Jul 8, 2011

An ABC Retrospective, Day 5: PROMETHEA

Welcome to Day 5 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on America's Best Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on PROMETHEA, by Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, and Jose Villarubia!


Promethea was a real little girl who lived in 5th century Roman Egypt. Her father was a hermetic scholar, or a magician, who was then killed by a Christian mob. Thoth-Hermes, a god comprising Thoth and Hermes (the Egyptian and Greek gods who handled language [that's an oversimplified explanation, but it'll do]) then took pity on his daughter, Promethea. They took her to the Immateria, the land of imagination and story.

Throughout the centuries, various people have been able to channel Promethea and her power. As a living story, existing in the world of fiction and imagination, artists and poets and writers were able to bring her forth into their own bodies, or the bodies of someone close to them. These included Margaret Taylor Case, a comic book artist from the early 20th century with a strip named LITTLE MARGIE IN MISTY MAGIC LAND, which starred a character named Promethea; Grace Brannagh, who painted some covers for some PROMETHEA pulp novels; Bill Woolcott, who did a PROMETHEA comic in The Silver Age; Barbara Shelley, whose husband wrote the comic after Woolcott died; and our protagonist, Sophie Bangs, New York college student.

Promethea is a fiction who has come to the real world, and her mission is to bring about the end of the world.

Promethea has been named as the Wonder Woman of the ABC line. Beyond the obvious superficial similarities, they couldn't be more different.


As it starts, PROMETHEA feels like a straightforward superhero story. Set in a futuristic New York in 1999, with hovercars and "elastagel" materials, the first three issues of the series basically tell Sophie Bangs' first adventure as Promethea. Since Promethea herself is a different personality, there is some mingling of characteristics going on between 19-year-old New Yorker and ancient Egyptian from the world of story. And for the first three issues, Promethea is all about Sophie adjusting to this personality, which is very much an archetype.

"I am the holy splendour of the imagination. I cannot be destroyed."

It should, at this point, be said that this is the series where JH Williams III became a star. He had worked on some projects prior to this, notably CHASE with Dan Curtis Johnson and Mick Gray, but it was here that he really started playing to his strengths. He was utilizing the double-page spread a lot, and he and Moore were big on using motifs and symbols to signify the beats of a particular scene. There's an awful lot of design work going on in these pages, and I think the first time it's really, really apparent is the MC Escher–inspired cover of issue #3, when Promethea goes to the Immateria.

As you can see, his technical penciling is really solid as well.

So, after Moore, Williams, and Gray draw you in with what seems like a traditional superhero tale, what happens next? We get Sophie learning about her background and about Promethea. So she ends up taking a trip to the Immateria to learn about it and meet her predecessors, who each teach her something different about being Promethea, about symbols and what they mean. For example, Grace Brannagh teaches her the way of the sword (what it means is then explained in the story):


This leads to a lot of stuff that may be considered pedantic, as there's a lot of explanation going on (there's one issue where tantric sex is involved and they explain to you what every single piece of Promethea's clothing symbolizes), but all it takes to read it is even a mild interest in the material (mine was admittedly high; I loved the ideas of symbols and metaphors) and an appreciation for artwork, because JH Williams III and Mick Gray just go to town on this series. This is never more apparent than in issue 12, where, first of all, this is the cover:


Inside, here are the first two pages:

The entire issue is like that, following three separate threads: Promethea learning about the tarot and how it relates to the history of the universe, permutations of Promethea's name, and the joke on the bottom as told by a growing Aleister Crowley. And for this entire issue, you can actually take every page and put them right next to the previous one, thereby forming one long continuous image. It is a marvel in design and technique.

Jose Villarubia should also not be discounted here — he's the one who did the painted art and contributes a lot throughout the series.

The next storyline is a very long "Kabbalah Quest," where Sophie and Barbara, her predecessor as Promethea, explore the Immateria, area by area and sphere by sphere, in search of Barbara's deceased husband, leaving Grace Brannagh as the Promethea in charge of earth. This has been the most criticized part of the series, as it's essentially a long pedantic road trip, where you learn about symbols and the human condition and such.

