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Against Promethea

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Alan Moore has got religion and, as the example of Tolstoy shows, this can cause detriment to even the strongest of literary careers. Moore would object that his magical beliefs are not religion since, he writes in the final issue of Promethea, the word “religion” comes from the same root as “ligature” and means “tied together in one belief.” However, even if Moore and the audience are not tied together in one belief, the text of Promethea, which so frequently mimics the art of tapestry, certainly is. That belief is an unwieldy and ultimately incoherent melange of occultism, kaballah, amateur cognitive theory and a pinch of left-wing politics.

Promethea relates the journey of Sophie Bangs, a college student in an alternate version of contemporary New York who becomes the carrier of the eponymous Hellenistic deity of imagination. For the first ten or so issues, the comic followed Sophie’s adventures with her friend Stacia, a smart-mouthed repressed lesbian, other “science-heroes” and occultists, and her predecessors as Promethea, a delightful if stereotypical recapitulation of the last two centuries of the Anglo-American romance tradition, from 18th centuty philosophical poems to psychedelic ‘70s comic books. When Sophie/Promethea took leave of earth to explore the higher realms of the kaballah, however, the comic book about the goddess of story forewent plot in favor of a lengthy explication of Moore’s beliefs. Political realities intruded on Moore after the kaballah journey, however, and he found himself dramatizing a conflict between Sophie and Stacia, whom she appointed replacement-Promethea in her absence. This conflict stood in for Christian/Islamic hostilities post-9/11 and, by the time Sophie found herself hounded by the FBI, living a bleak Watchmen-like life in the absence of Promethea, the U.S. was attacking Iraq. When Promethea finally arrives to “end the world” in the final five issues, one gets the sense that the Bush administration’s perfidy has provoked her more than anything else.

To understand why Moore’s entirely justified objection to American foreign policy clashes with his belief system, we have to revisit some of the series’ statements about the nature of life and God. In #23, when Promethea visits Kether, the highest level of the kaballah, she beholds God, which she describes as, “All one. All God. All Kether.” In other words, God is everything and everything is God; this is illustrated in the comic with a page of circles (which are also comics panels) radiating out from an atomic center. The circles contain drawings of many of the things that constitute God, including a couple holding hands, a bird in flight, a baby being born, a suicide bomber preparing to strike and the attack on the World Trade Center. If God is holy and everything, then these moments are holy and are God. Promethea tells us in #31: “Everything is universe, everything is holy … Triumphs, heartbreaks, heaven, hell. Paradise everlasting. Endless punishment.” As spiritual thought, this is a venerable tradition in many religions, but it obviously cannot support a moral attack on any government. In Moore’s undifferentiated cosmos, there is no good or evil, only God; if one enormous act of violence (9/11) is God, then how can Promethea, a bringer of God’s truth, morally oppose another enormous act of violence (the Iraq invasion)? In the essay “Reflections on Gandhi,” Orwell wrote: “One must choose between God and Man, and all ‘radicals’ and ‘progressives’, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.” Moore tries to have it both ways, but in the end we have to wonder why, if there is nothing but God, we should worry about anything.

When Promethea does “end the world” in #31, this ending takes the form of awakening humanity to its status as a holy part of God. In the wake of this apocalypse, or revelation, life goes on, but the formerly dreary NYC the characters inhabited has become a playground of vaguely Orientalist architecture and nascent religious sects: the future as Late Antiquity, the time of Promethea’s origination. Nothing better demonstrates the weakening of Moore’s imagination than this architectural solution to human existential despair. Who would believe this is the same writer who unmasked the beautiful Christian architecture of London as a patriarchal plot to bind the energies of women and destroy their historical continuity with their own forms of art and worship in From Hell? Moore once knew that all gods are not equal, that all culture is not on the side of the oppressed and that some magic, language and art is used to dominate and destroy.

Moore makes much of language throughout Promethea; in the final issue, he writes that, since our only access to the universe is through our own conceptualizations, then the universe (i.e., God), is largely to us a phenomenon of language, our chief conceptual mode. How sad it is, then, that this comic features some of the lamest wordplay of a man who has a large claim on the title of comics’ greatest line-by-line writer. When Moore jokes in #32 that IGUSs, the acronym for Murray Gell-Man’s characterization of perceiving entities as “Information Gathering and Utilizing Systems,” might better stand for, “It’s God, understanding something,” we have to wonder what deity would stoop to manifest through those words. Similarly, Moore’s history of the universe in atrocious Augustan couplets in the famous #12 is sad coming from the writer of credible blank verse and free verse in his spoken word performances. He’s on more solid ground when he suggests, in #32, that comics are the ideal medium of communication because their words and pictures fire both the left brain and the right. Indeed, when Moore’s left brain falls down in Promethea, penciller J.H. Williams III, inker Mick Gray, and especially colorist Jeremy Cox and letterer Todd Klein work their right brains to give us a comic book as aesthetic object: a tapestry to be laid out end to end as in the aforementioned #12, a pastiche of van Gogh’s style in #19 or a vibrant psychedelic poster to be assembled by the reader in #32. Williams and Gray have a superb sense of design and transition, if their figures can be a bit stiff or insufficiently expressive, while Cox always unerringly set whatever mood Moore calls for and Klein’s lettering ensured that the words were part of the art and never a distraction from it or an obstruction on top of it, especially when his sometimes transparent word balloons allowed the language to lay over the pictures. These artists’ contributions always allowed Promethea to look beautiful, even when it didn’t make much sense.

Promethea is Moore-the-magician making his big statement, though, so sense-making is at least as important as beauty. The old Moore, who wrote The Ballad of Halo Jones, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Brought to Light and From Hell, believed that the universe was strange, to be sure, but he never suggested, as he does in Promethea, that we would perceive it as fundamentally good if only we could understand it through a language-system like kaballah. In fact, in the characters of Dr. Manhattan and William Gull, he represented such a universal understanding as distinctly inhuman and possibly malevolent. Promethea, another transcendent entity, is a loving mother to our imaginations and seems to put no sanction to anything we can dream (with the curious exception of Bush’s war). In From Hell, our cities of stone and word were prisons for the divine mother, but in Promethea, the mother can only awaken us through language and spur us to higher spires. In #31, Sophie says to a retired FBI agent who’s become a Baptist pantheist, “No, we all woke up, the day after the world ended, and we still had to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads.” The Moore who objects to the Iraq oil adventure never wonders who pays for these bright new buildings or how people far away from our glorious cities, the ones who toil in factories for the sake of our lifestyle, feed themselves. It was once said that Alan Moore knew the score, but sometime around his encounter with God, he clearly lost count.

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About John Pistelli