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Alan Moore's mystical investigation into superheroics and the magical nature of things. . .

Promethea – Volume Three

Of all the projects to bear the imprint of superstar comics scripter Alan (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) Moore, the most perplexing has to be Promethea.
Published under the America’s Best Comics line established by Moore in league with DC Comics, Promethea combines the proto-feminism of early Wonder Woman with Moore’s multi-layered alt-world inventiveness and an interpretative overview of magical thought. As the series has progressed that third element has predominated over the other two: much to the befuddlement of superhero fans and readers looking for multiversal gameplaying a la Watchmen. In its way, it’s probably the most personal of Moore’s entertainments, though not always the easiest to follow.
Eighteen of the series’ comic mags have been reprinted in three hardbound and trade paperback volumes. In May, Volume Three, which collects issues #13 – 18 of the comics, had its first paperback printing.
It’s not a story that you can just jump into mid-series, though. Promethea centers around Sophie Bangs, an inquisitive university coed obsessed with the myth of a powerful superheroine. The world Sophie inhabits is a much more secular, science-infused city – one of those visions of the 21st century that technocrat-worshipping scientifiction writers visualized in the early days of the genre – and it’s packed with typical Moore touches (one of the funniest: a series of billboard ads for a maudlin monthly comix series entitled Weeping Gorilla, which shows the title character bemoaning the state of the world today). Sophie becomes the latest incarnation of the generation-spanning Promethea, the one mystic heroine in a world blinded by science.
The events in Volume There are only occasionally set in Moore’s alternative Earth, however. Searching for a previous Promethea (a fat, middle-aged matron named Barbara) through levels of reality aligned with the planets, the Kaballah and symbols of the tarot, Sophie ventures through a landscape fraught with visual symbolism and double/triple meanings. It’s heady stuff – in all senses of the word. J.H. Williams & Mick Gray’s rich art has the visual depth and complexity reminiscent of classic sixties album illustration and also hearkens to such master fantasy illustrators as Maxfield Parrish, Virgil Finlay, even sixties kitsch-man Peter Max. They regularly utilize two-page spreads that play with every aspect of the traditional windowpane comic book format, forcing the reader to work to make sense of ’em.
At times, the book format seems to work against these elaborate compositions (because bound books don’t flatly open like comic pamphlets, the eye is less attuned to fully taking in both pages at once), but not disastrously so. Williams & Gray are strong illustrators, capable of rendering expressive figures even when their characters’ pupils have been whitened out. Their fantasy landscapes are rendered with surreal conviction and depth of field. So even if you don’t quite get Moore’s elaborately constructed mythos of the Immateria and its planes of reality (I know I sure don’t), the art keeps you grounded.
Sophie finds her mentor/predecessor early in Volume Three, and the two go off in search of Barbara’s husband, a comic strip artist who was partly responsible for her taking on the mantle of Promethea. (One of the series’ other themes is the connection between imagination and magic.) They travel through spheres of love and emotion, of beauty and harmony, of strength and judgment, encountering metaphorical perils at every level. In his weirdly didactic way, Moore is treating us to a mystic updating of medieval allegorical fiction like The Faerie Queen and of early twentieth century fantasists like James Branch Cabell (Moore definitely shares Cabell’s love of puns and word games). Only, occasionally, he’ll stop and return to Earth for some slick mainstream superheroine action.
While she travels the mystic realms, Sophie has left a new Promethea back on Earth: her roommate Stacia, who takes to the role with hard-edged punk enthusiasm. If Sophie hearkens back to the goddess-worshipping supergals of Paradise Island, than Stace’s Promethea is a comics creation more in tune with current genre mores. At one level, Promethea also works as a consideration of Golden Age vs. Modern Age superhero fantasy, and Moore provides a kicky enthusiasm to his Stacia subplot. (The city’s mayor, a manic multiple personality, has apparently been possessed by some of the same demonic forces connected to Sophia and Barbara’s quest.) Volume Three leaves these connections unresolved, presumably to be addressed in the next six-issue arc.
At times, reading Moore’s pedantic dialog balloons about Aleister Crowley or divine symbolism can be a bit much. But bottom line: Alan Moore is too inventive as a graphic storyteller to produce a thoroughly uninteresting book. Every time you think he’s gone around the bend with his metaphysical preaching, the man’s storytelling instincts kick in – and you’re ready to follow him into the next chapter.
Fascinating and infuriating. . . that’s Promethea. Can’t wait for Volume Four.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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