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Promethea #32


A series hasn't ended with this much of a whimper since Cerebus.”

- Found in the first post of this Millarworld thread, spotted by Alan, just as I began to wrap this review. It’s a sign!

The proper plotline ended last issue. The story is all over. This issue is a rousing arts and crafts project coupled with a fun and simple dexterity test melded to a newspaper funnies-style farewell strip mixed into an annotations guide crossed with a game of ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ where the Crown of the Tarot replaces the star of “The Woodsman”. There’s a little plot info, I guess. Lizzybeth has already highlighted one of the more interesting twists in the tale: the apocalyptic hype to what ultimately turns out to be a simple change in seeing and hearing and feeling the world. But the senses are all we have to experience the world with; there could be no identification of what existence is without them, even on the most basic level. Changing how we sense the world thus ends the world (as it is), and replaces it with a new one, even without the untold millions catapulted into the Lake of Fire to suffer their melting and writhing flesh for hundreds of billions of eons as an infinitesimal fraction of their agony. That’s covered here in a shade more detail.

But this one is for the fans, so they can watch that crazy team make those crazy comics just one more time. Actually, I guess a total neophyte could pick this one up. It works surprisingly well as a simple and creative primer on Alan Moore’s theories of magic, and although the book is addressed to longtime fans, I bet this might serve as an attractive preview to the book‘s more esoteric subject matter, although these theoretical new fans will be missing out on some nice superhero fun too, something that shouldn‘t be devalued when discussing “Promethea”. It had some really excellent action, and the layers upon layers of magic discourse often served as amusing and intuitive fantasy action world-building as much as educational tract. This aspect of the book’s appeal has vanished from this final segment, and it will be a shame when the fine action storytelling is overshadowed fully in a few years to better facilitate discussion of Moore’s spiritual wander. Yes, I said ‘when’, not ‘if’.

But we have the book that we have.


I was on a message board about a year ago, discussing the latest “Promethea” (probably #28 or something at the rate it was going) and somebody asked what the comic was ‘about’. Somebody gave him a fairly complete, compact answer, that it’s more-or-less a superhero comic, at least at first, but then it transforms into an exploration of the writer’s beliefs regarding philosophy and spirituality, with his theories and experiences taking full control of the plot, and becoming a vital, defining background for the story’s resolution. The questioning poster, a new fan of US comics, remarked that it sounded like the anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion”. Insufferable wag that I am, I replied that Eva starts out like “Promethea”, but transforms into “Cerebus: The Latter Days” by the end.

It was a pretty dumb joke.

For those who’re not familiar, the infamous final two episodes of the original Eva television show consisted of little more than a series of still frames of animation art, live action photographs, intertitles, and very brief flashes of animation, all to simulate the perceptions of the program’s lead character as he experiences Something, just to be vague enough to avoid spoilers. Reactions to this finale tend to be, ah, mixed (two theatrical films were later released, providing a still wildly ambitious if more traditionally executed alternate conclusion). And “Cerebus”, of course, spend a good 100+ pages near the end of “The Latter Days” (the overall project’s second-to-last volume) presenting, in text format with the occasional pretty picture, a very lengthy conversation between the title character and an associate as they dive into the deep seas of line-by-line biblical interpretation. This led to much puzzlement during the book’s original serialization, at least among those still following it.

The analogy didn’t even fit well. But it started me thinking. Forget that anime.

“Promethea” and “Cerebus”. There’s a pair.

