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by Matthew Peckham
After a long and controversial award-winning run, Alan Moore rounds off his final Promethea story arc by successfully annihilating reality and the world -- as we know it.

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26 August 2004

Promethea #31, "The Radiant, Heavenly City"
Writer   Artist   Inking Assist   Colors   Letters   Editor   Publisher  
Alan Moore J.H. Williams III Mick Gray Jose Villarrubia, Jeromy Cox Todd Klein Scott Dunbier America's Best Comics (imprint of Wildstorm/DC Comics)

Promethea #31, The Radiant, Heavenly City Before we get started, and since we're nearly at the end (there's one issue to go, but it's a standalone piece), I have to say that one of the wonderful things about the America's Best Comics imprint is that its editors graciously place the usual arsenal of one-page ads at the back, in sequence, allowing you the luxury of experiencing narrative free of those annoying Sky Captain ads, clutched boxes of Sweet-Tarts, and punchy video game splashers. Kudos to ABC for making the commercial breaks optional.

I've avoided reviewing Alan Moore's Promethea, a signature Eisner-winning series in his America's Best universe, because several months ago the book's central heroine initiated the end of the world, and I wanted to see how it all turned out.

Well it has happened, and issue #31 caps a six-issue arc that considers, at its crux, the ancient catechism of the half-filled, half-empty glass. If you've never read Promethea before, a lot of this won't make sense and probably shouldn't; this isn't a book you can slip easily into near the end, which is, thankfully, what reasonably priced collections are for. It's about a young woman who discovers that she has the ability to access the collective mythology of civilization itself, exteriorized in the form of a sort of all-powerful female uber-mystic; she accesses this power by literally "writing herself into character," i.e. by pulling out a pencil and pad and scribing herself into the persona, caduceus, wavy magical aura et al. Moore's work is densely layered, and if you'll excuse the imperfect term, highly meta-fictive and, under the masterful pencils, inks, and colors of Williams, Gray, Villarrubia, and Cox, profoundly meta-visual as well. To say enough about what it all means is probably impossible, no hyperbole, but I'll summarize as best I can.

Like the previous longish arc which involved a campaign through kabbalistic creation, this one also walks at a slower, meditative pace that will please those fond of Moore's mystical/spiritual/theory symbolic, but disappoint others looking for the sort of faster-driving thing he does with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Top Ten. On the one hand, this is a story about a supernatural force that over the course of 100+ pages sits in a room with several people talking about the nature of reality in elevated incoherencies before rebooting it. That's the dull superficial reading, the one those that feel plot must be a function of some form of apparently "self-evident" motion/action/kinetics would apply disapprovingly. Taken on its own terms, at its own rhythms, however, this is a story about the way -- the many ways -- that we "speak" ourselves into time and space. Let me get this straight: there's no single idea that crackles with originality, no great revelation that hasn't been stated or suggested (dryly, clinically) elsewhere. Moore's notable contribution is to create a melange of sights and "sounds" that altogether resonate at narrative frequencies designed -- if not to transcend the gap between signifier (reader) and signified (reading experience) -- to present the "established theoretical" in a way that reaches across cultural, educational and economic boundaries such as theory texts, endless academic papers and erudite essays do not. All things within the universe, says Moore's Promethea, simply are the universe, but simultaneously splintered; like Lacan's psychoanalytic theory of the "mirror stage" (the point at which the child recognizes itself as the thing in the mirror it sees, but paradoxically and fractiously, not the signified itself, thus cleaving the child's experience of self and Other), Moore suggests we are all a trillion trillion fragments, an infinitude of consciousness grown up and snaked through the universe's sightless infinity and endless all, yet ironically alone, ironically asleep, unaware of the forces that connect us to the wind and the ocean, the sand and the stars. A poetic reading, in other words, of the strong anthropic principle.

Promethea's great task, perhaps her final task, is to end a universe built on pillars of perception. A thick, literal mind would immediately associate the apocalypse or apocalyptic with something involving a great deal of pyrotechnical activity. Not so, suggests Moore. In a multitude of universes created by and contingent upon an endless parade of individual interpretive experiences, the universe may be reducible to the elemental attempt to interconnect, a lifetime of shifting, slipping Venn diagrams never quite in perfect alignment. Promethea exists to align the lenses of perception and focus, to bring the world into its great sense of collective self and unity, before returning the lenses to their former unaligned positions. This sixth and final part in the arc suggests, beautifully, that the best thing to ever possibly happen to the world would be for it to end exactly as so, a great drawing up of awareness and collapsing of the barriers that separate us from ourselves and cultivate a haze of subjectivity, misperception and half-truths. The universe ends not when planets collide or black holes devour the stars, but when we re-imagine (or become capable of re-imagining) our relationship to said universe, which is according to Moore, to say simply ourselves.

Promethea is my favorite of Moore's stories (allowing for Voice of the Fire, which I have yet to read and which I understand contends with many of these same issues in prose form); it is his most mature and layered contribution to the medium and a triumph of spirituality in sequential art. This is the series to own in collected or serial form if you're interested in narrative shamanism, its manifestations and possibilities in the sequential art medium. Promethea is storytelling of the highest order, a panoply of narrative mirrors and their echo-images, but also a kind of reverse prism -- one that takes instead the coruscating colors of the spectrum and channels them back to the single fulgent one, the color that holds them all within its achromatic sheltering blaze.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com


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