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#1 Edited by RideASpaceCowboy (832 posts) - - Show Bio

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!”

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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.

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#2 Edited by VoloErgoMalus (2805 posts) - - Show Bio

O_O This Promethea is...worth a look to say the least. It seems to integrate all of what's best in comics. Your post was marvelous.

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#3 Posted by MollyDanger2210 (189 posts) - - Show Bio

Sounds good although why Moore thinks Alistair Crowley is worth "studying" is beyond me. Guy was just a crazy lunatic.

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#4 Posted by judasnixon (12356 posts) - - Show Bio

Promethea is the $#!%......

Sounds good although why Moore thinks Alistair Crowley is worth "studying" is beyond me. Guy was just a crazy lunatic.

Because Crowley invented "Sex Magic"..... Yeah I know still crazy....

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#5 Edited by RideASpaceCowboy (832 posts) - - Show Bio

I'd like to think the shout-out from Tony and Mat on the weekly podcast is drawing some views to this retrospective. I've evangelized beloved series in the past, but this is the one I've been most passionate about. Hopefully G-Man and Inferiorego get around to reading the series for themselves soon, because I'm confident that once the do they'll join in on the proselytizing, and they certainly have a taller soapbox than I do. If I've managed to convince you already, or if you're on the fence, here are links to buy the first book for yourself and see that the hype is well deserved:

Promethea #1 on Comixology

Promethea vol. 1 on Amazon

And if you need one last push, here's some more of J.H. William's gorgeous art:

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#6 Posted by ThePieter (1047 posts) - - Show Bio

This is a well written post but personally I find 70% of Alan Moore's work really overrated and Promethea is part of that 70%.

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#7 Posted by RideASpaceCowboy (832 posts) - - Show Bio

@thepieter said:

This is a well written post but personally I find 70% of Alan Moore's work really overrated and Promethea is part of that 70%.

I'd be interested to hear what you would include in the 30% of his work that's not overrated. I've read a great deal of Alan Moore, but given how prolific he is I've yet to read everything by him, and would love a suggestion on what to tackle next that I might not have considered otherwise.

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#8 Edited by ThePieter (1047 posts) - - Show Bio

@rideaspacecowboy: I have read most of his works not all of them. My 2 favorite works of his are V for Vendetta and his Swamp Thing run.

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#9 Posted by Jake Fury (21943 posts) - - Show Bio

Great work. I have read vols 1 and 2 and plan to continue soon.

For a not so famous Moore work try his Captain Britain.

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#10 Posted by HolySerpent (13761 posts) - - Show Bio

What's this series about? I never heard of it until now

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#11 Posted by fables87 (1673 posts) - - Show Bio

Promethea is one of my favorites because the art actually tells a story, you don't really get that with other comics. My other two favorite Moore works are From Hell and Lost Girls too.

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#12 Posted by lettsplay10 (20588 posts) - - Show Bio

@fables87 said:

Promethea is one of my favorites because the art actually tells a story, you don't really get that with other comics. My other two favorite Moore works are From Hell and Lost Girls too.

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#14 Posted by dagmar_merrill (12701 posts) - - Show Bio

What's this series about? I never heard of it until now

If you still don't know by now it was pretty much Moore with a great (and very abstract artist) getting to mess around with his own philosophies on some weird new age stuff that he goes over for most of the series. It's Moore at his most boring simply because it's like reading a textbook at times.

You might like, I just have grown to dislike it tremendously as a whole.

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#16 Posted by RideASpaceCowboy (832 posts) - - Show Bio

@dagmar_merrill said:

@holyserpent said:

What's this series about? I never heard of it until now

If you still don't know by now it was pretty much Moore with a great (and very abstract artist) getting to mess around with his own philosophies on some weird new age stuff that he goes over for most of the series. It's Moore at his most boring simply because it's like reading a textbook at times.

You might like, I just have grown to dislike it tremendously as a whole.

To call Promethea a textbook on Hermeticism is like calling The Matrix a documentary on Gnosticism. It may be borne partially out of a real-world belief system which the creator subscribes to, but such serves to strengthen the fiction.

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#17 Posted by dagmar_merrill (12701 posts) - - Show Bio

@dagmar_merrill said:

@holyserpent said:

What's this series about? I never heard of it until now

If you still don't know by now it was pretty much Moore with a great (and very abstract artist) getting to mess around with his own philosophies on some weird new age stuff that he goes over for most of the series. It's Moore at his most boring simply because it's like reading a textbook at times.

You might like, I just have grown to dislike it tremendously as a whole.

To call Promethea a textbook on Hermeticism is like calling The Matrix a documentary on Gnosticism. It may be borne partially out of a real-world belief system which the creator subscribes to, but such serves to strengthen the fiction.

It honestly just felt like he wanted to tell me more about "Hermeticism" (I wasn't sure what it was called, so thanks for that.) than to tell a story. Just not for me.

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#18 Edited by Ataraxy (152 posts) - - Show Bio

JH Williams' artwork is just unbelievable, otherworldly. Surely the best comic book artist out there now..

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#19 Posted by Zur_En_Arrh (64 posts) - - Show Bio

This is a well written post but personally I find 70% of Alan Moore's work really overrated and Promethea is part of that 70%.

Funny, I find 70% of Alan Moore's work really underrated and Promethea is definitely part of that 70%.

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#20 Posted by radrats (6 posts) - - Show Bio

Gonna check this out for sure. J.H. Williams is a god send in terms of style.

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#21 Posted by RideASpaceCowboy (832 posts) - - Show Bio