Speculative fiction has a long history of basing its stories on premises wherein something societally recognized as metaphorical becomes real. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a famous example, which channeled anxieties about the increasing power of science into a scientist literally creating life and the disasters which ensued. More recently, television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files have scored massive popularity with dozens of episodes in which the lines between metaphor and reality are blurred.
Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III's comic series Promethea follows a similar pattern, but ambitiously, it posits that the entirety of metaphor exists alongside a real world. Mythology, legend, art, religion, and everything inbetween comprise the "Immateria." The hero of the piece, Promethea, has the ability to bridge the two worlds. In a sense, she is art. She is called into being by the act of creation. Characters scribble out poetry, or draw a picture of her, and she takes control of the artist - usually protagonist Sophie Bangs. Promethea functions as an homage to all art, and also as Alan Moore's personal trip into mysticism and philosophy, a superhero story, and an experiment in the form of the comic book.
The crazy thing about Promethea isn't that it tries to be all those things. It's that it succeeds, and it succeeds incredibly well most of the time. While Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell is the biggest name on the cover, first credit must be given to artist J.H. Williams. Promethea is lush, vibrant, varied, experimental, and beautiful. Each issue's cover is done in a completely different style - check out a few in the photos to the right. One has Promethea decked out in Van Gogh-style impressionism, while another is done like a poster for a 1960's era psychedelic concert. When the contents of the book demand it, the style works with the text. For example, the impressionistic blue and white of the Van Gogh-style cover remains in effect during one of Promethea's adventures in the Immateria, in the realm of the patriarchal sky gods like Zeus. The changes in style are constant, consistent with the story, and they work almost every time, with perhaps one exception in Greg Land-style photorealistic art.
More directly, the art and words combine playfully to support the story. In the photo attached to the review, two of the characters wander through a Moebius strip, with in an infinitely long conversation. Circular text is a fairly common conceit in the book. Another interesting formal tease involved the character being told a story along the top and bottom panels, while interacting with each other and the story in the middle. An entire issue is done sideways, while the final issue is designed to be removed from its binding, rearranged, and read in whatever order the reader wishes.
But, I must say, all these descriptions, effusive with praise as I am, don't do justice to Promethea. The experience of reading the book, especially at the start, was one of the most stellar of any piece of art I've dealt with recently. Occasionally, turning the page would cause a gasp at the beauty, or laughter at the audacity of the storytelling. Perhaps most impressively, after reading the first several issues, I felt like I'd had the experience of watching an incredible movie. My interactions with the text had astonishingly lodged themselves in my brain in a completely different form than it actually was.
As amazing as Promethea can be, it isn't quite perfect. In particular, during the last several issues (collected in Book Five in trade format) the story feels rushed and falls apart. What had been joyous and intelligent becomes pretentious and muddled. It apparently acted as not just the end of Promethea, but the entire America's Best Comics universe, and suffers from its too-epic scope. Moore's mysticism through the middle of the story may also be offputting to some, but the art also made it worthwhile to me.
I cannot recommend Promethea enough to well, anyone who might be remotely interested in any of its subjects. Generally, when a work is this ambitious, its failures are matched by its successes. Promethea, on the other hand, is an all-around success, and a unique experience for the reader.
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Promethea is a comic book series created by Alan Moore, J. H. Williams III and Mick Gray, published by America's Best Comics/WildStorm.
It tells the story of Sophie Bangs, a college student from an alternate futuristic New York City in 1999, who embodies the powerful entity known as Promethea whose task it is to bring the Apocalypse.
Originally published as 32 issues from 1999 to 2005, the series has now been re-published into five graphic novels and one hard-back issue. Moore weaves in elements of magic and mysticism along with superhero mythology and action, spirituality and the afterlife (in particular the Tree of Life) and science-fiction. Promethea is also notable for wide-ranging experimentation with visual styles and art.