The following post may be a bit patchy – I started it several days ago and am only getting round to finishing it now, and I’m not entirely coherent today. However, since I promised my adoring public, here you go.
This week was an extraordinarily light week for comics. Given that my local comic shop still didn’t have Glamourpuss, and also hadn’t received Comic Book Comics, I was left with only three to buy, all of them the sort of competent superhero comic that’s enjoyable enough but not really worth discussing. So I thought instead that I’d talk about Promethea.
Now, Alan Moore has a reputation as being something of a stern formalist, writing comics that are curiously unemotional even as they redefine genres, create entire new ones, and open up whole new areas for the medium. And in many ways this is an entirely valid criticism. Lost Girls, for example, is an extraordinary achievement, one of the greatest works of art ever created in the comic medium, a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It’s also one of the least erotic things I’ve ever read – the sex in the comic seeming mostly to be a matter of inserting tab A into slot B. It succeeds as a work of art even as it fails in its supposed intent of arousal. (At least for me – your mileage may well vary).
Moore at times seems to view humanity as a slightly different species, whose behaviours can be documented, and predicted to an extent, but never truly understood. I suspect it’s no accident that so much of Moore’s successful work, especially the early work, features non-human characters who are distanced from humanity and don’t really understand it (Swamp Thing and Doctor Manhattan spring to mind, but even Moore’s Superman is definitely alien). This attitude seems to come across to an extent in some of his interviews – where a lot of people read some of his more controversial comments as ‘cranky’, some of them read to me as sincere bewilderment. He sounds like he simply doesn’t understand why a comic company would lie to him, or would try to cheat him out of a relatively small amount of money, when they’d make more by just being fair with him.
But that doesn’t mean Moore’s work is inhuman. At its best there is a kind of compassion there – both generalised and aimed at the whole of humanity, and specifically aimed at individuals – that can be quite heartbreaking. I very rarely cry at comics – I did at Jaka’s Story but that’s about it – but three of Moore’s works have moved me to tears.
One was A Disease Of Language, Eddie Campbell’s masterful adaptation of a couple of Moore’s spoken-word pieces. Another, rather embarrassingly, was Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, specifically the line ‘you grew up beautiful Kara’.
The third was the final volume of Promethea. It’s always a different point, but that story always brings me out in tears at some point.
Promethea has a very bad reputation amongst comics fans, and while I think it’s undeserved, I do understand why. For those who haven’t read it, Promethea starts out as a straightforward superhero comic, bearing something like the same resemblance to Wonder Woman as Tom Strong does to Superman, and it stays more or less like this for the first twelve issues. Then, with the twelfth issue, it takes a turn into completely unfamiliar territory for superhero comics, spending the next twelve issues essentially teaching Moore’s interpretation of the Kaballah.
These issues have a deserved reputation for being didactic, and would be of little or no interest for anyone who doesn’t have an implicit interest in Moore’s thought processes or in ‘magick’, but for those like myself who are as interested in the technique of comics, or in the ideas presented, as in the narrative, this middle period of Promethea has some great rewards. Whenever Moore is interviewed about Promethea, he always talks in a jokingly smug way about how clever some of it is – and it is, enormously. Issue twelve, the one where the casual fans jumped off, is an astonishing display of structural virtuosity. On each page there is a tarot card, redesigned by penciller J.H. Williams III to Moore’s specifications (so The Aeon shows ‘Harpocrates, the silent god’ as Harpo Marx, with his horn going ‘ankh, ankh’) – all the major arcana are there, one for each of the comic’s twenty-two pages. Arranged in order, Moore has them tell the story of the universe up to this point (rather skimming over the first few billion years to concentrate on human civilisation, but still), as narrated in rhyming couplets written in near-perfect iambic pentameter. At the bottom of each page (the pages are arranged so they read as a frieze) is a series of images of the life of the same person – Aleister Crowley – from conception through to death. These life stages are portrayed as parallel to the tarot cards and the history.
Crowley is telling a joke – one that was in fact a favourite of Crowley’s – spread over these pages, and the joke is phrased in such a way that it parallels rather obliquely what’s being said in the main narration, while still sounding natural. And on top of this, each page has a perfect anagram of ‘Promethea’, also describing some aspect of what’s being shown on the page (Death is ‘O Reap Them’, the Aeon ‘Meet Harpo’, the Lovers ‘Me Atop Her’).
And that’s *one issue*. While Moore himself isn’t always this clever, there’s a reason most of the trades credit five people on the front (and should really credit six – given the amount of work he put in not only on the lettering, but on the design of the comic, I think it’s an absolute disgrace that Todd Klein isn’t credited at east as prominently as the rest).
