Issue 32 Page 16

Promethea, by Alan Moore, is a mythological comic book published by Americas Best Comics. The series ran for thirty two issues on an irregular schedule.

Being a work of Alan Moore, I started reading Promethea with some enthusiasm. The first issue was mildly disappointing. The story seemed rushed. Moore seemed too concerned with setting up the storyline and the entire thing was rather artificial. And as I read the subsequent issues, it became worse and worse until I had to give up on it at issue fifteen.

So what went wrong with Promethea?

Promethea becomes so very involved with exotica that it begins to lose any larger perspective and indeed any semblance of a coherent plot. As one reader rightly pointed out in the ‘Imaginary Lines’ readers’ letters section, Promethea becomes plot driven and not character driven. The only problem is, very soon, the plot disappears too. For example, issue 10, Sex, Stars and Serpents deals exclusively with tantric sex (or at least the western version of it) and is a long description of tantric symbolism. Issue 12, Metaphore, is merely turning all the tarot cards in to metaphors for something or the other. And even this creation of the metaphor is rather forced and unnatural. The subsequent issues 14 and 15 go on to give us details of strange kabalistic symbolism and rituals. This glorification of the exotic takes the sap out of the story.

Telly and not Showy
We all know show and tell. Modern fiction stresses the show part where things are not explicitly stated out but it is left to the reader to figure things out. A classic example and an apt comparison would be the ankh, the sigil of Death in Sandman which actually is the Egyptian symbol for life. This lends a beautiful ironic character to Death. However, this fact is never explicitly mentioned in that comic book and comes as a pleasure when you discover it.

Promethea however, is full of telling. There is too much of symbolism, five or six per page, and each symbol is explicitly explained to you in meticulous detail. The overall result is that the comic book becomes something like this – this is the symbol, this is what it means; this is the symbol, this is what it mean; this is the symbol, this is what it means; this is the symbol, this is what it means – you get the picture. A couple of pages of that and you are already going bonkers.

Take a look. Issue 15 page 4.

This is where the sun path from the lunar kingdom terminates. We are in the mercurial realm of language, magic and intellect. Its Hebrew name is Hod. That means splendor.

Why splendor specifically?

Well, I suppose communication is how minds reveal themselves. Language gives shape to the splendors of the intellect.

Moore could as well have given us a scholarly lecture on the interpretation of Hebrew names.

Take another example from the same issue.

You know that expression, straight eight? That ought to be sarcastic. This place is anything but straight.

Well, it’s straight in the sense of ‘truthful’. This place is about communications. Truth is its specific virtue.

And it goes on and on. And not one issue or two. The entire thing seems to be like this. After a while, it gets truly nauseating.

It is not as if the entire thing is bad. In a very Moorish way, Alan is trying to redefine the genre once again. For example, I really loved the issue with tarot cards, just for this reason. Each page features on tarot card, and the symbolism is then explained in verse. This was the first time that I saw any poetry in a comic book and it was lovely. At the bottom on the page you have another character speaking out one line at a time of a joke. The joke completes as the comic finishes. Lends a very beautiful texture to the entire writing.

There is lot of meta-comicalness in the whole series. I really like the part of the Five Swell Guys, who are the only super heroes NYC has, being dressed up in business suits. But apart from these small delights, the comic really has nothing much to offer expect an interesting experiment in style.

Last Issue
No discussion of Promethea would be complete without mentioning the last issue. The last issue has a very different visual style (shown in the screenshot.) Some of the pages have text that can be read in multiple ways, leading to multiple interpretations. And not only that, the individual pages were mean to be pulled out from the actual comic and then pasted together to form a larger poster, whereupon one can see two more pictures of Promethea in the background. And of course, upon having done this remarkable operation, one could go on to read the issue in multiple ways.

All this of course, if one isn’t already puking at the meaninglessness of the entire thing.


  1. The whole 'show and tell' business is a bit confusing. There can be things that are not explicitly mentioned and the reader interprets and enjoys the discovery. This is okay when the reader has a certain knowledge of the background ( in this case egyptian symbols). But there are times when the reader might not know anything about what the author is trying to show and hence his telling might be justified. In this case of Hebrew names, i think it is better that Alan moore tells the reader about them, meticulously hence enabling him to understand the context completely. Criticising him on this point might not be justified.
    The thing you mentioned about the last issue is a very interesting experiment done with the medium where he is taking the comic out of the booklet and expanding it. If only you had a color printer with free cartidges :)


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