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Promethea Before Swine

Chuckling Duck
18:16 / 05.11.01
It’s silly for me to get upset at the people who don’t enjoy Promethea. These people are not necessarily stupid or coarse; they merely have different tastes, or perhaps different expectations about what a comic book should be. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to defend my favorite comic book against the charge that is too frequently leveled against it. Promethea is dynamic, not dull.

Though superficially similar to the costumed superhero melodramas we’ve all enjoyed for so long, Promethea is an increasingly didactic work that discusses occult belief systems and how they might be relevant to a postmodern, materialist viewpoint. In its first storyline, stretching from the birth of Sophie Bangs’ Promethea in issue #1 to her confrontation with the Temple in issue #9, the comic’s ideas were sketched out in allegory and metaphor as part of a fast-paced violent conflict. In the issues since, which include both Sophie’s “apprenticeships” or formal education in issues #10 and #12, and her “journeyman” questing storyline that began in issue #13 and can be expected to run until issue #22 or so, the traditional conflict-driven comic narrative has dwindled to a subplot, and the main action of the comic is now discovery-driven. Each issue brings Sophie and her companion Barbara into contact with living ideals and concrete symbols, forcing them to confront concepts they had previously only dealt with as abstracts.

Some readers seem to find this deathly dull. Given a comic with astonishing and inventive art, engaging dialog and complex characters, decked out with ground-breaking techniques of sequential narrative and bursting with ideas and wonder, these readers claim that the series lacks action. These readers often express their wish that the subplot about Grace Brannaugh’s confrontation with Mayor Baskerville would come to the forefront. It’s conflict they want or expect.

In a way, the problem is the episodic nature of the comic. Published as a whole, the quest portrayed recent issues might not try the patience of these readers, as they could simply plow on through the “slow” parts and get to the conflict. This would be a shame, because the “slow” bits are what set Promethea apart from the vast majority of the comics on the shelves. To appreciate the series, we must slow down, meet the comic at its own pace and pay attention.

When we do, we begin to realize that Promethea is built around conflict, but conflict on the metaphysical rather than the physical plane, and that the reader is part of the conflict. Alan Moore is presenting a world view fundamentally different from the prevailing views of our society, and whether we agree or disagree, the conflict takes place in our own minds. Learned, sincere, but by no means fanatical or dogmatic, Moore is a charming ambassador for hermetic belief.

Not all who read Promethea are unfamiliar with the occult ideas that the series discusses. A substantial portion of its readership are acquainted with mythology and folklore and even with the occultists whose theories are given attention. Some of these more knowledgeable readers have a different complaint: for them, the ideas presented in Promethea are too simple, too pedestrian, too basic to hold their interest. Already familiar with the attributions of the Kabbalah and the Book of Thoth, these readers feel that Moore has nothing to teach them.

I suspect that these learned readers are cheating themselves of a great opportunity. Promethea can do more than instruct the reader in the manner of a philosophy book or grimoire; it can also engage the reader on a primal, emotional level. What they only understand intellectually, they can touch on a different level, transported there by the transcendent art and the human drama of the so-real characters. In this way, Sophie’s situation in the story is parallel to the situation of the occult scholars reading it, as the ideas they have only read about come to life before them. However, this kind of emotional connection is impossible if from misplaced pride the reader refuses to enter into the “simplistic” story.

Promethea is not a particularly difficult text; indeed, it may be the most accessible metaphysical work of its time. But it rewards effort on the part of its readers. Merely flipping through an issue in a desultory fashion will not invoke its greatness. Read with the interest and attention that a graduate student brings to “The Wasteland”, Promethea unfolds to a masterpiece. Perhaps if it were read with the reverence and insight that a scholar brings to a holy text, it would unfold as revelation. I leave that possibility to those more gifted than myself.
Mr Tricks
20:06 / 05.11.01
Yeah.. that comic is one of the BEST comics being produced today!!!
Jack Fear
20:37 / 05.11.01
You can get down off your high horsey, there, Duck: I'm one of those poor dullards who dropped PROMETHEA, and who hadn't enjoyed it in quite some time beforehand. But I never harbored any illusions about what sort of a comic it was: I just don't think it's a particularly good specimen of the didactic genre.

