If I were to sum up Alan Moore’s Promethea comic series into a convenient nutshell, I would describe it as Watchmen meets Neil Gaiman meets CS Lewis.
In case you’ve lived under a rock the last century, Alan Moore is one of the most respected names in the comic book industry, with an almost legendarily unorthodox personality. He’s best known for Watchmen, but most of his works have made it to the big screen, with varying degrees of success or, more likely, failure.
Somehow Promethea slipped under my radar. I’d never heard about it until I stumbled across it one day at my local FLGS.
Promethea starts with a tantalizing myth: a fake history of a literary character known as Promethea, who first appeared in poetry in the late 18th century, reappeared in early 20th century comic strip dailies, then later in pulp fiction, then in golden age comics, and finally modern day. Well, sort of modern day…
Perhaps the best way to review this series is to describe exactly how it fits into the categories I gave earlier.
Promethea is like Watchmen in terms of its basic story structure. You have an alternate earth existing in a parallel present that is more akin to science fiction. In the case of Watchmen these differences were subtle, and worked into a 1980s present-day. Differences like electric cars and dirigibles in the sky were never thrown in your face, but allowed to come out and surprise you, causing you to look back and re-examine everything you’d read before. Promethea’s present, on the other hand, is more like super-science set at the turn of the millennium. And while Watchmen was in effect a look at comics in history, Promethea is broader in that it covers all storytelling: poetry, pulp fiction, daily comics, and modern comics.
Like Watchmen you have different artistic mediums being used—in one case even using photography to convey hyper-reality. Major props go out to J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray who pencil and ink these pages. Like Watchmen, you find yourself pouring over the art and looking at the details, going back and re-reading pages a few times just because you’re also trying to see what is going on in the background, looking for the subtlety that is on virtually every page. It’s those seemingly inexhaustible bits of hidden complexity that breathe life into this fictional world, as do the continuing secondary stories, which continue to hint at other events not tied into the main story at all.
The comparisons to Neil Gaiman come mostly through his Sandman series. Sandman was as much an exploration of the worlds of the Endless as it was plot driven. Both are explorations of myth and story not just in our world, but beyond it. A great deal of Promethea explores a reality beyond the material world. The main difference would be that Sandman already knows everything he needs to, but is an enigmatic character and reveals it only what is necessary to the audience through his actions. Promethea on the other hand has the human and myth merge, and she ends up needing to learn what is going on and how it works. It is, in fact, a study of the Kabbalah. Which gets me to C.S. Lewis.
Promethea is a lecture in a belief system disguised as a story. C.S. Lewis famously made no bones about the allegorical nature of his Narnia series, but even more obvious was his epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. In this, a minor demon is corresponding with his powerful uncle down in Hell looking for advice on how to trip up his assignment into losing his soul. It is an amusing vehicle for Lewis to explore Catholicism in terms of damnation, salvation, and humanity.
Moore also uses his comic to explore his beliefs, in this case the Kabbalah. A large part of the story is a literal journey through all the paths and paths through it. It is, if nothing else, an education in mysticism if you’ve ever been curious about it. These lessons are interspersed with events back in the real world
And this, while its most intriguing strength, is also its greatest weakness. By the time you get to the end of Volume 2 you realize you are being lectured (albeit entertainingly) and that awareness makes it more difficult to enjoy the story, more aware of how far you’re being sidetracked through these lessons.
(Small aside—given the flak that D&D got back in the 80s for promoting devil worship and teaching magic, one can only conclude that had Promethea came out back then Moore would have been burned as a witch. Kabbalah has nothing to do with that, of course, but then, neither did D&D)
Plenty of authors mix philosophy and belief and deeper meaning with their works. Terry Pratchett is famous for doing it in a humorous yet moving way (Small Gods is my favourite example). But Pratchett never made me feel like I was going to be quizzed later.
Basically it feels like Moore is trying to take everything he’s learned studying magic and myth over the decades, and distilling it down to a comprehensible single philosophy, under the guise of a larger story. But the problem to his approach to this is simple: Sometimes the strings show.
This is ultimately a minor quibble. There is more than enough going on here to keep you entertained, both visually, intellectually, and philosophically.