A Retrospective on Alan Moore and J.H. William’s Promethea
Published at The Hub City Review
There is a scene in the fifteenth issue of Promethea, at about the exact halfway point in the series (the climax in a Shakespearean five act structure, as this series seems to follow), as the eponymous character is making her way through the various heavenly spheres in a sequence highly reminiscent of Dante’s Paradiso, that the titular Promethea encounters the roman deity Mercury, appearing as fluid and silvery as the metal which bears his name. In one of the most memorable moments of profundity among the many densely packed within the series, he states to our protagonist, “I’m saying that some fiction might have a real god hiding beneath the surface of the page. I’m saying some fiction might be alive…” And then, in one of a small handful impeccably placed breaks in the fourth wall, he turns his gaze outward through the panel, looking the readers in the eyes and stating to us directly, “...That’s what I’m saying.”
Mercury is speaking here for Moore every bit as much as for himself. The series as a whole is didactic of Moore’s own genuine religious and philosophical beliefs, meant to imaginatively instruct the reader. In this way it is like many of the greatest stories and works of literature; Milton’s Paradise Lost, MacDonald’s Phantastes, Tolkien’s Legendarium, Lewis’ Narniad, even Morrison’s Flex Mentallo, are all sublime translations of the authors’ theologies into mythologies.
More importantly, however, Mercury's words here are true. Moore is right in that some fiction really does have a god hiding beneath the surface of the page, and Promethea itself bears the marks of inspiration more than any sacred scriptures or any other product of human ingenuity. Like the tarot deck it so oft references has sometimes been called, this is a “Bible of Bibles.”
Part of the genius of Promethea is that so little of it is original. Moore employs virtually nothing in the way of invention. He rather relies almost entirely on allusions and appropriations. But Promethea is no hodgepodge of reworked ideas. Moore is a systematician, perfectly harmonizing such varied elements as Astrology, Cartomancy, History, Metaphysics, Numerology, Qabalah, and Theology. He is far from the first to attempt synthesizing such, openly citing his influences throughout the narrative, including most prominently John Dee and Aleister Crowley. Yet just as Aquinas’ Summa Theologia can been seen as the completion and crowning achievement of the Scholastic program to systematize the entirety of Medieval thought and knowledge, so too can Promethea be seen as the complete summation and harmonization of Hermeticism.
The fact that such a text takes the form of a comic book should not be viewed as an accident born of the author’s limitations or predilections. Going back to their most ancient roots when religion and magic were one and the same, both have a long history of incorporating words and pictures, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Byzantine icons. Moore places this argument in the mouths of his characters: “Telling stories with pictures is the first kind of written language… gods used to be in tapestries, but now their in strips.” (Pun very much intended.) The comic book was in fact the medium most suited for his particular message.
Promethea does more than merely educate, however. If the Summa was the intellectual capstone of Medieval Scholasticism, then the Divine Comedy was its imaginative one. Promethea, far from being a mere dialectical diatribe, is, like Dante’s epic poem, enormously imaginative. The work certainly celebrates imagination at the textual level, with Promethea residing in the imagination and deriving her powers therefrom. But more importantly, it demonstrates the virtue of such constantly throughout by means of its colorful setting, complex characters, and the gorgeous visuals that bring both to life. Again, the message informed the choice of medium; only a comic book could so perfectly encapsulate the linguistic and visual aspects of imagination.
For all the praise and adulation that Moore’s other works deserve, the ideas in this tome are far heavier than those from in such masterpieces as Watchmen, Swampthing, Miracleman, etc. It required an artists capable of giving form to the evanescent, of visually conceiving the incomprehensible. J.H. Williams may truly be the only artist in the history of the medium that’s been up to this task. His style varies from page to page, panel to panel, precisely as the story demands. A Kirby-esq comics style, Gogh-inspired impressionism, painterly realism, pop-art that channels Warhol, pulp art of the pre-Golden Age, surrealism that surpasses even Dali himself… the variety and quality which Williams demonstrates within any given issue is enough to cement him a place in art history. It’s barely hyperbolic to declare that the original art deserves a permanent wing of its own in MOMA or the MET.
Promethea is not without its faults. Steadily building up steam, it crescendos in Book Three, never again quite reaching the same highs as when Sophie and Barbara are traversing such celestial spheres as Mercury, Sol, and Jupiter, or experiencing the Beatific Vision. Yet when they fall from the highest heaven back to earth, the narrative falls as well, with Book Four being a bit of a stumble for the series. Switching the setting back to Mundus leads to mundanity in the story. The issues here most resemble a typical superhero comic with a focus on secret identities and fights with fellow crime-fighters. Even the art takes on a more ordinary panel layout and art style. While appropriate, it still proves lackluster compared to what comes before and after it. The fifth and final book mostly comes back around to the elements which made the series great, such as another break in the fourth wall in which Moore and Williams themselves are affected by Promethea’s promulgation of the noosphere as they’re in the process of writing the very scene, or the Whore of Babylon shouting during the apocalypse “Let’s make sure the world ends in a gangbang, not a whimper!”
The later is one of a number of sex scenes scattered throughout, all of which serve the story thoughtfully and most of which are occasion for Moore to elucidate the reader in a way not otherwise possible. The entirety of issue 10 is one long sex scene, perhaps the best in comics, its focus not on titillation but exploration of the esoteric properties of tantric. In issue 22 Sophie and Barbara witness the Big Bag, as when God, in His most Fatherly act of Creation, “banged” existence into being.
Other highlights of the series include Sophie exploration of the Immateria (particularly the pulp inspired landscape of issue six), Sophie and Barbara’s infinite conversation along the mobius strip in Hod, and especially the twelfth issue, a single poem several dozen quatrains long recapitulating universal and human history according to the framework of the twenty-two Major Arcana. This, along with the final issue set outside the story, serve as Moore’s thesis, upon which all the rest of the Promethea expounds upon.
Alan Moore is nothing short of the greatest writer the comics medium has yet produced, and Promethea is nothing short of his magnum opus. Beyond any poor adaptation of his other works into film, the true tragedy of his career is the relative obscurity of this title, both among mainstream audiences and comic book fans themselves. Greater efforts among scholars, critics, and fans alike are needed to ensure this series the place it deserves in the canon of sequential art. It deserves a spot in college curricula alongside McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Spiegelman’s Maus, as well as a spot on every bookshelf besides Sandman and Watchmen. After all, this is a story with a real god hiding beneath the surface of the page; this is a story that’s alive. Let’s work to keep it that way.