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 50th installment.
One of the things I really love about doing this reread, thinking about and pouring over Alan Moore comics methodically, month after month, is that it forces me to address each comic—or each collection—without an easy escape hatch. Normally, with so many other things to read and do, and so many other opportunities pressing me for attention, I could hit a series like Promethea and maybe not spend enough time with it. I’d read it—after all, I have read it all before, years ago—and I’d get what I could from it, but I wouldn’t really grapple with it in any substantial way.
Last week I talked about my inability to confront Promethea directly—or my reluctance to—and the week before that I admitted that I didn’t even know if the series was “enjoyable” by any usual sense of how that word is used.
But the truth is that my time spent with Promethea, first rereading the whole series in a relatively short period of time at the end of the summer, then going back into each collected Absolute edition week-by-week as I reflected and wrote about my reactions, has made me appreciate it immensely more than I ever did.
I may not have plumbed all of its depths, and I may be more interested in some aspects of the text than others, but until a month or two ago I would have described Promethea as “that ambitious but annoyingly digressive and self-absorbed Alan Moore series most notable for the stunning J. H. Williams III artwork.” I may have implied similar things as recently as two weeks ago when I first began writing about the series as part of the reread.
But I have come to love Promethea after all the time I’ve spent with it recently, and the final Absolute volume, collecting issues #24-32 (along with some Promethea-centric miscellany) has clarified a new aesthetic position in my mind: Promethea isn’t an “annoyingly digressive and self-absorbed” series at all, but rather a challenging, provocative, deeply sincere and reflective portrait of Alan Moore’s attitudes towards superheroes and magic and ideas and fiction. I’d rank it among the top tier of his comic book work. It’s far more substantial than just a bunch of ideas gorgeously visualized on the page.
Absolute Promethea Book Three (Wildstorm Productions, 2011)
Promethea breaks distinctively into three acts, each getting a corresponding Absolute edition in the final days of Wildstorm. Book One was the birth of the new Promethea and the introduction of external threats before the true nature of the story revealed itself to be self-discovery. Book Two was all about that self-discovery, though “self” also means “life” and “magic” and “fiction” in the case of Promethea’s heavenly explorations. Book Three is the climax and resolution. It calls back upon other Alan Moore tropes more directly than the previous two books, and it also brings the America’s Best Comics universe to an apocalyptic close.
To some extent—and even though my slightly out-of-chronological order of this final stretch of the reread may confuse the issue—the finale of Promethea echoes Prospero’s drowning of his books in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Or the magician’s equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off stage. Maybe forever.
Promethea is certainly the closest thing we have to Alan Moore’s grand farewell to the superhero genre, and even if he dabbles in it afterwards, no grand statements on the topic have been made post-Promethea.
Then again, Promethea ends up being about far more than superheroes. As the best stories do.
So, Book Three!
Sophie Bangs is back from her journeys into the Immateria where she (and the readers) learned about life, the universe, and everything. And, if you’ll recall, her best pal Stacia had assumed the mantle of Savage-Promethea-on-Earth and now that Sophie’s back, there’s only room enough on the planet for one.
But Moore and Williams III don’t give us a there-can-be-only-one epic showdown. Instead, we get a literary/mythic court proceeding and Sophie is granted her rightful status as the one-true Promethea of the moment and then things fall apart completely.
We get images of Tarot cards: The Devil, The Tower, The Hanged Man. Sophie goes on the run.
The mystical judge-and-jury moments recall a bit of Swamp Thing—the Parliament of Trees—and Judgment Day—the trial of a superhero—and though the trial has a sense of wit and irony to it, the blackest comedy comes from the situation Sophie finds herself in: returning to Earth and reclaiming her status as Promethea will bring about the end of the world. Such is her burden. Such is the fate of the world.
It’s what “The Hanged Man” card represents: ritual sacrifice and rebirth. With the whole of reality along with it.
That’s what the climax of the entire series hinges upon: the acceptance of change. The inevitability of it.
