Promethea: Book One – 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

By Alan Moore, J H Williams III & Mick Gray, with Charles Vess, José Villarrubia & Jeromy Cox (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-40128-866-2 (HB)

After far too long away, let’s welcome back a notable addition to the canon of not-embarrassing, happily recommendable “Strong Female Characters” in hardback and digital editions that do her justice

I wonder if, when Alan Moore first conceived this series as part of his private superhero universe (now inexorably subsumed into the greater DC cosmology), he realised quite how far he would take this tale, or just how far he and long-haul collaborators J H Williams III & Mick Gray would push the boundaries of Graphic Narrative?

Ignoring the superficial resemblances to Wonder Woman – herself more archetype than property these days, but don’t tell the lawyers I said that – what’s on offer here? Promethea #1-12 are collected in this first Deluxe volume and are preceded by Moore’s introduction: ‘The Promethea Puzzle : An Adventure in Folklore’ (clipped from the first issue)…

Sophie Bangs lives in the big city, in a world of Science Heroes, multi-powered villains and real, scary monsters. She’s a smart kid, if not traditionally pretty, doing teen-age things with her best friend Stacia. She’s also a student researching a term paper on a name that has cropped up in esoteric poems, art and popular culture since the 5th century AD. Sophie seems inexplicably fascinated by and drawn to the concept of Promethea

After interviewing the widow of the writer of a Promethea comic book, she’s attacked by a shadowy demon and rescued by the widow, who is the comic heroine she’s been researching. It transpires Promethea is a little girl taken into the Immateria, the Realm of Imagination. She became a concept.

Throughout history, she has since become real by incarnating in women who inspire art and creativity. These women – and even some men – have been able to manifest as incarnations of a Spirit of Imagination residing in the greater world of the unconscious. The Immateria is where all Gods, Stories and Ideas dwell. As the shadow-monster returns, Sophia finds her own artistic method of contacting the fable realm and becomes its latest physical incarnation…

Having discovered the metaphysical nature of Promethea Sophie begins to adjust. In real terms that means she can transform into a super-powerful flying Amazon, and perhaps join the legions of Science Heroes who protect – and frequently endanger – the world, but as her story unfolds, she begins to see just how different her version of the old story can be. Sophie is not some frustrated do-gooder suddenly flush with new-found power; she is and always has been concerned with knowing things.

Thus begins a journey of metaphysical as well as metahuman adventure. Sophie fights monsters and meets heroes, but the never-ending battle is not what this series is about. She obsessively wants to know more, and whilst various flamboyant forces array themselves against her, she is constantly seeking deeper answers for questions she never knew she had.

As various real-world forces align themselves in response to the latest resurgence of Promethea, Sophie explores the Immateria, hunting answers and examining the careers of her predecessors. When those antithetical forces attack the hospital where her new friend Barbara is slowly dying, the resultant battle with the forces of Hell reveal just how potent a weapon Promethea can be. The serious reader is advised to examine closely the running sub-plot with hero team The Five Swell Guys and psychotic serial killer The Painted Doll. As well as divertingly action-packed in an otherwise very cerebral tale, the long-running side-bar will have major repercussions in volumes to come.

Having dealt with the demon-horde, and the secret organisation that summoned them, Sophie again deviates from the expected in her dealings with infamous sorcerer Jack Faust, and has a Y2K monster battle before the volume ends with a mystical primer on the history, meaning and symbolism of The Tarot that is the closest I’ve seen the printed page get to a multi-media experience.

Moore’s sly and subversive scripting, in a superhero universe pushed to its illogical extreme, is superbly matched by artists Williams III & Gray, who increasingly raise the bar on graphic creativity and printing technology for a visual experience that is simply staggering to behold.

Adding extra lustre to the affair, Brad Meltzer offers an Afterword asking ‘Who Wants to Read a Fantasy Comic?’ and Moore’s script for issue #3 a fascinating diagnostic appointment with the creative process, augmented by Williams III’s artwork for the issue.

Promethea always had the most experimental aspirations. It will never have universal appeal, but if you are serious about comics it is an experience you owe yourself to try. And don’t be fooled. This book isn’t a lecture or a lesson, it’s a journey…
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