|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.