There’s a reason the Romantic poets were so fond of invoking the muses before they embarked on Odes to various pastoral objects. It wasn’t just a nod to Classical forefathers like Homer, but also to the fact that creation, by its very nature, is a mysterious, intangible, and highly unreliable thing. When the words are flowing, or the music is pouring out with little help from the conscious mind, it’s tempting to think there must be some other force at play besides the hard-to-reach recesses of the mind. Enter entities like the Muses, who are such an accepted part of our creative mythos that they’ve made the leap from Hamilton’s Mythology to mainstream culture (most recently in films like Albert Brooks’ The Muse and Kevin Smith’s Dogma). Even comics have brushed up against the topic, with an early issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman dealing with a writer who profited creatively from holding a muse captive in his attic. Alan Moore, however, takes the muse one step beyond her traditional role, and into the realm of the superheroine, with Promethea.
Gaiman’s tales in The Sandman revolved around the impact that stories have on us. He kept things archetypal, and even when mundane characters were involved, they were part of a larger scheme and often found themselves pegged in archetypal roles themselves. Moore, however, keeps Promethea very much in the realm of the personal.
Ostensibly the story of Sophie Bangs, a New York college student, Promethea actually plants its roots much farther back, in Alexandria 411 B.C. A child cries out to her murdered father’s gods, summoning Thoth-Hermes, a curious combination of Greek and Egyptian deities, who takes her into The Immateria with the promise that she “would live eternally, as stories do ... sometimes, if a story is special, it can quite take people over.” Flash forward to New York in 1999, which resembles a less rain-soaked version of the Blade Runner set, with flying vehicles, neon advertisements for miles, and a group of Science Heroes who help keep the peace.
Sophie is researching Promethea for her term paper, having noticed that the name repeatedly pops up in literature, comic strips, and battlefield lore. After interviewing Barbara Shelley, the widow of the last man to write about Promethea, Sophie is attacked, only to be rescued by Shelley in her guise as Promethea. After being severely wounded and forced to retreat, Shelley explains Promethea’s true nature to Sophie that Promethea is a living story who can be brought into reality by a strong, focused imagination. The creator can become Promethea, or project it onto someone else, as Shelley’s husband did. Still under attack, Shelley tells Sophie to write about Promethea. Sophie becomes Promethea possibly the strongest yet and makes short work of her attacker.
Promethea, as Moore’s use of a hybrid Egyptian/Greek deity would indicate, bears resemblance to earlier comic heroines Isis and Wonder Woman, garbed in a white tunic and golden armor, and wielding a caduceus that bristles with blue, heavenly electricity. Personified in Sophie, she is initially raw power, with the intellect of Promethea and Sophie’s wide-eyed naivety battling for control. Both consciousnesses coexist simultaneously, and one of the book’s greatest themes is Sophie/Promethea coming to terms with this awesome amount of power. Much like the writer or musician who has the innate talent, but who must hone and refine that talent into actual learned skill, Sophie must learn to handle her challenges as Promethea with more than brute force. And those challenges come immediately.
A secretive mystic group known as The Temple puts a hit out on Promethea, hiring fallen angels who, in black suits and ties, resemble extras from a Quentin Tarantino film. After she virtually obliterates the first two, the entire fallen host is called out to take her down. After the battle, Sophie realizes that she must undergo more formal training than mere battle-hardening, and ventures into The Immateria. A psychedelic version of Little Nemo’s Slumberland, The Immateria is a realm of imagination where pure archetypes like The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood are at full power, and isolated pockets are carved out by writers’ imaginations. It is also where the previous Prometheas exist in presumable retirement, doing little more than eating, drinking, bickering, and watching the current Promethea. Each of them, in turn, tutors Sophie in a different aspect of Promethea.
As a superheroine comic book, Promethea brandishes the requisite amounts of action, but Moore also lays a solid intellectual foundation that’s only heightened as the series progresses past this first collection. Sophie delves deeper and deeper into the mysticism and magic that informs Promethea, studying Kabbalism, sex magick, and Tarot symbolism, becoming stronger and more confident in the process. It’s pretty heady stuff at times, with Moore taking what he needs to construct his map of the intellect, and never delving too deeply into any one mystical pocket. It’s not hard, though, to see that Sophie’s struggle and development are like those of any creative person. Brute creative force can get you through your initial challenges, but as you strive for more ambitious projects and the competition is increasingly more talented, your studies must come to the fore. Sophie’s development is highly accelerated the benefits of a godlike power murmuring advice in your skull, I guess, and fallen angels on your heels and by the most recent issue, she’s on a quest through the afterlife. But in watching her solve as many dilemmas with intellect and logic as she does with her caduceus a-blazin’, satisfaction can be the only result for anyone’s who’s ever tried to put together the pieces of a creative puzzle.