It’s good to know that Alan Moore is still with us. At this point, praising him as an innovator, genius, or even “the greatest writer in the history of the medium,” or listing his accomplishments (including Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Miracleman), is fairly redundant. I mean, he’s Alan frickin’ Moore. A couple of years ago, however, he announced that he was going to retire (or semi-retire, or cut back on his output significantly, depending on who you ask) to spend more time practicing his magic.
Granted, Alan’s work has always flirted with the mystical (some of his shorter works like Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul focus directly on the subject of magic). However, Promethea is something else entirely.
Promethea tells the story of Sophie Bangs, a college student writing a term paper on an obscure literary figure known as Promethea that has appeared in several very different incarnations. When she interviews Barbara Shelley, the widow of the last Promethea writer, she is attacked by a shadowy creature and saved by Promethea herself, who turns out to be Barbara. Afterwards, Barbara explains that she was her husband Will’s inspiration, and that through his love and belief, she actually became Promethea. She then lets Sophie in on another secret: Promethea is a creature of imagination, living in the Immateria, the realm of imagination. Originally a young girl in the 4th century AD whose magician father placed her in the Immateria before he was killed by a Christian mob, she has taken on different incarnations, yet somehow remained essentially her. Sophie learns to become Promethea herself (focusing her imagination through writing a poem about the heroine), and the series is off and running.
Simply put, Promethea is about Sophie’s career as the imaginary heroine of the title, and her discoveries of the Immateria. She learns about magic, travels the cosmic spheres, and brings about the end of the world (well, not really ).
However, Moore obviously had other things in mind. Promethea reads like he’s saying, “Here’s everything I’ve learned about the Occult.” And boy, you would not believe how much Alan Moore knows about the occult. There are long stretches where the plot (except in the loosest sense of the word) gets pushed to the side completely so he can tell you more about magic. As a result, it’s one of the smartest and most explanation-heavy comics in recent memory. (In fact, I’ve heard that some readers have criticized Promethea because they “don’t like learning mixed in with their comics.”
Promethea spends an issue learning about how the four suits of the Tarot (cups, swords, disks, and wands) are really about the four elements, sex, life, and, of course, magic. She spends 11 issues traveling the 10 Sephira of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. And she learns (in one of my personal favorites) that the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot deck are really a history of the Universe, from Creation and the Big Bang through appearance of life and up the evolutionary ladder, to Revelation and Apocalypse, and beyond.
Beyond the weirdness of it all, Promethea is simply brilliant. Because while the story all but disappears for long stretches of time, the series is the best explanation of occult and mystical symbolism I’ve ever seen. Moore and Williams lay out all the mainstays of magic—the Tarot, the Kabbalah, mythology, astrology, psychedelic drugs, and depth psychology—in a way that you can understand (although you may have to read it a couple of times first). More than that, they integrate all the systems from mystical traditions all over the world and show that they’re all attempts to understand and map out the greatest mystery of all: humanity itself.
We are the key to the magic, the end result of the Universe’s drive to create a part of itself that is conscious and can look at itself and everything else. We have language, imagination, and will, the building blocks of magic.
Moore’s partner in this venture is artist J.H. Williams III, who put in as masterful a job drawing as the former did writing. Williams’ art is staggeringly beautiful and (not to overuse the word) magical. He does things with form and color that I didn’t know you could do on a comic book page. And he makes it all clear. With the subject matter, it would be all too easy to let the whole thing become a huge mish-mash, but Williams manages to keep things clear, and juggles all the elements of a dozen cosmologies, and makes them fit together.
With the story wrapped up by issue 31, the final issue (32—the number of the spheres of the Kabbalah plus the paths between them) takes us around the block one more time. It’s a completely non-linear review of all the topics: language, consciousness, mysticism, brains, and more. There’s no set order to the pages, and the whole issue can be taken apart and assembled into a full-sized poster, which contains two more images of Promethea that you can only see when you do this.
And in a way, that’s probably the purest embodiment of Promethea: all the parts function on their own, and each contains the whole. But put them together in a certain way, and you get something else entirely. Something bigger and weirder and more beautiful than you’ve ever imagined. And it loves you.
So what the hell does all this have to do with comics? Moore points out that the combination of words and pictures have been around as long as written or spoken language, and possibly longer, and that comics have been shown to be the optimal way of transmitting information. So maybe there’s something about Promethea that demanded her story be told in a comic. Maybe it’s the only way you could graphically represent so many complicated things and explain what they all mean. (The only reason I understand magical symbolism is from reading Promethea and the works of Grant Morrison, especially his Invisibles.) Or maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
I don’t know. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.