I don't necessarily need doses of violence to keep me interested, but I lost faith in the narrative aspect (as opposed to the didactic purpose) of PROMETHEA pretty early on. It seemed to me to be palpably Alan Moore tryting to have it both ways, and failing.

Ideally, when using a narrative artform such as comics as a teaching tool, one would use action (not the same as violence--just in the sense of characters doing stuff) to illustrate the principles being discussed, rather than as window-dressing around long set-pieces where characters stand around explaining things to each other. (For an excellent didactic comic, BTW, see Jay Hosler's CLAN APIS.)

Mr. Moore might have been better served if he'd gone the Scott McCloud/UNDERSTANDING COMICS route and given us a pure manifesto. I think that PROMETHEA's mix of narrative and instruction short-changes both. I got frustrated with PROMETHEA because it was trying to be two things to two audiences, and (as I saw it) failing at both.
Chuckling Duck
22:03 / 05.11.01
quote:Originally posted by Jack Fear:
You can get down off your high horsey, there, Duck: I'm one of those poor dullards who dropped PROMETHEA...

Not at all, Jack. You’re the first person I’ve heard express a “neither fish nor fowl” objection to Promethea, whereas I’ve heard many people complain that not enough asses were being kicked. I don’t object to informed criticisms of the series--merely to uninformed ones.

I disagree with you, of course. What you dismiss as “set-pieces where the characters stand around explaining things to each other” seem to me to be just as interesting as, say, the weighty dialogue in “Alice in Wonderland”. Carroll’s characters also just stand around explaining things to each other, but most critics would consider this the primary strength of Carroll’s writings, rather than a flaw in his style. His curious blend of logic and whimsy demands a great deal of explication, and the Moore’s Promethea requires a similar style.

I never thought of Promethea as two types of writing confabulated together. In my view, the series is an allegory along the lines of Pilgrim’s Progress or the Narnia books, or a chaos magic morality play. I find it educational, entertaining and engaging. You’re entitled to your own opinion, of course, but I hope you’ll forgive me for wishing that you’d give the series more credit for being what it is.
11:35 / 06.11.01
One of the reasons I like Promethea is precisely that it is different from most of the other books being published at the minute. Don't get me wrong: I like watching Spider Jerusalem shoot drugs and beat people up, I like seeing Constantine swear at people, and I like to keep an eye out for whatever ludicrousness Ennis is going to throw our way next; hell, I even like corporate fanboy spandex filth, if done well (Grant's X-Men run, Milligan's X-Force). But one of the nice things about Promethea is that it is slow, it is discursive, it is interesting - and - and don't underestimate the importance of this point - it usually takes me more than five minutes to read...
Lothar Tuppan
16:26 / 06.11.01
I like Promethea more than Jack Fear does but I agree with his critiques and I've met more than a few people that feel similar. Of course they are all experienced magically so they are painfully aware that Moore is giving 'lessons'.

There are times that Alan Moore's personal ranting (I think Moore actually used words to that effect in regards to Promethea in a recent interview on overrides the characters' voices and dominates the scene. Even if the info is interesting I sometimes find it brings me out of the story and I have to work a bit to get back in.

Sometimes Moore reminds me of J.M. Dematteis in that he's a great writer who likes to preach to his audience a bit too much.

(okay okay, JMD is a LOT more preachy than Moore but I think Jack's got some valid points).
18:44 / 06.11.01
I love this book and yeah I agree that the story has become "set-pieces where the characters stand around explaining things to each other” but the characters are engaging and they carry the "story" well. Also, I know that it's Moore just giving "lessons" but the ideas expressed are so interesting that I wouldn't mind if the whole book was a cartoon Alan Moore standing on a stage teaching! It's better than reading a fat boring magic tome.
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