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Promethea: First Impressions

Some friends of mine recently gave me the first volume of Alan Moore’s Promethea (and I know they’re in possession of the remaining trade paperbacks).  For those not in the know, Alan Moore is one of the foremost proponents of the “comic books as art” camp, and is responsible for V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and one of the greatest comics of all time, Watchmen.

Compared to Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which are the only other exposure I’ve had to Alan Moore, Promethea is certainly interesting.  The plot centers around a college student, Sophie Bangs, who, after delving into research for a project, finds herself inhabited by Promethea, a sort of alter-ego that has been possessed by several people throughout history.  The series chronicles the unveiling of the secrets of Promethea, the mental world of the Immateria, and those who are trying to destroy her.

Promethea, so far (I am one chapter short of finishing the first volume), is fairly light on plot.  What it lacks there, it makes up for in exposition.  The characters talk about philosophy, magic, and the nature of reality quite a bit, and from what I’ve read it seems safe to say that these ideas closely mirror Moore’s personal beliefs.  This set-up is interesting to say the least.  In the hands of a lesser artist such digression would likely become grating.  Moore, however, gives us just enough characterization to keep us attached (although the protagonist is barely characterized at all, and I don’t feel like I have a sense of who Sophie Bangs really is), and just enough conflict to ensure the story doesn’t stagnate.

Part of what keeps the narrative interesting is clearly the artistic experimentation of penciller J.H. Williams III.  I don’t know how much input Moore had into the layout, but I think close collaboration between writer and artist can be assumed for a project like this.  Williams takes the traditional comic book format and throws it out the window, in favor of panels-within-panels and exotic layouts.  One double-page spread has a conversation between Sophie and her interviewee entirely contained within a frame depicting both her journey up and down the stairs to the woman’s house.  This type of experimentation is refreshing, although sometimes visual details or temporal sequence can get lost in the noise (on one spread I had to literally read about six or seven speech balloons at a time before I could discern their intended order).

Promethea is by no means perfect.  The characters are not developed beyond what is necessary for the lecture, the pacing is erratic in the first two or three chapters, the layouts can get confusing despite their artistic value.  It is certainly keeping me entertained, though, and you likely have not heard the last of it.  Click on the picture to go to the page.

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