriously, heroically pedantic after that.
But Book One is the focus of this week and it’s enough. It doesn’t contain the entirety of the series within its covers but it contains enough to provide the flavor of where the series would ultimately head.
It’s a mess of ambition and artistry and experimentation and sometimes it works and sometimes it seems like it doesn’t, but even if it can be a challenge to actually engage with as a story, Promethea is impossible not to feel strongly about.
By this third read, I have come to terms with the fact that I completely love it, as much as I admit that it’s difficult to enjoy. Actually, what I originally said was that I wasn’t “sure” if it’s enjoyable. And that’s the key to this series. Promethea bathes in uncertainty, and grappling with the text and all of its visual tangents and layers and literary aspirations is central to its power as a work of visual narrative.
The most seemingly discordant aspect of the series, and one of the things that might push readers away the first time through—I know it had that effect on me upon my first read—is that the opening few issues set up a story that gets derailed soon after by a series of chapters that amount to lessons on mysticism and history and the meaning of life. It’s like Alan Moore lecturing at you while J. H. Williams plays some crazy jazz guitar that paints images directly onto your brain.
But the story’s only “derailed” by the reader expectations that it was on an expected set of tracks to begin with. It’s easy to assume. We meet Sophie Bangs, student. She inherits the mantle of Promethea, who is a Wonder –Woman-by-way-of-Egyptian-mythology kind of superhero. Bad stuff is brewing, with demons and monsters and the futuristic city has threats of its own.
That may not be exactly a story that we’ve seen before, but anyone who has read comics long enough has seen stories very similar to that. The pattern is more than familiar. The rest of the story is predestined by the time the reader’s a few chapters in: Sophie will learn to harness the powers of her Promethea alter ego, and she will face enormous challenges and make new alliances and though it may seem impossible with the odds stacked against her, she will defeat the demons and monsters and the city will ultimately survive.
We know that. We have read comics (and novels and seen movies and played video games) before.
But that’s not what happens at all. Actually, in the longer scheme of things, it is kind of what happens, but as you read the series that’s not how it feels. It feels like that typical narrative unfolding doesn’t happen at all. Instead, the main conflict is pushed to the side and Promethea goes on a journey through Alan Moore’s mind and we all learn everything we need to know about the connection between everything that matters in life. Then, much, much, much later, the demons and monsters are defeated and the city will ultimately survive.
It’s the instructional, essayistic middle of Promethea—more of which I will explore next time—that really tests the patience of the readers, and gives the series a feeling unlike anything else in its company on the comic book racks. But it was comics luminary Will Eisner himself who so often talked of the educational power of comics – and then walked that walk by not only producing instructional comics for the U.S. military for years but also created a couple of landmark how-to-make-comics books using the very form he was teaching. Alan Moore may well have had Eisner in mind when he took Promethea in a less traditionally story-based direction and turned it into an extended essay on what he was more interested in exploring. Or he may have been inspired by Williams III’s ability to draw anything in dream-like, lyrical, hyper-gorgeous form. Whatever the reason, Moore ended up taking Promethea far beyond what he had ever proposed for Glory and turning the once-Wonder-Woman pastiche into something uniquely specific and (if not profound, then at least) fascinating.
“Rejoice!” reads the narration in Promethea #12. “This is the promised time of Earth’s ascent to realms sublime. Imagination’s endless dance is mankind’s jeweled inheritance.”
There’s more where that came from.
NEXT TIME: Promethea takes an extended tour through the history of magical thinking, and Alan Moore seems to completely abandon the idea of telling a story, at least for a while.
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.