In one way, the final issue of “Promethea”, out just yesterday, is extraordinarily similar to a certain piece of “Cerebus”, a different story: the opening sequence from the final book, “The Last Day”. In that little ditty, writer/artist Dave Sim (working largely without collaborator Gerhard for the first stretch of the series in over a decade and a half) presented a Revelation to his title character, parsed out in the format of a religious text. Accompanying the words, in panels, are what initially appears to be a series of abstract images, though it gradually becomes clear that we’re seeing scientific phenomena: the Big Bang, the birth of stars, the creation of Earth, the growth of a human in the womb, etc. And it becomes doubly clear that the text is commenting upon what we’re seeing, creating a word (religion) image (science) connection in the reader’s mind, through the unique attributes of comics art. The close-reading Torah exploits I’ve described above weren’t the world’s finest use of the comics page, adding up to little more than a chat show transcript spiced up with lavish spot illustrations. This one was quite adept at utilizing the best of the form, though, translating science into religious terms, and embedding religious significance into scientific events, largely through word/picture analogy. Oh, and Cerebus himself (who cycles through his various character and costume designs from throughout the book’s history as the piece moves forward, thus tying the growth of the character to the rest of the content) pops up every so often, looking on and commenting. These scenes are accompanied at the bottom of each page by extensive prose footnotes by Sim himself, elaborating upon the many personal observations and religious and scientific texts he’s studied to arrive at this master explanation for the workings of the universe and the spirit, a vast web of connections and relations that link the teachings of various scriptures to the very workings of the universe itself. A Unified Theory of Every Goddamned Thing and All This Stuff He Didn’t Damn Too.

Now. Let’s look at this new Alan Moore/J.H. Williams III/Todd Klein release (don’t you dare forget the excellent Mr. Klein, the series’ regular letterer, who‘s co-credited with Williams for ‘design’ this time too). There’s a set of instructions on the inside front cover, cheerily informing you that some of the pages are going to be upside-down. This is because you can choose to read the book in two forms: poster or pamphlet. For poster form, you have to take the book apart and reassemble it as a single sheet. A double-sided poster is formed, revealing a hidden image of the title character. Hey, guess which other comic tried this trick before!



Having learned my lesson after mutilating the fold-out cover on an issue of “Shadowhawk” I had when I was a kid, I opted for 'pamphlet' form here. What you do is very simple. You read the page (there’s no panels, only full-page images). Then you turn to the next page, and read that. In the likely event that you reach an upside-down page, you turn it around so you can read it, then you turn back around to the way you found it, and you proceed. And yeah, once or twice I momentarily forgot which way I was holding the book, but I just glanced at the cover to re-orient myself.

Like in “The Last Day”, we have a mass of swirling, psychedelic art (in color here), that will eventually add up to represent a larger image, albeit only if you take the comic apart in this case. We have a narration on the state of Being, the Crown and the Universe. We have informational notes. We have the book’s title character hanging around too. And we have some really nice utilization of the potential of the comics form. But there are differences, both in execution and in content.

Here, instead of Sim’s omniscient (nyuk nyuk) narration, with Cerebus offering the occasional comment, we have Promethea on every page, directly addressing the reader, delivering the main address personally. Instead of verbose footnotes at the bottom of the page we get little fact bubbles floating around, sometimes with a picture of some notable personality off to the side. You can go through the book reading only Promethea’s dialogue, but the fact bubbles always comment on what she’s saying on any given page. There’s also a little informational box on each page, letting you know in which order the pages go if you’re going to make the poster. And the numbers also represent a path of the Tarot, and complimentary colors, scents, plants, etc.

There’s 32 paths. There’s 32 issues of “Promethea” There’s 32 pages in the average superhero comic (counting ads, but there’s no ads here). That’s fitting, because superheroes are part of a tradition: humankind inventing superior figures of varying levels of excellence (like gods) to emulate, to make humanity itself better. This power of invention, imagination, is where everything humans have ever accomplished has originated. Such illumination is regularly seen through myth and religion symbolized by the Moon. But imagination must be made utilizable, even comprehensible, or nothing will ever be created, not gods nor comics; we need words, language. Language is associated with gods like Hermes and Thoth, themselves associated with the snake. The snake is also seen connected to early shamanism, practicing with hallucinogenic mushrooms, which sends one traveling through the imagination. The joining of the snake and the moon, which are respectively male and female fertility symbols, joins the immaterial and the word. From their sexual joining was birthed the human consciousness, and with it all human development, all human creation, the solidification of unremembered dreams into remembered dreams into recurring ideas into plans into creations. The Universe. Which is the 32nd path of the Tarot. Which is being explained in the 32nd issue of “Promethea”, the title character of which is based on lunar and serpentine symbols, the joining of which forms the basis of humankind. She’s the one, you'll recall, that blows humanity’s consciousness into the next level in the last issue, which was really last issue. Hey! Moore didn’t forget the superhero bits after all!

