Monday, 12 December 2016

Promethea book two

Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray
Promethea book two (2001)

I found this bewildering and had to go back and re-read the first volume in order to make some sense of it. I suppose that would suggest something of a higgledy-piggledy narrative, although to be fair my comic book reading habits have changed somewhat over the years. Once I would have read the first volume four or five times before getting to this one, but these days I tend to give things the once over and then move on to something else; and this was like starting afresh, meaning I suppose that I hadn't retained much from the first six issues.

Promethea really is something of a higgledy-piggledy narrative, and becomes increasingly so as we work our way through the six issues gathered here, beginning with ornate double page spreads more resembling the frontage of Gaudí's Casa Battló than the page of a comic book, with panels like windows which we're not quite sure how to read - one page then the next, or line by line across the full spread; but it seems to work either way, suggesting the possibility of a conscious departure from linearity on the part of those responsible. That this might be deliberate seems supported as subsequent pages exhibit increasingly eccentric patterns, drawing the reader around the sequence of images along a boustrophedon before going all free-form simultaneity in issue twelve, different themes repeating across pages without borders with a rhythm suggesting music as much as traditional narrative; but does it work?

Actually it does, although the medium outshines its message.

Reservations that might encumber,
Pleasure - why, I have a number,
Not least being this rhymed narrating,
In forms I find quite irritating,
For such resemblance that it doth bear,
To poetic arts for which I care,
So very little whilst they strive so hard,
To impersonate a certain bard,
Yet flounder like ships lacking anchor,
As though forged by some fucking wanker,
With pewter mug abrim with ale,
Sentiments which can only fail,
As with one finger in his ear,
He doth sing a song for which I need a lot more beer.

Neil Gaiman used to do it all the fucking time and probably still does. Alan Moore is better at it, but it's still kind of annoying and I'm not sure he really does it well enough to get away with it. Additionally there's the problem of this being yet another treatise on magic, fiction as reality and so on; and it's a problem because magic is an entirely subjective thing, so the successful communication of this stuff tends to depend on who is reading.

My take on magic is that, as Snoop Dogg suggests, the game is to be sold, not to be told; and people who bang on about how to do magick right or how an actual Sumerian God was once manifest in their kitchen following such and such a working tend to be full of shit because really, they're only doing what the singer from Fields of the Nephilim does when he pulls a scary face and sings about the stark goblins of regret - or whatever it was that band did. The clue to this is usually to be found - I would suggest - in an eclectic pick and mix approach to different magical systems, taking a little bit of this from here, a little bit of that from there - Thoth, Baphomet, John Dee, Wotan, Paul bleeding Daniels, the more the merrier; for 'tis all but a veil of illusion and these are but masks for that which resides beyond the realm of language. It works providing you specifically ignore that what you aspire to deal with is itself only language, and whilst it may indeed influence reality, it remains only language - as certain magical systems themselves explicitly acknowledge; and language differs wildly according to culture, particularly with the cultures from which so many of the popular symbols are commonly borrowed. Nahuatl, for example, has a verb amounting to to cause something to fall on the ground producing a slapping sound, and that's one of the more readily translatable ones. Languages work by very different means and apply in different ways according to culture, so whilst the one-size-fits-all appropriation of often contradictory concepts looks very nice when trying to convey the sheer volume of just how deep, meaningful, and mysterious you may wish to appear to the uninitiated, it suggests a lack of genuine focus whilst begging the question just why do you need to tell everyone? Why does it matter to you that others should view you in a certain light?

So do what thou wilt, but please try not to be a bore about it.

Therefore, returning to Promethea, my point is that it's a nice tune played well and it has some interesting things to say about myth, reality, and whether there's a difference, but as with many works of this type, it's really not so deep as it thinks it is. The book knows it's a book - t'riffic, but what happens next? Promethea's strengths are in the jokes, the supposedly throwaway details provided as contrast, the interplay of characters; and the enterprise sags when it gets around to doing what it came to do in the first place, the very thing which defines it, the four-hour drum solo by a bloke dressed in Shakespearean clobber. I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended to do that.

Promethea is great, but not as great as it thinks.


  1. I'm not nearly as interested in magic as Moore is but I love Promethea because it's probably the most heartfelt and personal thing Moore's done, delivered within the vehicle of a genre superhero comic.
    It's great in many ways that comics have become a more 'accepted' medium but I really miss the days when comics when were an under the radar medium where visionary creators like Moore, Spiegelman, Kevin O Neill, Robert Crumb or Dave Sim could earn a living from making weird, very personal stuff in the same way as a previous generation of pulp authors did. There doesn't seem to be as much of that sort of wonderful weirdness in the sort of comics coming out these days (or maybe I'm just not looking hard enough)

    1. I get the same impression with the weirdness quota. I think it's all sort of levelled out, so that even the worst comics are now streets ahead of some of the shit we used to suffer, but the general standard of cranky visionary possibly isn't what it was.