But for me, at 17–20 years old, reading about all this stuff, it really opened my eyes. You see, if I may get personal for a while, in my teen years, I went through a crisis of faith. I had been overly religious for many years, and then I started asking questions. There was just some stuff I couldn't justify, stuff I couldn't answer, and PROMETHEA really helped me make sense of everything. It outlined a way to view all belief systems under one macrosystem, or tree, emphasizing one incredibly important message: that whatever you do, whatever you believe in, there is light at the bottom.

This entire issue (#17) changed my life. This is just a snippet.

And of course, as you can imagine, a trip around the land of imagination gives way to a lot of comics techniques and tricks. For example, in their attempt to show infinity, we have Sophie and Barbara walking through a mobius strip.

No kidding - you can read this forever. It will never end.

There is an immense amount of thought that went into this series, and you can really see that it's what separates Williams' work after this (such as BATWOMAN) from his work prior to this (such as SON OF SUPERMAN).  He really, really came into his own in this series, and that's why it took so much time. From the layouts right down to the color palettes of each issue (the one referring to judgment is all colored in red), no little detail goes overlooked by this art team.

That's another thing — PROMETHEA makes full use of the medium. Print on paper, two pages per spread. Even if this were available digitally, it wouldn't read as well. This comic is, in the best, most traditional sense of the word, a comic book.

After the Kabbalah Quest, Sophie finds out she has to bring about the end of the world. But before she does, she's confronted by the other Promethea, the substitute she left on earth. This is in issue #24, and it's one of the best fights you'll ever see, in comics or in any other medium.

Note how each Promethea has a sun symbol associated with her.

Moore intersperses a parallel story in this issue, relating the last time two Prometheas had a fight: a Muslim and a Christian, at the time of the Crusades.

There is more to this under the surface. Click here.

It is a very compelling story with a lot of meaning under the surface, and leads to the next story arc, where PROMETHEA has to end the world. As you can imagine, this does not go over very well with the rest of the ABC heroes, and they all band together as America's Best to stop her.

Note how Williams tries to preserve the style each character was originally drawn in. Tom Strong has Chris Sprouse features, Jonni Future still looks like Art Adams drew her, and Daisy Screensaver (from Splash Brannigan) is straight out of Hilary Barta.

In the end, does Promethea manage to bring about the end of the world? If she did, what happened to the ABC Universe? You'll have to read the series to find out. . . or Google it, but that's not as fun.
It's also hard not to note, more than any other series in the ABC line, the covers of PROMETHEA. There was just so much thought and care put into each issue, right down to the logos (done by Todd Klein). From tributes to Van Gogh to spoofs of Andy Warhol, just looking at a gallery of them is inspiring for anyone who appreciates art. Check 'em all out here.


PROMETHEA ran 32 issues, but the main storyline actually ends with #31. The final issue is a big experiment in itself. Each page is a splash page with a designated number. The numbers aren't in order, and you can read the entire issue as you normally would. It provides a summary of PROMETHEA, and the themes that the series encapsulated.

However, if you take your comic apart (you'd have to have two copies) and put the pages in order according to their designated numbers, you get two posters of Promethea!

AND, best of all, the comic still makes sense if you read it!

There was a variant edition of this where you could just pull out the poster. There was a limited print run, and I preordered it and it never came to me. I'm still bitter about it. Good thing Comics Should Be Good showed me what they look like.


One of the Prometheas was Margaret Taylor Case, who, as a cartoonist at the turn of the 20th century had a comic called LITTLE MARGIE IN MISTY MAGIC LAND, which was a tribute to Winsor McCay's LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. In two of the ABC specials, the ABC 64-PAGE GIANT and TOMORROW STORIES SPECIAL #2, we actually see two of these strips, as done by Steve Moore and Eric Shanower! The first one involves Promethea and Margie taking a trip around the galaxy (which relates to the Kabbalah Quest storyline). It's fun, clever, and full of puns:

The second one is the "unpublished" end to the series, and is far more serious:

They were both really cool and I'd have loved to see more.


