3 out of 5
I’ve read quite a bit of Alan Moore at this point, from his “main” titles to his earlier, UK work, to his ‘off-brand’ Image stuff, Lovecraftian stuff, some text pieces… enough to be able to, I think, have an opinion on the evolution of his style, and on his themes, and to be able to say: I like the guy. Moore work is often initially daunting to crack the covers, as it’s almost always rather dense, but once I do so, I’m generally pretty pleased and immersed, even if I remain critical of his latter-day indulgences. (He’s earned them.)
Promethea has remained outside of that sentiment for a while, though. I’ve started on it a few times, but have drifted to other things. Which should be odd, as it shares the “fiction brought to life” concept found, in various forms, throughout a lot of his major works, and it’s probably less dense than forever-analyzed works like Watchmen or V because it’s pretty up front with its symbolism. Plus, you have J.H. Williams III on art, guaranteeing morphing and complex page layouts and detailed characterizations. And yet, Sophie Bangs’ journey from aimless team to becoming Promethea, representative of the Immateria realm – our collective imagination – has never quite been able to work its Moore magic on me. Finally dedicating myself to get through it, after the first trade’s worth of issues, while the quality of the writing, the realization of its philosophies, and the skill of the art are all undeniable, I do have some thoughts on why it might just not be necessarily an appealing book for any given Moore fan…
Promethea starts off with a typical, but always entertaining bluff from the writer: a written introduction that outlines the character’s history across poems, pulps, and etc. over the decades, pointing to the interesting way that seemingly unconnected creators stumbled across the same name and general physical characteristics. This is incredibly convincing, and doesn’t wink directly at the reader, and going in blind, you could take it as fact. Promethea the comic then introduces us to an alterna-1999, which, flying cars and some about-town superheroes aside, is pretty close to the modern era (it’s currently 2020) with its saturation with technology and obsession with sensationalism and memes; the Transmet-style futures a lot of sci-fi writers predicted have pretty much come to light nowadays.
Sophie Bangs is a diminutive student, trying to put together a research project on the curiosity of the titular character, forever distracted by the teasings and partyings of her friend, Stacia. Realizing how Promethea has been popping up in these isolated appearances, and jarred by an interaction with the suddenly appearing heroine herself and evil forces from Immateria, Sophie becomes a new incarnation of Promethea, struggling with the merging of identities and how to remain seated firmly in either one realm or another. Some unknown bad guys keep sending different threats her way; Stacia’s initial complete disinterest in Sophie’s study topic – she keeps mispronouncing the name – turns into interest… and then she’s sucked into Immateria. Different versions of Promethea come to visit Sophie, issue by issue, teaching her about the different levels of imagination, how her powers work, and warning her about challenges to come, helping her to reunite with Stacia while that unknown baddie looms over a To Be Continued shot.
Again: well-written, well-arted. But: that Promethea is fairly consciously a “teaching” of Moore’s views on the world, while presented in a non-exposition dump manner (at this point), is never very grabbing for that reason. Whenever the writer has used this concept before, of taking the fantastical and grounding it via explanation (even though the explanation this time is that it is fantastical), it’s generally tied to something: League’s need to unite to fight some foe, for example. With Promethea, that foe feels very secondary, and because we’re dealing with the imagination, instead of this being a boundless realm to explore, it removes rules and restrictions: nothing much feels immediate when reading the book. The bad guys don’t really feel like a big deal. Sophie Bangs is one of many. Everything stems from this: the humor seems contractual; the inclusion of other superheroes just to make this alterna-1999 fit into the ABC Moore worlds. Even the art is affected, with J.H.Williams’ page-spanning, forever shifting layouts more suited to storybook than comic, which is, of course, very much the point.
Any I can see how that style would appeal to readers, but it clearly hasn’t to me. It looks gorgeous, and you can tell there’s been immense thought put in to how to dictate these ideas to us; how to make Sophie an everyperson narrative and slowly bring us in to the story, it just ends up reading more like someone ticking off their favorite things about fiction than a narrative.
But there are five volumes of Promethea, and maybe this ‘just getting started’ feeling will turn in to something more compelling. My main criticism here is that the book didn’t grab me, but that doesn’t make it not a good read, and I’m definitely willing to keep going until the end to see how far this concept goes…