Wasn’t that fun? I love that stuff. What I just said is vastly simplified, probably to the point of absurdity or obfuscation, but that’s the general tenor of this issue, a rocket-powered jaunt through language, science, myth, art, snapping up recurring symbols and themes and sewing them all together into a map (or poster?) of the Universe. Moore does this a lot better than I can; he even pulls out the debut of Winsor McCay’s “Gertie the Dinosaur” and connects it to the psychedelic experience of early humanity. I love it.

Here’s a decent starting point in a recent thread at the Pop Culture Bored. Abhay enjoyed the visual breakdown of this issue; he perceptively noted that this sort of layout breaks the flow of traditional comics reading, especially when you encounter two upside-down pages at once, essentially forcing you to read from right-to-left, utterly distorting the time-flow of the comic, which also has no panels. That’s ok, the comic also touches upon the nature of Spacetime as a four-dimensional solid, retaining every moment forever. Which is what comics do on a more selective basis in terms of moments. Perhaps this sort of comics structure is thus a different means of exploring this miniature Spacetime Digest, especially when you fold it out into a poster and read it from all different directions. Contrast this with Sim’s relations between Science and Scripture, played beautifully in comics terms but proceeding forward in traditional comics ‘time’ from left to right.

Abhay was a bit underwhelmed with the book as a whole. And his concerns are good ones. Isn’t it all just a lecture on Alan Moore’s religious beliefs, presented in a particularly clever way? And isn’t it odd that one of the Big Two is even publishing such a thing? I’d say that first of all, I think it’s really entertaining. Then again, I liked that issue of “Cerebus” too. I enjoy seeing writers delve into human history and dig up analogous moments across culture and time and match things up with the development of language. It’s great. It’s never perfect; I recall a “Comics Journal” review (Tom Crippen’s, issue #252) taking “Promethea” to task for basing an inordinately huge chunk of its mystical content on Western human development, which seems a wee bit disingenuous when cooking up a story about humanity as a whole. And besides, all Moore is really doing is uncovering a series of synchronicities and correspondences, which can be done at varying levels of skill by pretty much anyone with a broad grasp of history and pertinent subject matters therein; it’s just that Moore is amazingly good at it. Crippen dubbed the book’s mystical content “pointless brilliance”, and noted that while such things can be exhilarating for 24 pages, it’s punishing at 200 (his review focused on the third collected volume, the most thickly entrenched in Moore‘s magical meanders). Fortunately, this issue is only 32 pages. As Abhay himself says, the religious beliefs here are a thousand times more interesting than average. They’re beautifully conveyed too.

And yet, I think one thing that’s been missed a little is that the universal schema of “Promethea” acknowledges the very act of its own creation. The beauty and progress of human existence is the union of the word and the imagination. Creation. And Moore is creating his own connections, forging his own synchronicities, as he sees them. The universe’s plan, as he sees it, even accounts for the drafting of its own blueprint, after the fact. Moore seems to understand that he’s telling a story here, probably not the only story, because much of the story is storytelling itself. The snap-burst of human consciousness is tied to the act of reading comics. Through the Moon and the Serpent “we parthenogenetically conceive and birth the shining, redeeming child of our own sacred Will,” as this issue’s final (pamphlet form) fact bubble reads. It’s up to us then? Inside us? Telling our own stories?

Not much of a plan for mankind. But then, this isn’t the type of thing to command us how to act. It’s not a decree, it’s a blueprint. The Sim story, interesting as it is, more or less lays down the law, telling us what's going down with God, and pulling in a ton of connections to prove it. This book is a guide, but we make our tour up as we go along, and that sort of presumes that we can be our own guide, thank you very much. But making our own guide is creation itself, which is fine. And at the end of this guide, we’re thanked for reading. Which is nice of Mr. Moore. Although his complete "Promethea" has provided us with more than just a guide to the cosmos. It's provided us with a Story. A good one.

I’ve enjoyed our dance. You were the perfect partner, and I’m going to miss you. But Spacetime is eternal, with everything in it. And you and me are always here, always now. You and me are forever.”