There are several ways to read PROMETHEA: via the single issues, the hardcovers and paperbacks, and the Absolute Editions.

I originally collected the first three issues as they came out (as I did with the other ABC titles), but I stopped then because of budgetary reasons. 

When the first hardcover came out, I bought it immediately. The trade dress was really well-done and the production values were really high. I waited and waited for them to come out, because I loved them so much. As I've said before, they impacted me personally in ways that I think no other work of fiction ever has. I bought the first four hardcovers (which ended at #25), and then decided that I couldn't take it anymore — I had to finish the series off as it was coming out, and I bought issues 26–32 as they hit the stores. For completeness' sake, I still bought the last hardcover.

The hardcovers look very pretty on my bookshelf, and they will last longer than the single issues. However, a part of me feels like I really should have hunted the single issues down, because JH Williams III did a lot of two-page spreads. Two-page spreads have no problems in single issues, but in paperbacks and hardcovers, the binding gets in the way of the middle of a picture.

Having said that, though, I got my hands on the first Absolute edition, and not only do their segmentations make better sense than the hardcovers, they also were oversized, and JH Williams art that is oversized is freaking pretty. I really want all three volumes, but as I have already read the story several times, I can't justify buying all three volumes as opposed to other comics I haven't read yet.

ABSOLUTE PROMETHEA volume 1 covers the first 12 issues. Volume 2 covers #13–25, and Volume 3 covers the rest, along with the LITTLE MARGIE specials Shanower did.


Although Moore made it so that anyone could run with the Promethea concept (in a completely new direction, one hopes) after the series, Promethea remains the one property of the four ABC titles that DC owns that has thus far gone untouched. TOM STRONG had ROBOTS OF DOOM and TERRA OBSCURA, TOP 10 had several follow-ups that Moore has had no involvement in, and TOMORROW STORIES led to GREYSHIRT: INDIGO SUNSET. Promethea still has had no follow-ups. There was a small rumor about a decade ago that Neil Gaiman would write a PROMETHEA story, but obviously, nothing has materialized.

I am not against any follow-ups to this, the comic book that means the most to me, as long as they are treated with care, respect, and love. I would love, for example, to read more about Grace Brannagh or Margaret Taylor Case.


Admittedly, PROMETHEA may be the most impenetrable and inaccessible of the series in terms of its concept and theme. It is very much a love-it-or-hate-it series. It's the most divisive work I've ever seen Moore do, in terms of quality and criticism, and that's because it's the most personal work I've ever seen Moore do. Yes, probably even moreso than V FOR VENDETTA.

For those not in the know, Moore is a practicing magician. He performs rituals and worships a snake-god called Glycon, who is represented by a sock puppet. While this may sound laughable to a lot of you guys, the basic idea is this: the only place gods cannot be refuted to exist are in the imagination. And that's the whole point of PROMETHEA. It's about imagination, and from imagination comes magic. Not parlor tricks or disappearing rabits — but true magic, the act of creation, and making something from nothing. Is it preachy? Yes, it can be seen as such.

But what it preaches is that when the human imagination is being used positively, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. And I don't know how anyone could ever argue against that.

WATCHMEN is the comic book that really solidified my love and passion for comic books, but for its message and its meaning in my personal life, PROMETHEA, when I read it, instantly meant more to me than any other comic.

Many years later, it still does.

For your convenience, the PROMETHEA series:


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of Promethea! It too is one of my favourite comic book series. I love how it's intellectually dense while still being very easy to follow and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

great stuff man. i appreciate your personal experience with it. i'm actually in the middle of reading it right now--i just finished the 4th TPB, which I got from my local library, believe it or not. great stuff, i can see how it'd change your life. certainly gives me a lot to think about....

Duy Tano said...

I reread it recently, and you know, my beliefs and stuff have evolved since, but yeah, it still resonates.

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