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Looking back on the utopia of Alan Moore's Promethea
In 1999, Alan Moore and J.H. Williams began Promethea. The series would ultimately run for 32 issues with the same creative team, making it a rarely singular vision in the world of early-2000s era superhero comics. Promethea herself was somewhat inspired by Wonder Woman — but, more importantly, was an entity who interacted with human reality via stories, myths, and dreams.
This was an incredibly ambitious premise that, while occasionally tripping over its own feet, expressed more of the utopian ideals Moore had toyed with in the time since becoming famous for his explicitly dystopian works V for Vendetta and Watchmen in the mid-'80s. The America’s Best Comics line took standard superhero fare in a different, more idealized direction than most of his previous works, giving us one of the more intriguing modern utopias of fiction.
Who Is Promethea?
The story begins with Sophie Banks and her friend Stacia, two college students living in a fictionalized version of NYC. Sophie attempts to interview a woman who we later find out is one of many incarnations of Promethea, a mythological entity that has existed for thousands of years. The poet Sophie imagines herself as a hero and new Promethea is born, more powerful and more dangerous than any of her predecessors.
Tonally, Promethea grants us a utopia in which there are no easy answers. The destruction of the world via a Promethea-caused apocalypse is one of the main threats of the series. The world runs on a precarious mythical undercurrent that predicts future times of war and desolation. Convenience, social progress, and crass commercialization all go hand in hand. A sympathetic take on a gay man who becomes the beautiful Promethea is undermined by the violence shown towards his character, only to see him redeemed in the end when he takes his place alongside the other Prometheas in the Immateria. Humanity’s violent tendencies are always directly under the surface, and no amount of magic appears to be able to curb them. In many ways, the series seems to predict its utopia’s end even in the first pages, yet gives its main players the solace of a fantasy it often denies its readers.
Promethea Is Not Redundant To Wonder Woman
Promethea is often compared to Wonder Woman, and it is true that on a surface level there are many similarities. A warrior woman loosely tied to various mythologies who rises alongside superheroes to fight the good fight is certainly similar to our Diana Prince, but the commonalities end there. The world Promethea inhabits is not Themyscira. Rather than coming from a fully functional and self-sustaining island run by women, she is from a land called the Immateria, a literal fantasy land.
One incredibly important difference between Wonder Woman and Promethea is that Diana, both in her original incarnation and the more modern takes on her, is incredibly sure of herself. The doubt that plagued mid-era incarnations of the character are long gone, replaced with a more empowered and confident version. In complete contrast to contemporary incarnations of Diana, Promethea morphs and forms to suit people’s fantasies. This opens up a different realm of commentary, and it is why Promethea continues to stand as its own highly unique work.
The dialogue can read pretty strangely, mostly because entire stanzas of the book are positioned with the direct purpose of delivering magic-based philosophies rather than to convey the emotional complexities of the characters. When engaged in direct conversations, nearly every character is over-the-top insulting to the other characters, showing a somewhat strange level of hostility. For a book that is primarily women, this is a fairly unique choice, and very much in contrast to the camaraderie of Themyscira.
But Does It Say What It Intends To Say?
Promethea is an amazing comic and you’re likely to feel a lot of conflicting emotions while reading it. The Weeping Gorilla comics that are entirely about a gorilla thinking profoundly sad thoughts are hilarious. Various references to the old Nemo in Slumberland and other classic comics show the tender side of Moore’s famously tempestuous relationship with corporate comics versus the beloved tales of his youth. Moments where the story breaks away to become a tale within a tale are also typical of Moore’s works. While this storytelling method is often disjointed or even jarring, here these smaller stories merge perfectly into the greater whole. Much of this comic is specifically set up to support the more fanciful and genuinely pleasant sides of Moore’s storytelling, setting its place among his masterpieces.
The utopia shown here is similar to that promised by early superhero comics. Superheroes are flawed, but they keep the city running smoothly. Government and infrastructure function like well-oiled machines so that the focal point of the story might occur in a realm where mysticism and the detached irony of late-'90s culture collide. On surface less political than Moore's other works, Promethea still posits a universe in which ancient laws attempt to subjugate women and in which the women escape to a more empowered place to survive and even thrive.
When reading Promethea, you can never forget that you are reading an epic, one that actively attempts to subvert tropes while showing a great understanding of the medium's experimental potential. Does it overturn the sexism that plagues goddess myths? Not really, but it also doesn’t seem like it was intending to. Still, by providing some level of conversation on the way some men can create goddesses in their minds when they are unable to accept the reality of women, Promethea remains light years beyond most both in idealism and its views on female autonomy.