Great Graphic Novels: Promethea, by Alan Moore

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Promethea, by Alan Moore (and others)

Alan Moore is a literary titan whose medium happens to be comic books: deal with it. The fact is, Moore is positively Joycean in the way he packs layers of meaning into words and, unlike Joyce—or Pynchon, or Wallace—he has the whole playground of image to play with as well.

The substantial success Moore attained with his scripts for Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, and other titles—and the substantial disappointments he suffered as those graphic masterpieces were translated to the screen—both allowed him and drove him to focus on more insular, idiosyncratic work… one can almost hear him muttering, ‘make a movie of this you effing bastards,’ as he completed his pornographic masterwork Lost Girls, or the swirl of Cabala, sex magick, metaphysics, and superhero mythology comprising the work I extol here, Promethea.

Available in five volumes that collect the original comics, the spine of Promethea is conventional for the costumed vigilante genre: a young lady, Sophia Bangs (payattention to those names, reader) finds herself blessed/cursed with the ability to transform herself into the curvaceous superheroine Promethea, who is able to fly, shoot beams of force from her caduceus, and so forth. In coming to terms with her new powers, she meets and beats assorted villains, and ushers in the end of the world.

Wait; what was that last part? End of the world? It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you so—from early on in Book One it’s clear that Promethea’s world faces the end of history.

But not by nuclear annihilation, as in Watchmen, but by Armageddon, Kali Yuga, Ragnarök, or some other name drawn from the end time theologies so often found in human spiritual systems. In her quest to understand her role as Destroyer, Sophie/Promethea thoroughly explores the Western esoteric tradition.

In his personal life, Moore is an accomplished ceremonial magickian and here, like Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, he uses an exciting, bawdy, page-turning tale to sugarcoat serious philosophical instruction. The attentive reader will come away from Promethea with a useful grounding in tarot, cabala and the tree of life, Crowleyan ritual, and will even get an intriguing and accurate glimpse of Goetic demonology.

More importantly, by reading this book and letting its glorious graphics seduce you, you will imbibe a certain mindset and realize at gut level that what we are pleased to call reality is merely an insubstantial scrim imperfectly concealing the actual nature of existence. And as Sophie—and her entire world—are forced to acknowledge, confronting an unveiled all-that-is is both terrifying… and thrilling.



  1. I began reading Promethea not too long ago, stopped for some reason or another. Alan Moore’s work is dredged in mythology and classic tales. The art is wonderful, of course. J.H. Williams III floored me with his drawings for Batwoman. Goes highly recommended, too.

  2. It is a beautiful piece of work, and no doubt a lot of care and affection was involved in it’s production, but the whole thing to me felt little more than a lecture; compared to other Alan Moore works, such as Top 10 and Tom Strong, it’s certainly less entertaining.

    The subjects touched on therein will, no doubt, appeal to the boingboing crowd, just don’t expect a great deal of story mixed in with the Kabbalah-led journey.

    If you want to take my advice, for whatever that’s worth, try Top 10 if you haven’t read it already. It outranks Watchmen in my estimation.

    1. There’s no doubt that Promethea is didactic in intent, but I think that it’s thrilling in the way that he strives to make magic relevant and real and important in peoples’ lives, and the things that he says about the stories that people make up, and the stories that make up people, have a lot of importance in how people view their lives and the lives of others and the myriad of options open to them in the creation and sharing of their own personal epics. I’ve never gotten a tattoo, but I came yea close to getting one of the Tree of Life on the inside of my wrist, as a sort of cheat sheet for the universe.  As much as I love Top 10, it’s basically Hill Street Blues with capes.

      1. As someone who does have a Promethea tattoo, let me just say that it is a beautiful reminder of life, the universe, and keeping perspective.

    2. I agree with the lecturing aspect of Promethea. I got bored with it close to the end, as I was looking for a story (a Moore-quality story mind you).

      The esoterism presented was definitely interesting and presented in a compelling way, but to this skeptic, this was just another symbolic set. It led me to postulate that, the human mind being so good at finding patterns in information, it’s just a curiosity that we can find/elaborate such self-coherent symbol sets.

  3. Have these been bound into one tomb, or are they all seperate? The link only shows book one, but I’d rather have them al as one. 

    1. “bound into one tomb” — You mean “stitched together as one shambling monstrosity”?  or “adopted into a collective chthonic dreamscape”, like Arthur and Cthulhu?

  4. Yea, the thing to understand about Promethea is that it is basicly a giant chick tract for Thelema. (Which to me is really awesome, but might seem obnoxious to others.) There are numerous ham fisted situations involving the virtues of Thelema and its ancillary practices. Well, they would be ham-fisted if people wrote more commonly about the subject, perhaps a better way to look at it would be its like Robert Anton Wilson in graphic novel form, some of the situations seem cheesy, but the fact that they involve a sort of counter culture redeems them with its purity of heart. This wasn’t a novel of propaganda, it was a novel of the most pure Love for the subject.

    1.  That’s an excellent description, and makes me wish that Moore and JHWIII had done a Promethea mini-issue in the style of a Chick tract.

      1. What is the difference between a Chick Tract and a Tijuana Bible?*

        Is there a name for that format-size?

        * I suspect the answer is something along the lines of “One has hope in its soul”….

    2. “The thing to understand about Promethea is that it is basically a giant Chick tract for Thelema.” Har har, priceless.

      Count me a huge fan of Promethea but I certainly can’t fault anyone who finds it a tough slog. The girl who introduced me to it is something of a Promethea herself, so that probably helps.

  5. I enjoyed Promethea, and found the info on magic fascinating, but I did wish, reading the later volumes, that it had been padded out a bit with more actual story and superheroics – maybe to ten volumes in total. 
    What story there was, was pretty original and interesting, and I felt there was potential for more.

  6. Rilly? Alan Moore is my favorite comics writer, and I enjoy very much Melinda Gebbie, who might have collaborated on this?, but of the Moore stuff I’ve read Promethea is the one I can’t recommend. Though I bought a batch of new comics recently and have yet to process them… (Sorry! I love the good work, otherwise I wouldn’t know.)

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