Sophie can reject her position as Earth’s Promethea. She can shirk her responsibilities and paradoxically save the current incarnation of the world by doing so, but like any of the tragic heroes in the ancient plays will tell you: cosmic recoil is a killer, and you can’t escape your fate forever.
After all the ambition and high-magic and higher-minded meta-discussions on the meaning of life and magic and all the stuff that filled Book Two and spilled into the beginning of Book Three, the real heart of the final sequence of issues in Promethea’s run is when Sophie does try to retreat from her superhero status. When she tries to live a real life. Watch television. Small talk with her boyfriend on the couch.
That’s the stuff that brings the worlds of Alan Moore into a collision. The writer well known for bringing “realism” to comics in the 1980s gives his protagonist a taste of real life for a moment, but the grappling claw of fate and the pulleys and levers of the creative team conspire to pluck Sophie out of her unnaturally “real” life and pull her back where she belongs.
In the story, it’s the government, and that nebulous declaration of a “terrorist threat” that leads the likes of Tom Strong to locate Sophie in her new identity and bring her back for questioning. But it’s really Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III behind the curtain, never letting us forget that this is a story about stories, a fiction about fictions.
Promethea returns, an inverse of the Micky Moran who would recall his magic word and break free from his gritty domestic life in Marvelman. No, this time, in what amounts to Alan Moore’s bookend on superherodom, Promethea embraces her glowing majestic form because she has been driven to it. Sophie Bangs transforms, reluctantly, but out of self-defense. And the beginning of the end of the world commences.
Moore has never shied away from the inclusion of sex in his stories, and yet, when he uses it, the ritualistic aspects of the pairing are always primary. In Promethea a book about ritual and magic—a series in which Promethea was indoctrinated in the ways of magic via a sexual encounter with a creepy old guy—the end of the world revolves around the imagery of the wand and the cup. Sometimes a wand is just a wand and a cup is just a cup but that sometimes is not around Alan Moore when he is writing Promethea.
It’s a symbol—explicitly stated—for intercourse, but one that’s packed with anthropological meanings of the sort that T. S. Eliot harvested for his own apocalyptic musings in “The Waste Land.” The wand goes into the cup, the stirrer goes into the old-fashioned, and the unfolding begins. Ripples of reality and chaos.
Williams III adopts a half-dozen different styles for this section of the story, as the layers of reality overlap, and the fictions collide with whatever lies outside. Moore and Williams III make appearances—they had made cameos in the Immateria earlier, as spectral figures amidst the landscape, but now the “real” Alan Moore at his keyboard and the “real” J. H. Williams III at his drawing table pop up in a sequence during which Promethea chants sweet nothings to cover up the pending apocalypse.
But the apocalypse is just a transformation from one state of reality to the next, and the sweet nothings are hardly sweet and more than nothing.
“Our lives,” Promethea intones, “are all a story we’ve been telling ourselves, whiling away the long, afraid night of our human ignorance.”
“But now we are grown. Nor the night is over. Now there is light.”
Light. Acceptance. Transformation. A new, bountiful reality—brightly colored—emerges from the old. Transcendence.
That’s the path we’ve taken by joining this comic book on its journey, and it’s exceedingly optimistic for Alan Moore’s farewell to America’s Best Comics. And his farewell to the genre that he so strongly redefined.
But Moore and Williams III don’t simply close the series on that elegant note of optimism. Instead, they give us one last issue. An epilogue that’s unlike any comic book ever created before or since. The final issue of the series is one giant, double-sided image, cut up into individual pages that contain their own unique thematic element, each based on one aspect of the Tarot. Sliced out of the comic book, though, and taped together into a giant tapestry, two faces emerge: the old Promethea and the new. But the non-linear, non-narrative words and images on each individual page are packed with specific meaning as well.
That’s, ultimately, how Moore and Williams III say goodbye to this series, with an audacious stunt that has nothing to do with the “story” of the series but has everything to do with what the story has been about. It’s been about magic. The transformative power of art. And the way it shapes our lives and the reality around us.
Yes, Promethea is easy to fall in love with. If you give it enough time.
NEXT TIME: Neopolis street blues: our look at Top Ten begins.