Promethea, Vol. 1
by Alan Moore, Mick
Gray, J.H. Williams III
(America's Best, 2002)

Reading Alan Moore is to be reminded about why stories are perhaps the best gift humanity has to offer itself. Moore's mystical, highly literate, densely packed tales of adventure are crafted with one of the most loving pair of hands to pick up a pen. His stories (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing) are labors of love for those who indulge in 19th-century adventure stories, pop culture and Joseph Campbell-style doses of mysticism, folklore and mythology.

Stories are important, being a vessel that can spirit our waking selves back and forth between a world where imagination is the primary life force, the literal burnoff of fumes from the very center of the universe. It is the source of creation, and the Story is its most symbolic representation on this plane of rather mundane existence. This psycopompi function (Hermes and Thoth, the Greek and Egyptian gods who escort souls to the underworld and who make an appearance in the beginning) gives the story tremendous power, which from time to time becomes vested in a female human being whose imagination is strong enough to penetrate this world and see into the Immateria, or so Moore calls his strawberry fields forever universe. In this realm reside all the women for whom the being known as Promethea once manifested, taking over their bodies and becoming an avatar for the power of the Immateria. Promethea represents imagination unbounded, and she has found a home in Sophie Bangs, a beautiful young college student who is researching Promethea for a folklore class.

Sophie has discovered a common thread, a being named Promethea, running through such disparate sources as a pulp fiction comic from the '70s, a 17th-century poem and a series of stories featuring a woman who led young men off the battlefield in World War I. None of the stories bear a resemblance to the others, seemingly reflecting the true nature of the writer who penned the story, a brilliant bit of looking-glass irony from the writer of the story within the story. But the stories do reflect a presence that seems to come through as though summoned, or is it the imagination that creates the summoning? Sophie has to wrestle with such chicken-and-egg concepts while trying to piece together a picture of Promethea. It seems that she has somehow begun to channel the Toga-clad, Egyptian-tattoed being with the fiery caduceus, which is a good thing as she happens to have a backlog of enemies who are after her head. Promethea is vulnerable when she enters a new host body, and those hordes of sly tricksters and pulp-fiction wizards who want to kill her or make her love them are lining up in droves.

Promethea was in fact a young girl whose father turned her over to Hermes/Thoth for safe transport to the realm of the Immateria when he was about to be stoned to death. She grew up in that realm and inhabits the body of any woman who can imagine her or the mind of any man who can conceive of her. Naturally, the female interpretations of Promethea from the male perspective are sometimes sexual, aggressive or both: the female imaginings are aggressive peacemakers. Moore's observations about the stories human beings tell about themselves are on target as ever.

Sophie and her best friend, as well as the entire cast of Prometheas, are beautifully rendered as believable, realistic women, physically and mentally, each of them making up the sort of got-it-all superheroine whose many aspects occupy so many places in the variegated landscape of human imagination. Moore invests women with the ultimate power of life, as naturally it should be as women are the source of life. His views of women are about as three-dimensional as anyone has ever written who is not also female. His respect for the creative power that women bring to the world -- or the creative power that is woman, you decide -- is as ringingly clear as his prose, which also happens to be as erudite as ever.

Wordy without being too weighty, Promethea makes you think a bit about some of all those references but ultimately carries you along quite expertly whether or not the many literary and folklorist references are familiar. The landscape itself is familiar enough, and the story and characterization compelling enough, that it's easy to simply go with the flow of the tale. It takes some time to establish the premise but it's well worth it for those who love a good beginning.

There is a Charmed/WB moment when the city's resident science heroes, The Five Swell Guys, deliver a warning to Sophie that she will be in soon be in danger. Psychic Kenneth's Phoebe-like power to see impending doom puts the Swells and their nemesis, The Painted Doll, into Sophie's path because Kenneth can see into the realm of the Immateria. All of this began when Moore returned to his familiar role as a writer of excellent superhero comics, with Tom Strong and America's Best Comics. Moore's love of superheroes seems to stem from his belief that they represent the ultimate form of storytelling, the combination of medium and message, and his love shines through like a warm sun through the entire book.

J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray have surpassed themselves in their rich and incredibly detailed illustrations. Todd Klein lends his talents and Charles Vess also lends a hand in building the art into a wonderfully bright and clear text that's as beautiful to look at as it is to read. The colors, dark or bright, are just about perfect and the action flows very well for a dialogue-heavy text, almost as if the subject matter were somehow bringing out the best effort in an already skilled cast, something that in itself serves to make Moore's point: It is within all of us to transcend the divine and find the world within, as long as we believe in the power of creative imagination to take us where we want to go.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 15 February 2003

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