Promethea Volume 1 (2000)
Written by Alan Moore
Art by J.H. Williams
Alan Moore has always been a remixer of comics history and iconography. In 1999 he started his own imprint of Wildstorm (which was then a division of DC Comics), called America’s Best. The name was a repurposing of a defunct line of comics from the 1940s, which featured superheroes now lost to the memories of the general public like Black Terror and Fighting Yank. Moore stayed in that vein of pulpy, Golden Age stories centering this line around four core titles: Tom Strong, Top 10, Tomorrow Stories, and Promethea. Each book examined an archetype comics in typical Moore fashion, deconstructing the tropes and reinterpreting commonly accepted norms.
Promethea has been cited as the most personal comic Moore has written in his career, centered around his philosophy and views of magic/the mystic. There is a paper thing plot working through the title, which was frustrating to readers who came to the book with expectations of a somewhat traditional narrative. Instead, the book is about one young woman’s personal path of spiritual growth, touching on the Occult, the Tarot, and most prominently, the Hermetic Qabalah. We see visual representations of the sephirot as the protagonist exits the realm of the physical and traverses the domain of God.
The main character in the title is Sophie Bangs, a college student researching Promethea for a literature paper. Promethea is an iconic figure of feminity that has had multiple incarnations dating back to Alexandria in the 1st century AD. Throughout history, she has been connected to women in positions of vulnerability, with her first manifestation of a young girl whose father was stoned to death. The girl wanders into the desert where Thoth-Hermes brings her into the realm of Immateria. Immateria is the space of the imagination, the core of Promethea’s power, and here, the little girl is transfigured into a goddess, destined to become one with any woman or girl who calls out to her.
A lot is happening from the outset in this book to the point that I wouldn’t blame any reader for being overwhelmed. It’s established that the core story is set in 1999, but it is most definitely not our timeline with highly futuristic technology being commonplace. In the same way, Watchmen used media as a method of telling multiple stories at once we get the same in Promethea. Every billboard and newspaper is a crucial piece of worldbuilding and commentary. There are telepathic news broadcasts called ThinkTexts that frame scenes where characters are talking, the news often having little to do with those people, but informing us about other aspects of this world that will be important later.
While Sophie is the central character, there are lots of characters who aren’t close to her or even aware of her. There’s the Five Swell Guys, a group of science heroes that protect New York City using their knowledge and gadgets. While they are all humans of high intelligence, their presence reads as a nod to the Fantastic Four, flying around the city in contraptions. Their nemesis is the Painted Doll, a serial killer with visual motifs similar to the Joker. Also, like the Joker, he is seemingly immortal being killed off multiple times and reappearing.
There is the constant presence of the Weeping Gorilla, a metafictional comic book character who is plastered across billboards and posters within the world. His world bubbles always serve as cynical or self-pitying commentary related to what is happening to Sophie and the people around her. These elements aren’t essential to understanding Sophie’s story but, like the Tales of the Black Freighter from Watchmen.
The first assumption most readers made when looking at Promethea from the periphery is that it was a play on the Wonder Woman archetype. That is definitely present, but it’s just as equally connected to the Shazam character. Woven throughout this first volume are the ideas of escapism through fiction, especially for children. The character of Shazam, along with Batman’s sidekick Robin, were intended was vessels for children to enter the narrative landscape of the adult heroes.
With all these fantastic ideas mixing around, you would think Promethea could be a fascinating read, possibly Alan Moore’s magnum opus. Yet, it is probably one of his most challenging mainstream comics works, with long slogs in the middle. We’ll get into the details a little more in our review of volumes 2 & 3.