The series moves further and further from traditional narrative as the story progresses, and naturally has to rely more on the visual aspects. Luckily, J. H. Williams, the penciller and occasional painter, is the single best artist working in comics today, having the visual imagination and layout sense of a Frank Quitely, an instantly recognisable style that is similar enough to traditional Neal Adams school ‘realistic’ superhero art to ground the art in the familliar, but with a line and sense of space that seems to my untrained eye to owe as much to deco and Beardsley as to Jack Kirby, and a huge stylistic range when working outside his normal subject-matter. I’m not an especially visually-oriented person, but Williams is one of a very small number of artists whose work I’ll buy no matter the writer.
The others credited (inker Mick Gray, colourist Jeromy Cox and digital artist/photographer Jose Villarubia), also have to do work above and beyond the call of duty, as the formal limitations required by the scripts (for example an entire issue printed in only gold ink) become springboards for the imagination in a way that you never see normally in comics. On a purely formal level, these issues are astonishing – up there with the best of Eisner or Sim. Aesthetically, I can look at them for hours just marvelling at the beauty of the art.
But I can quite see why people dropped the comic in droves. For much of those twelve issues there’s little or no actual narrative, and what there is moves excruciatingly slowly at times even in the trades, let alone in the often-late single issues. For someone who’d started reading the comic because it looked a little like Wonder Woman, I could see the appeal fading fast.
And it’s a real shame, because in the final volume everything comes together in the most extraordinary manner, and while the artistic team do their usual stellar work, the credit for this must go to Moore, who in this last volume does some of the best work of his career.
A lot of the final volume is a kind of metafictional game – including a scene where a character is pulled out of the page into a higher-dimensional reality that’s very similar to a lot of Grant Morrison’s stuff – and Moore seems to be putting all the ‘cleverness’ of which he’s so justly proud into seeing just how hard he can push at the fourth wall. From introducing the cartoony characters from Tomorrow Stories (including some hilarious moments with Jack B Quick – “Great darn! So this is the big city… and I guess you folk are real crack dealers and prostitutes!” “I shall wait until my doomsday device has reached critical mass… and then use a big red-painted handle to throw it into reverse!”) who shouldn’t fit into the very different world of Promethea, to having Promethea directly address the reader, to having characters make comments with meta-fictional meanings (“We’re nearly there, the big thirty-two, the grand finale”) but which make sense within the world of the comic. He does this while also throwing new information at us from all directions – the superhero storyline that was in the background also comes to the foreground, in an ‘everything you know is wrong’ kind of way that not only captures the superhero-comics zeitgeist perfectly (see the post by Botswana Beast at Mindless Ones linked below), but also induces the reader to sympathise at least a little with The Painted Doll (the comic’s version of the Joker).
Moore uses every trick in the book, and some that aren’t in any book, to break down the wall between the characters and the reader (the art team play a big part in this too, mixing traditional comic line art, painting, photography, collage and digitally created images to create a sense of the real world and the comic world intermingling, but at this point it’s Moore who’s being truly impressive again). But he does this in order to produce an emotional, rather than an intellectual, effect on the reader, and at some point in the story I always end up overwhelmed after being battered by all sides, and end up in tears.
I remember the first time this happened, when I read it for the first time. The storyline in the last volume of Promethea is essentially a newage/gnostic take on the apocalypse, something like the ‘eschaton’ of Illuminatus!
In this story, people’s perceptions change and time itself eventually breaks down into a singularity, much like in any number of similar stories (the Invisibles, pretty much everything Robert Anton Wilson ever wrote, that kind of thing). But when I read those other stories, I intellectually understood ‘OK, time is playing up’, but it makes no emotional impact on me.
But in one panel, Moore hit me with what that feeling would really be like:
“And with one coalition soldier killed every day since the war’s end nearly two months ago…”
“The war ended? Wasn’t it just yesterday the fighting started? S-say, what month is this, anyway?” (the original comic was published in 2003).
By linking this new-age/soft-SF idea with the real experience we’ve all had of time running away from us (and I got a feeling of this again when I realised just now that I first read this comic when I moved into my current address, and that that was two years ago now) Moore managed to get to me in a very real way. He does something similar on the same page for those who’ve been reading the issues as they came out, having a newscaster refer to events from a previous issue – ” wait a minute, earlier today? Wasn’t that in March or something?”
It takes a truly audacious writer to work the comic’s publishing schedule *into the story* and manage to make it have emotional impact. Promethea, in its middle sections, is a difficult work, and ripely deserves the friendly poke at it that Grant Morrison took with his Zatanna miniseries (which Mick Gray inked, not long after finishing work on Promethea), but overall it’s one of Moore’s most satisfying works, and even at its most difficult it’s a gorgeous piece of work. It’s just a shame its reputation is just ‘the one where Moore lectures at the reader about Kaballah until everyone falls asleep”.